More proof that babies are brought by the stork.

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In a lot of ways, I’m grateful that my kids are nothing like me. I’m the most disorganized person in the world. Messy. Distractible. I can’t draw. I can’t keep cupboards organized. I lose socks. I can’t balance checkbooks. Forms confuse me. I sometimes lose steam on projects due to crushingly low self-esteem. I didn’t do that great in school and I royally sucked at standardized tests. The things I could do well in childhood (and if we’re being honest, adulthood too) fit on an index card: tell stories, talk about stories, sing songs and make people feel wonderful about themselves. That’s pretty much it.

My kids, though. They are not like me at all. They are focused. Intense. Wicked smart. And crazily organized. So where does that come from? How does a So Not Type-A She’s Practically Type-Z And If There Was A Past-Type-Z She’d Be That mom give rise to three very Type-A kids. Even Leo – my sweet Leo! – if viewed through the lens of third-grade-boydom is pretty dang Type-A. He keeps his drawings organized and his magic cards organized and his Scouts stuff organized, and he does his homework the SECOND he gets home so he can check it off on his checklist. He’s even starting to organize his legos. (Good luck, kid.)

But of the three, it’s my middle child who is not just Type-A. She’s Type-A+. We went to her parent teacher conference the other day, and got to hear her teacher gushing about how organized she is, what a leader she is, how she comes up with creative ways to make even dry subject matter come alive. How she organizes other students into schemes to enrich the class – skits, songs, interpretive dance, all with an eye to making learning interesting and collaborative and fun.

“Yep,” I said. “Of my three kids, she’s the one who was born to run things.”

“My guess is that she’ll be my boss someday,” her teacher said. “Or maybe she already is.”

At home, she writes up schedules for the family. She makes goal statements. She starts making homemade Christmas presents in July. She is eleven for god’s sake, and she’s already written out the christmas cookie baking schedule.

We are going out East this year for Thanksgiving – something that we usually don’t do, but it was the only time to get Ted’s side of the family all together. And because it’s not the usual time that we travel, it kind of snuck up on me this year. I was eating dinner with the kids, and my oldest remarked that she has a two-day week next week.

“What?” I said. “Why?”

“Thanksgiving, mom,” my oldest said.

“Are you sure it’s November?” I said. I had honestly forgotten. All three rolled their eyes.

Mom,” they sighed.

“Huh,” I said. “Well. I suppose you guys should pack this weekend. Then you won’t have to do it after school when you’re crazed.”

“You should pack too, Mom,” said my middle child.

“I totally will,” I assured her. But I won’t. I am physically unable to pack before T-minus-five-minutes. I make sure everyone else is packed, and I check their bags to do a socks-and-underwear-count and that there are enough sweaters. For myself, I shove stuff in a bag and hope for the best.

“Well,” my middle said. “I’m already packed.”

“Really?” I said. “We don’t leave for a week.”

“I’ve been packed for a while.”

“How long?”

“Two weeks.”

Two weeks?”

“Maybe three.” She blushed. “I like to make sure the things I want are clean. And maybe I’ll forget what I like to have when it’s almost time to go. I also packed my activity bag. They’re under my bed. I made a list for you, Mom.”

What kind of crazy person packs in advance? My own little crazies, that’s who. They did not get this tendency from me, and they certainly didn’t get it from their dad. They arrived – a crystalline distillation of their Utter Selves, hard, bright, whole, and completely separate from me. And I love this about them, even as it makes my heart break to pieces. They are growing. Even as we sit at that table, they are light and cloud and wind. Energy. Change. Potentialities. They are growing wings. And they will fly away.

(this thing that I have. this life. it will pass away. indeed, it is passing already. and oh, my heart, and oh, my heart, my heart, my heart.)

“You think I’m weird, don’t you,” she accused.

“No, darling. You’re the most normal thing in my life. I’m the weird one. Good thing I have you.”

(What will I do without you? whispers my heart.

I have no idea, I whisper back.)

We are braced for boys.

There will be boys. Fifteen of them. No, sixteen. They will descend tomorrow as the rain pours and pours and pours outside. It will be raining boys.

My original plan, as these eight and nine year old hoodlums celebrate my son’s transition from eight to nine, was to have them outside the entire time. Capture the flag. Pin the nose on the zombie. Running races. What have you. Now, instead, we will be doing a scavenger hunt in the rain, and maybe tag, and then there will be different stations indoors. Legos in the basement. Learn-t0-play-poker-with-buttons in the dining room. Risk in the living room. Duct tape creation station in the attic.

Pray for me, my friends. Pray that barricades hold the huns at bay. Pray for keen minds and sharp wits and cat-like reflexes. And pray that the weatherman is wrong and we really can be outside, because good god. I don’t know if my house is engineered to withstand that kind of level of Crazy.

(And oh! My baby boy! How can he be turning nine? In only a few days. Nine!)

My Eight-Year-Old Son on Junot Díaz: a transcription.

Sometimes, my kids will throw bits of the world at me – tiny nuggets of information hoarded and hidden for later, possibly aggressive, use. They are like squirrels gathering acorns for the sole purpose of hurling it at my head when I least expect it. For example, here’s a conversation, in its entirety, that I had with my son this weekend.

LEO: Mom. Is Junot Díaz a writer?

ME: (stares for a long time at my son, trying to figure out how the hell he knows who Junot Díaz is) Um. Yes?

LEO: Okay. (balls up hands into little triumphant fists) I knew it!

ME: Why the sudden interest in Junot Díaz?

LEO: Do you know him?

ME: Who?

LEO: Junot Díaz.

ME: No.

LEO: (looking truly sorry) Oh. That’s too bad.

And then he left the room. And I was mystified.

Five minutes later.

LEO: Did Junot Díaz write This Is How You Lose Her?

ME: Leo.

LEO: What?

ME: How do you know who Junot Díaz even is?

LEO: (a long-suffering expression) Everyone knows who Junot Díaz is. Gosh, mom.

(Five minutes later)

LEO: Mom. Who’s your favorite writer?

ME: No idea, honey. A lot of writers are my favorite writer.

LEO: Is Junot Díaz your favorite writer?

ME: (I am absolutely going nuts at this point) What is up with your recent Junot Diaz obsession?

LEO: (ignoring me) Junot Díaz is my favorite writer. I think he should be your favorite writer too. I think you should write like Junot Díaz and then you can be more famous.

ME: Hmmm. How do you mean.

LEO: On the first page of This Is How You Lose Her, there are three swear words. Three, mom. Real swears. In a book. A real book. 

ME: Who taught you to read, anyway? No more reading.

LEO: (ignoring me again) If you write like Junot Díaz, then you’ll probably get way more famous. Swears, mom. Real swears. In a book. I didn’t know it was allowed. And if you are more famous then I can have an Ipad.

ME: I see. Cogent arguments, my son. I’ll take them under advisement. And remind me to lock up the books.

LEO: You can’t lock up books mom. They’re escape artists. Everyone knows that.

Later, I was cleaning up his room and I found my copy of The Stand under the pile of hard-worn shorts and tee-shirts and socks. And The Arsonist’s Guide To Writer’s Homes in New England.

LEO: Mom. What does Arsonist mean?

ME: Someone who arranges flowers for a living.

LEO: Are you sure?

ME: It comes from the latin word arse, which means delicate flower.

LEO: I don’t think that’s right. Are you tricking me?

ME: Go to your room.

If the house catches on fire, I have only myself to blame. And also my son. Obviously, I instantly rid my house of any hint of Chuck Palahnuik from my house. And Clockwork Orange has to go. Mr. Burgess and Mr. Zola as well. And everything Russian. I can’t tell if my son is transfixed by grownuppy books because he wants to be like his parents, or if he is actually up to something.

What am I saying? This is Leo. He is clearly up to something. I must now plan for a book-free household. It is clearly my only option.

If I have more children, I am for sure not teaching them to read. And that’s final.

 

A friendly note to the gentleman who nearly killed me today. (Caution: Contains swearing.)

Dear Sir,

I can only assume that the text message that you were avidly sending was far more important than safely transporting yourself from point A to point B. (Where were you coming from, and where were you going? Home to work, and back again? Are there people that will miss you in either place? Are there people who would reject you if you had, as you nearly did, become a murderer?)

I am the woman in the red minivan – the Very Nice Mom – that you nearly murdered today. There were four kids in the car as well – Nice Children, all.

Look. You can’t pretend that you weren’t texting. You were. I know you were. I can see it a mile off. I can see the telltale swerve, the lack of spacial awareness, the sudden loss of speed control. I can tell by the ghastly pallor thrown upon your face by the tiny but powerful screen’s ghoulish glow. And really, that’s a blessing. Because I was ready for you.

Had I not been – had I not been prepared to employ my well-trained Jedi Mom Car Tricks (there are special schools. every mom in a minivan is well versed in how to turn their cars into physics-defying, futuristic bits of magic. But perhaps you knew this. Perhaps this is why you didn’t care to be safe.) – you surely would have slammed your sedan into the side of my car, sending me off the bridge. It nearly happened. Here is who you might have killed.

1. A Very Nice Mom. She bakes cookies and cooks excellent soup and welcomes strangers into her home and makes them feel welcome. She tells jokes and writes books and loves her neighbors and is loved in return.

2. Four Very Nice Kids. These kids, of course, both outnumber and outweigh the Very Nice Mom. They are precious – both to me, and to the world. And they should be precious to you. These kids are the ones who may restart your stopped heart on the operating table someday. Or invent the drug that restores your granddaughter’s sight. Or write the book that makes you believe in God again. Or marry your nephew. Or spoon soup into your withered lips during your last, waning days of life. But you don’t care about that. Your text, apparently, was far more important.

Look. I get it that you’re afraid – afraid of loneliness, afraid of inadequacy, afraid of irrelevancy. I understand your fears. There should be another fear at play though. Fear of assholery. Because make no mistake: you are a fucking asshole. I do hope that’s clear.

You went careening from one side of the freeway to the other as you went flying out of the cloverleaf entrance. You did not look. You did not care. You nearly killed us, but I was faster, smarter, and more nimble. Yay, me. What you did, sir, can only be classified as a dick move. And I hate you for it.

Look, you are not alone. There are other assholes. Hell, I counted eight on my drive home. But make no mistake. IF YOU TEXT AND DRIVE YOU ARE A FUCKING ASSHOLE. And if you harm another person while texting and driving, you are a fucking asshole forever. And I fear this is in the cards for you, sir. I mean, Dick.

Fuck you.

Love,

Kelly

Dear Elementary School Reading Teachers and Librarians – I need your help

We interrupt my unbelievably lackadaisical posting habits of late to send out a sincere and desperate plea to teachers and librarians who have used, or are using, or are familiar with the SRA Reading Mastery curriculum by McGraw-Hill. My son’s school switched over to it last year, and it has been extremely rough around these here parts. He went from reading novels on his own (Dahl, Gaiman, Rowling, Sachar) to coming home from school saying “I’m too stupid to read”.

And then my head exploded.

Now, as his mother, it is easy for me to blame the curriculum – and maybe to do so is valid. The problem, however, may not be the curriculum itself, but rather an ill-defined and poorly-execcuted interpretation of that curriculum in this particular school – one that could absolutely be remedied by additional teacher training and alternate strategies. I know from my teaching days that it takes a while to work out the kinks in a curriculum, and I have TONS OF COMPASSION for the dedicated teachers laboring in the fields, trying to make it work.

Still.

No child should come home saying things like that. And I will not have it. Not in my house. Not with my child.

What I would like to know from any of you who can help me is this:

  • What are your thoughts about this program? What works? What doesn’t?
  • What are the strategies you use in your building for kids who get stuck? In our experience, Leo became so demoralized that he was forced to repeat the same lesson over and over because he wasn’t able to get it at 100% accuracy – for a month. This seems crazy to me. And he wasn’t alone. What do you do for your kids to keep that from happening?
  • I know the program focuses on fluency as the sole indicator of good reading. What additional strategies do you use to supplement – to make sure that your kids are also demonstrating the other indicators of good reading – inference, analysis, criticism, intertextual connections, reasoning, etc.?
  • From what I understand, this program is really expensive. Is it worth it?
  • My main criticism of this curriculum is that it seems utterly devoid of joy. What are you doing in your classroom to build joyful readers?

If you are not a teacher or librarian, but know someone who is, please send this on. I’m really trying to gather as many perspectives as I can in anticipation of a meeting I have with the Administration, as well as several conversations that I will be having with different members of the Board. Also, if this curriculum has been used in your child’s school, I’d love to hear your perspective as a parent.

Thank you all so much, and I promise to resume my random posts about random stuff very soon.

Much love,

Kelly Barnhill

We interrupt this final Friday of summer vacation to bring you this GIANT EYE.

There is, right now, a giant eyeball in Dallas.

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I can’t tell if the artist who designed this is the sort of fellow who frightens small boys off his lawn with rakes and chainsaws and kicks the occasional puppy with his steel-toed boots, or if he is destined to be my very best friend in all the land. Maybe both. What kind of genius/madman comes up with this kind of nighmarish nugget of awesome? This monstrous delight? What kind of person painstakingly copies, then magnifies his own peepers and puts them on display?  And more importantly, is he fun to have over at dinner parties? (Seriously, Tony Tasset, you’re welcome any time.)

A giant, goddamned, eye. What will they think of next?

Spend five minutes staring into that mammoth pupil and….oh, rats. I think it just swallowed my soul. Also? I’m pretty sure I know what Hell is like. Heaven too (same thing, really – two sides of a single coin, darkness and light, matter and wave, hello and goodbye, the vastness of space and the singularity of time, and oh, god, my soul, my soul, my shattered soul). Anyway, what was I saying? Oh, right. The giant eye.

Apparently, this ocular glory/horror was once stationed in Chicago (I’ve been to Chicago; the eye is appropriately bloodshot and bleary), but was recently purchased and positioned temporarily in the State With Which One Must Not Mess. I’ve been to Dallas, too. As I recall, it was rather thin in the art department, for a city of it’s size (of course, as a Minneapolitain, I am spoiled, art-wise). Perhaps they were simply waiting for a Sculpture the Size of Texas. It’s three stories tall. That’s a lot of art, if you think about it

Or, perhaps Texas is secretly Mordor, and you can’t have Mordor without the eye of Sauron. Perhaps there are, in the teeming guts of Dallas, hordes of Orcs and Uruk-hai and a whining Smeagol and perhaps even a giant spider, biding their time and massing their forces to unleash themselves upon the world. I’ve always wanted to visit Mordor.

And dangit. Now I want to go to Texas.

Perhaps I might locate my swallowed soul.

(ETA- Yes, I know, the picture here is from the previous installation. Is it my fault that Chicago is more photogenic than Dallas? No my friends, it is not. And speaking of the artist possibly being my new best friend, he also made this:

And this:

Seriously. New best friend. He just doesn’t know it yet.)

Every day I fall madly in love with someone.

I can’t help it. My heart races and leaps. I am glitter and breeze and sunsets and clouds. I am stardust and radiation and Dark Matter and inexplicable time and the Big Bang. I have told my husband that this is normal. He will believe me one day. When we are ninety, or thereabouts.

This is who I fell in love with today:

He was a skinny thing, all elbows and reeds. A long neck. Sharp chin. Pale skin like milk. Thick black leg hairs standing straight out, as sure as tree trunks. He was wearing black gym shoes and black socks stretched to the middle of his bony calves, long shorts, and a tee- shirt with Phil Collins on it. He had a red white and blue sweat headband around his head and trucker-shaped sunglasses with white, plastic frames balancing on his long, straight nose and another pair of sunglasses on his head just in case. And he had a boom box. One of those ancient magnavox numbers with the double tape deck that I remember asking for Christmas the year I turned eleven.

(I didn’t get it, by the way. Thanks a lot, Santa.)

The boom box was turned all the way up. Peter Gabriel. Of course.

I was on my way to the library to get work done out of the chaos of my house, and I couldn’t stop. But I wanted to. He sat down on a low wall under a tree, his boom box balanced on his pale, bony knees. And I wanted to sit next to him and take his hands.

Here, I would say. This is your life line. And this is your head. And this is your heart. And my heart. And everyone’s heart.

Here. My fingers curling into his, my eyes bright, my lips curled into a smile. Skin and bone, breath and thought. The vastness of space. The beauty of the atom. Your perfect soul. My mind is inscrutable. It is burning and storming and wild. It is a cosmic wind, blowing from one end of the universe to the other, looping inside itself like a snake swallowing its tail, forever and ever and ever.

Here. My life and my love. I have known you before. I will know you again. Every moment happens simultaneously with every other moment, every life harmonizes with every other life. We are linked. We are song. We are the woven roots of the endless grass. And we are all one.

But I had work to do. The light turned green. I adjusted my backpack and headed into the library and left him behind in the shade. He didn’t notice me. He didn’t need to.

(Incidentally, I also fell madly in love with the elderly gentleman playing the Steinway in the workroom next to mine at the library. And now I have my eye on a broad shouldered woman cupping her hands around her eyes as she stands at the bus station. This happens a lot. I am large. I contain friggin multitudes.)

And now I shall pour that love into the work. It is not a bad thing. It bubbles and flows. It is a river. It is the rain. It is the swelling ocean. Who have you fallen in love with lately?

A history of water

I have this memory of swimming lessons when I was a child. We were at the Blaisdell Y in Minneapolis. The floor surrounding the pool was made of small tiles fitted neatly together and patterned in bright, seventies colors – turquoise, orange, brown, yellow. The walls were painted cinderblock, slicked with the damp clouds of chlorine and water and ringing with the shouting of children. I remember trying to slide my arms into my swimming suit (pink, with red and green flower appliqués). I remember the sound of my chattering teeth, my short hair clinging to my face in inky clumps. I remember how slippery the floor was, and how worried I was that I would fall.

And I remember feeling utterly disconnected from the other kids plunging merrily into the weirdly blue-green water. I remember how terrified I was. I remember positioning myself on the top rung of the ladder, hooking each arm into its curved handles, hooking each leg under the sides, and hanging on like a vise.

And I remember screaming. A lot.

“YOU CAN’T MAKE ME GO IN THERE,” I howled. It has been suggested to me that I may have also yelled something about not wanting to die. I can’t say for sure whether it is true. I do remember that I screamed myself hoarse.

My mother, as I recall, was not amused.

I told this story today to a mother at the beach, as we fanned our faces and huddled under the shade, cupping our hands over our eyes as we watched our children at their last swimming lesson down by the lake. Her son, like me, refused to go into the water. And she was exasperated.

“Is it fear? Is he actually afraid? Or is it just that I want him to go, and he wants to oppose me on principle. I’m worried that’s it.”

“It might be fear,” I said. “But it might be his very real need for personal autonomy. Water is chaotic. The kids are chaotic. The instructors have to yell to make themselves heard. And in the midst of that, here’s this four year old kid engaged in actualized existentialism, but with no words for it. I am me, he says. I make decisions. And then he doesn’t know how to undo them. So he stands neither here nor there, unable to move. He doesn’t want to follow your decision and he doesn’t want to follow his teacher’s decision, but he doesn’t know what he has decided on his own. He’s stuck, poor baby.”

The boy stood at the shore, his toes only barely touching the water, his blonde head shimmering in the hot sun. A statue. A sentinel. A pillar of salt. I understood.

We live in Minnesota, and learning to swim is a statewide occupation. Parents take this very seriously. We have a lot of water around here, and drownings happen. My kids take swimming lessons at the local high school during the winter months, and out at the lake during the summer. (We could do it at the Y, but it is expensive, and I am cheap. And broke.) I don’t particularly care for pools – chlorine gives me a headache and the noise is crazy-making. But they learn stroke refinement at the pool, which is important. At the lake, they learn how to stay safe and move efficiently in chaotic conditions. This is important as well.

My daughters are born swimmers – long and lean with strong legs and broad shoulders. They move through the water in a long, quiet slice, like a canoe cutting across the surface. They go long distances without being winded and can keep their heads even in the wind and the waves. They go back and forth between the shore and the diving dock, and I watch the curve of their arms as they lift, extend and pull. I watch the furrow they leave on the water, and my breath catches. They are marvelous, my girls.

My son, on the other hand. Well. We’re getting there.

I took him to an outdoor pool a couple summers ago. He couldn’t swim at all. Unfortunately, his innate sense of high self-efficacy led him to believe that he was awesome at swimming. This was problematic. It was a hot day – 102, as I recall – and the pool was packed. And he was not even considering staying close to me.

It was, hands down, the most terrifying moment of my life.

I pushed through the crowd of slicked, soaking bodies, standing chest deep in overly-warm water as my son darted from shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. He would cling, curl and leap through the water, grabbing onto strangers as he slithered from one end of the pool to the other.

“GET BACK OVER HERE RIGHT NOW YOUNG MAN,” I bellowed.

“I’m swimming!” he called back delightedly as he slipped between groups.

“NO YOU ARE NOT!”

No one noticed him. He was a fish. A salamander. A water moccasin. He splashed and wriggled and was gone. And it would only take one second for him to go down. And no one would see him. (Even the life guards, god bless them, would have been useless. There were too many people. And Leo was short.)

I love swimming instructors. I think they all deserve a medal. And the key to the city. They are not just rescuing children, but they are giving kids the tools to rescue themselves. This is a powerful thing.

Lately, after class, he and I have been going into the water together, practicing endurance and troubleshooting. I swim right next to him as we go into deep water. We tread water, we swim toward objects, we lie on our backs to catch our breath. We practice what to do if water gets in our mouths and we start coughing. We make plans on how to get to safety if we need it. We talk about what to do if we see someone struggling in the water.

The water in the lake is dark green and slick. It smells of fish and algae. We can’t see our feet when we stand waist-deep. He knows that if he goes down, it would be unlikely that he would be found in time in that world of green. More reason to be strong, smart and efficient. More reason to be aware.

There is a giant fish that lives in the bottom of Lake Nokomis, did you know? Leo told me. And a race of frog men and women with catfish tails and water bugs the size of golden retrievers. You’d think this would make him hesitant to get in the water. It has not.

“I love this lake,” he said to me as we floated out by the far buoys. “It’s so mysterious. We watch the water and the water watches us.”

Doing my best not to be completely creeped out, I swam back to shore, matching his pace. Kick, breathe, reach, pull, breathe, float, breathe. I imagined the bug-eyed frog men standing below us, looking up. I imagined the the giant fish with eyes the size of tractor wheels sliding through the muck at the middle, peering upwards from time to time to see the wrinkled surface of the lake shirring the sky.

There is something amazing that happens in a kid when they first learn to swim. Or no. When they first learn to move with surety and grace through the capriciousness of water. When they first learn how to survive in a medium that would kill them if it could. That didn’t care if they lived or died.

The water is wide, the child understands. Rise above.

The water is cold, the child feels. Move.

The water is insistent, the child says. Redirect. Recalibrate. Bend.

It might be the first time they learn to rely on themselves for their own survival. It may be the first time that it is their bodies, and their bodies alone, that mark the edges of themselves. The skin is its own shoreline. The brain is its own sky. The lungs contain a weather system all their own. The body exists and it is separate from the watery world that surrounds it. It is complete, whole, and powerful. And fragile. And precious. It is all of these things at once.

“Nice job, kiddo,” I said, as we pushed through the water toward the sand.

“Thanks mom,” he said. “Let’s do it again.”

 

When my son grows up, I hope he is like his dad. If not, I hope he is like this guy.

 

There’s an article you should read. I’ll tell you about it in a minute. First I have to tell you this story:

The other day, while at the train station, my sister-in-law saw a bunch of college age dudes checking out the posterior-region of my thirteen-year-old child. “I just didn’t know what to do,” she told me. “It was so galling and so totally out of the realm of what I expected. I felt torn between wanting to tell them off and wanting to usher my beautiful niece as quickly as possible out of the vicinity so that she wouldn’t ever know what happened, and wanting to kick them all in their respective groins. I chose the middle thing.”

(I told her about a similar instance where I ducked behind my innocent child, looked the offending onlookers straight in the eye, gave them my laser-beam stare, and gave them the ole double-middle-fingers. These men were my age. They, suddenly realizing how young the girl at my side actually was, turned beet-red and skedaddled.

We didn’t know, their faces said.

Fuck you, said mine.)

Here’s the thing. In my younger years – on the 21 bus on Lake Street in Minneapolis during high school, at parties and on the job and once even during a professor’s office hours during college, on airplanes and in bars and walking home late at night and again on the job in my twenties, and even at professional conventions in my thirties – I have been subjected to groping, oggling, propositioning, butt-grabbing, space-invading, unwanted pick-upping, cat-calling and even scary and gross insistence (You know you want this, he said. No I do not, I said. Then why are you – OUCH! he said. And then I didn’t need to say anything at all.). It happens. We all know it happens.

To cope with these things I have used a variety of tactics – my fists (twice), my feet (a lot - I am fast), my sharp tongue (in both English and halting Spanish! And once in very bad French! Hooray for lingualism!), my clever maneuvers and quick thinking, and once, the very lucky appearance of a bus.

In my teens and twenties, my body was a liability. A vulnerability. I was not my mind. I was not my accomplishments. I was not my life. I was not my friends or my ideas or my care or my love. I was flesh and breast; I was lips and hair. And nothing else. The world that I loved was full of threats. And it made me angry. This has been true in my thirties as well, though less so, primarily due to circumstance. I live with a good man who is wildly in love with his wife, and associate primarily with good people of both genders with whom we collectively care for our children and trade stories and share food and love our respective spouses. It’s a good life, and I don’t venture away from it all that often. There’s a benefit to not getting out much. I had one horrible experience with an editor at a SFF convention (there was luring, there was a conversation that I thought was platonic but apparently was not, there was a sudden shirt removal and a lot of explosive chest hair and a proposition and a very astonished mother-of-three who had no idea how to respond. Of course I didn’t. I was out of practice), and it makes me reluctant to leave the safety of my neighborhood, to be honest.

But my safety is no longer my main concern. Now I have daughters. And I have to warn them.

We train our daughters to be street smart and tough. We train our daughters to be aware, to know the escape routes of any room, to have a buddy, to protect and protect and protect. We tell our daughters that this is the world we live in. It sucks sometimes. Be tough and be tougher. Find your allies. Make a battle plan. Know the weak spots. Fight. 

My oldest left earlier this summer for a three week summer camp. She was going to be in a dorm, in a college. I’ve been to college. I know what goes on there. So we had to have Conversations. The first one was called “Why You Should Never Leave Your Drink Unattended”. The second one was called “The Buddy System – Not Just For the Beach!” The third was called “How to Know When to Knee a Boy in the Gonads: A Primer”.

And it breaks us to tell our girls these things. It breaks us in half.

Lately, my beloved SFF community has been in some intense conversations about harassment and autonomy and the rights of any individual to feel safe in their environment. Since I have been limiting my time online, I have missed much of these conversations, but they continue, and they deepen and they are important. Folks have been talking about  respect and consent and have been outing serial harassers. A bright light now shines on bad behavior – which is good because bad behavior can only be addressed when it is named, clarified and known. People can learn. They can become aware of their privilege. They can change. I truly believe this.

There was the ugliness at Wiscon and then the attacks on N.K. Jemison after she (rightly) called Theodore Beale a sexist and racist a-hole, and then of course this little brouhaha. It makes me tired, is what.

Then, my darling Genevieve Valentine wrote a piece called “Dealing With It”, which I would urge all mothers to read, and to give it to their daughters. If my daughters are as tough as Genevieve, I will have succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings. And the overwhelmingly positive feedback she’s gotten from the piece is telling, I think. We’re all of us dealing with it. And sometimes we have to push back with all our might just to stand still. And sometimes that’s a colossal success.

But then I look at my son, and I wonder what kind of man he will be. How aware is he of his privileged status in our culture? How can I, as his mother, train him to be conscientious and kind, generous and brave, to use his strengthened position to do good in the world and to stand up for others? How does he resist being the guy who takes up more space, who uses more resources, who operates with impunity just because he can? Because we have all met that guy. And nobody likes that guy.

Which brought me to this gentleman, who wrote this piece: “Changing the Creepy Guy Narrative.” Stop what you’re doing and read that piece. I have printed it out and made a file called “Things To Show my Son”.  This is not to say that we should all start sexually harassing the sexual harassers (though it does make for good blog posts), but it is to say that we have a voice. And our voices matter. And my son has a voice too. And I hope he uses it.

How can we, as thoughtful citizens, shine a light on obnoxious behavior? How can we call wrongdoers to task, identify and clarify bad behavior, and insist on change?

We can’t force change. But we can insist. There’s a difference. John Scalzi is insisting. So is Tobias Buckell. So are a lot of people. And so am I.

On cutting, and revising, and hanging on, and letting go.


For those of you who have followed me on Facebook and Twitter, back when I used to be on Facebook and Twitter (I am still on the latter, officially, though the only tweets currently are the automatically generated blog post alerts from WordPress. My computer prevents me from accessing the site until September. Because my computer is bossy. Which is to say, my thirteen year old daughter is bossy, because she was the one who set it up.) you may know that I spent the spring engaged in a grueling editorial process with my upcoming novel The Witch’s Boy. This was through no fault of my beloved editrix Elise Howard, who is brilliant and amazing and right about everything.

This has everything to do with me. And with the work of novel production, and novel refinement, and novel discovery, and novel re-discovery. And, believe me, it is work.

Revising a novel is building a granite castle. And then taking it apart and building it again. By hand. By yourself. And then, when you’re done, you run a marathon. Barefoot. While carrying a very heavy and very ill-tempered goose. It’s kind of exactly like that.

Revising a novel is a return to a garden that you planted a while ago – one that you know is loaded with vegetables, but you cannot see them because the weeds now tower, jungle-thick, over your head.

Revising a novel is that colicky baby that will not go to sleep no matter what you do.

Revising a novel is the thick, muddy traverse through a swamp, only to realize that you have to climb a cliff on the other side. And you forgot your rope.

Revising a novel requires the skin of a rhinoceros and the strength of a bull and the delicacy of a jeweler.

Revising a novel feels like performing open-heart surgery. Without anesthesia. On yourself.

Revising a novel requires you to heft a thousand-pound boulder, sling it onto your back, carry it up a mountain, and balance it on the head of a pin.

Which is to say that revising a novel is effing hard.

And that’s the case generally, and in the case of The Witch’s Boy, it is even more so. This book is incredibly close to my heart, and was often emotionally exhausting to write. I have always loved my characters, but, in this novel, I - for real - love these characters. Partially because I didn’t come up with them on my own. This story began, very long ago, as a story that my son and I told one another during a particularly grueling hike through Shenandoah National Park when he was only six. There is a lot of Leo in Ned. There is a lot of me in Aine. And Sister Witch. And the Bandit King. Hence my struggles.

Also, there’s something about working with a new publisher – it’s exciting and inspiring and energizing, but also nerve-wracking. Because we want to get it right. And we want to make people happy with us. And we want to not suck. This is the way of things.

So I worked my bum off, took three months to write two crucial chapters that were going to re-imagine and re-focus the larger arc of the novel, allowing the choices and action to flow from a single nexus point where my main characters converge, bear witness, keep silent, and irrevocably change their trajectories.

Three. Long. Months.

And….maybe it worked? We’ll see.

Anyway, apparently, in the last revision, I managed to grow the novel by ten thousand words. And that was after some major textual excising. Which explains a thing or two.

And now I am, once more, into the brink. I have tools. I have a map. I have my dear editor sounding her trumpet and spurring me onward. I have a lantern. I have a sword. I have a pure heart and a just cause and a mind on fire. I have characters to rescue. I have giants made of stone. I have a stalwart wolf and a ferocious girl and a boy who does not know what he is capable of. I have my heart and my brain and my love, and I hope it will be enough.

Anyway, I will be posting some out-takes here and there.

Like this:

He was alive. For now.

“Ha!” a man said, shaking his fist at the water. “It won’t be taking this one, by god. Only one victim for that blasted river.” He gave the river a hard look. He did not help the father, nor did he touch the boy. Everyone in the village knew that those marked for drowning were cursed by nature. The river was a greedy thing. And foul-tempered. It would have that boy eventually. This was common knowledge.

And this:

This was not magic. This was a simple practicality. Witching, after all, is tricky work. And complicated. She had learned, after all these years, to see the world from the inside – its foundation and its beams, its braces, insulation and gaps. She knew the weak places. She knew how lean against the fabric of the world and nudge it this way or that. She knew how to make suggestions. Anyone could do it, if they ever learned. But people called it magic, and conflated it with her real magic, and Sister Witch didn’t correct them.

Her real magic was dangerouscapable of great good and great evil in equal measure. It was work keeping it good. It required a firm hand and an iron will. Best to use it sparingly, if at all.

And this:

The ladies from the village came in droves. They descended onto the grieving house like an army of magpies, all feather and gossip and claw. Sister Witch thought she’d never be rid of them, and suffered the indignities of grief in relative silence.

“It’s a pity,” the magpie ladies simpered. “Such a terrible pity.”

Go away, Sister Witch seethed.

“And on such a beautiful day,” as they munched on the pastries they had brought for the family.

She thanked her visitors for their meat pies and fruit pies and custard pies and pies she could not identify or name. She thanked them for their pots of stew and their legs of lamb and their heavy rounds of hard cheese. Their gifts were thoughtful, tender, and full of wiles.

They were gifts that asked questions.

Sister Witch had no intention of answering a thing. Her son, Tam, was dead. Her magic could not save him. And that was that.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how deft your hands may be, or how sharp your scalpel or how cunning your eye. Cutting away bits and pieces of our novels – fingers, toes, tumors, tongues, unsightly moles or pounds of pulsing flesh – well, it hurts. 

A lot.

And because I hate being alone and wallowing in psychic pain, I turn it over to you. Any sections that you’ve cut lately? Any extraneous scenes that simply detracted from the central pulse of your novel – that single, beating heart? Paste it here and share! Our amputated novel bits can assemble and congregate. They can bind together into hideous and beloved homunculi. They can resuscitate, respirate, ambulate, and live.

Here is Faust and his homunculus. It worked for him, right?

And it will be beautiful.

And then they fly away.

This morning, we got up at four in the morning, ate, made tea, and hauled suitcases out to the car. I wrapped my arms around my thirteen-almost-fourteen-year-old girl-child and pressed my cheek to her ear. I curled my fingers around the globe of her skull. I smelled her hair and held her ponytail in my fist.

“Mom,” she said. “You’re crying again.”

“No I’m not,” I said, scooping a bucketload of tears from the hollows under my eyes.

My husband and I couldn’t both go to see her off because of the rules governing unaccompanied minors on airplanes (you can take your kid to the gate, but you must do it alone, and you must watch the child of your body go careening into the sky alone, and you must walk the lonely corridors of the airport alone. This is your fate.) so my husband went instead of me. I said goodbye in the kitchen.

She is scared. She is excited. She is both.

I am sending my firstborn infant into an airplane. And she will go off to camp for three weeks – three weeks! – with a bunch of other smarty-pantses at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University and she will learn Cryptography. And she will probably get recruited by the CIA or some other spy organization that I have never heard of and I will never see her again. And she will sleep in dorms and eat in the cafeteria and talk to boys whose mothers I do not know.

And my heart is broken in pieces.

I prefer my children to stay on the ground.

I also prefer that they stay in their rooms and never grow up.

Both of these things are an impossibility.

Every day she becomes the woman that she will be, and every day she becomes more and more herself, and every day she leaves me behind. This is the way of things. Our children do not belong to us. They belong to themselves. And they belong to the world.

I just hope the world is grateful. Because, damn. That girl rules.

SONY DSC

(And oh! I miss my girl.)

On Vanishing, Precious Things.

Lake Nokomis Beach, remaining its awesome self.

I had the best day today. I am sick with grief. Both are true.

It is Friday. I am covered in sand. And I am sunburnt. The sand will flow away down the drain and the sunburn will fade and fade. I am trying to hang onto something. This day. This afternoon. This sunlight and sand. Children in the water. The smell of sunblock. The screech of their voices. The shimmer of skin. Their hard-muscled bodies launching into the sky.

And I am getting ahead of myself.

My daughters left just before lunch to do a bible study with their grandpa (it is one of his great joys at this stage of his life: those two beautiful girls; the mysteries of the Universe bound in text and paper; the certainty of limitless love) and my son and I were left to our own devices. We had already had breakfast, made banana bread, explored the storm damage along the swollen creek and looked for frogs.

“I’m bored,” Leo said the second the girls left.

“Let’s walk to the beach,” I said.

He looked at the sky. It was still gray and damp with a little bit of post-storm chill lingering in the air. “Really?” he said. Then he shrugged, slid into his swimtrunks and we walked to the lake.

(I am trying to cling to something precious. I cannot hold on. It vanishes the moment my fingers clasp around it. I am grasping at smoke; I am trying to snag starlight with a string.)

We were the only ones there, save for three lifeguards who lounged on the grass reading novels. One sighed as we arrived, hoisted himself off his blanket and summited the guard chair. The sky was gray. The lake was gray. A mama duck shepherded her bright-tufted babies through a red-buoy obstacle course. Leo eased himself into the waves.

“It’s cold,” he complained.

“Come in if you’re cold,” I said.

“No. I like it.”

The water at his knees. His trunks. His belly button. The water lapping his shoulders, then his neck, and then he was swimming, every once in a while shooting me a gleam of teeth over the wave.

“Do you see me mom? Do you see me?” A spurt of water. A joyous splash.

Of course I see you. You’re the only kid here.

We planned to stay for an hour at most. But the sun came out and the day grew steamy. And then kids from the neighborhood showed up. Kids that I have known since they kicked in their watery worlds within their mothers expanding middles. Kids who I love as much as my own. And their mothers, who I also love.

An hour became two.

Then three.

Then three and a half.

The children covered themselves in mucky sand. They wrestled in the mud and grass. They washed themselves new and clean in the water. They swam out to the diving dock and plunged into the deep again and again. They were bright birds, slippery fish, creatures made of fire and water and star. They were magic things.

Do you see me?

Of course I see you. You have swallowed the Universe. My eyes are your eyes and my skin is your skin and my heart is your heart. It will be so until you go into the wild world and leave me behind.

(I am grasping at vanishing things. Each moment is like a bead of water on sun-soaked skin, each ghosted remains scattering like dusty pebbles on a dry, dry river bed.)

I smiled and waved and swallowed a sob.

On the walk home, he took one step for every two of mine. He was barefoot, shirtless, holding his towel to his shoulders like a cape.

He asked about different kinds of rocks. He wanted to know the difference between a paleontologist and an archaeologist (he wants to be both when he grows up). He told me the story about a flying dog who fights crime and who shows up in his dreams most nights. He wondered about june bugs. He wanted to know if he could go to college with his two best friends. He wondered if it was possible to hold your breath for a year.

We scanned the sidewalk for lost pennies and priceless artifacts. We estimated the weight of dinosaur bones. I rested my palm on his thistledown head. He let me keep it there. He smelled of sun and algae and sunblock and boy.

“Did you have a good day, buddy?” I asked.

“I had the best day.”

“The very best?”

“Of course. I always have the very best day. Don’t you?”

I wound my hand in his hand and held on tight.

“I do believe I do, buddy,” I said.

And I swallowed a sob.

In Praise of Quietness

One week ago, I cancelled my Facebook account and blocked my access to Twitter. (Did you know that Facebook guilts the heck out of you when you try to quit? They show picture after picture of the people who will, apparently, miss you when you’re gone and try to convince you to stay for just ten more minutes. They’re worse than a gaggle Irish Catholic aunties.) I did this at the behest of my children who are frankly sick and tired of how distracted I am by social media. And for good reason.

(Mom, they said. Will you cancel your Facebook? And your stupid Twitter?

Why? I said.

We hate it, they said.

We’ll see, I said.

Please.

Well…

Please.

Fine, I said. I’ll give you the summer.

And I did.)

I was going to cancel my Twitter account as well, but my brother-in-law explained to me that I can’t because my handle will instantly be co-opted by a bot and @kellybarnhill will suddenly become a purveyor of male-enhancers or some other foolishness. Instead, I had my daughter change my password, and we employed the Nuclear Option on Chrome, which prevents me from accessing either site until September 1.

It’s only been a week, but this is what I have learned so far:

  1. I was on social media way more often than I realized.
  2. I was using social media as a way of deflecting stress and distracting myself from the real emotional work needed for my actual work. This was a problem.
  3. I was going on both Facebook and Twitter without intending to do so. Indeed, I find myself engaging in the same behaviors even now. Just yesterday, I sat down to type in weather.com. Except I didn’t. I typed “Facebook”. Thanks to the nuclear option, I did not land on the Facebook page, but instead saw a very judgey screen that said SHOULDN’T YOU BE WORKING? Which, I admit, was a fair point.
  4. Writing is hard. And lonely. And farting around on Facebook with my fellow procrastinating writer friends? Well, it’s fun. Which is good. Except when it isn’t.
  5. Writers have to learn to work until their fingers ache and their wrists throb and their brains feel like mush. They must do this knowing that the fruit of their labor will not be seen for years. They must do this knowing that their manuscripts will languish with their writers groups and their agents and their editors forever. They must do this knowing that their work will be in the world and the world will not care. They must do this knowing that it is exhausting, heartbreaking, merciless work. And they must love it anyway. Do you have writer friends? Do me a favor and give them a hug and tell them they are doing a good job. Seriously. It helps more than you know.
  6. I’m pretty good at writing facebook status updates and tweets. I mean, I don’t want to brag or anything, but whatever. I’m a words girl. And I like fashioning and honing and making things funny and balanced and thoughtful and bawdy and true. And there is something…wonderful about the instant feedback of social media. The likes. The retweets. The conversation. The knowledge that we are reaching out with our intellects and our humor and our care for the world around us and our boundless love and growing closer to people in the process. That feels very very good. And it is addictive.
  7. While blogging can be considered the crack cocaine of the writing life, social media is like meth to writers. I have gone on Facebook and Twitter intending to just respond to comments, and looking at the clock and realizing that an hour has gone by. Or two. Or even more. On one hand it feels like writing. So it accesses that very real and very important region of the writerly brain. But it is not getting the book done. Or the short story written. Or the research accomplished. It is not furthering the work of writing. It is a wonderful tool for connecting with other writers and connecting with librarians and teachers and readers. And that is important. But it is not as important as writing – not at all.

And I’ll admit – I’ve been an emotional wreck. I don’t regret the decision for a second – clearly it had to happen. But all the feelings stewing around inside me that I’ve deflected in favor of cat videos or cute kids or political analysis or goofy writer jokes – well, they’re still there, aren’t they? And I have been feeling fragile as of late.

And so I spend more time in the garden. And I go on long walks at Fort Snelling State Park with my kids. And my morning runs have gotten a little bit longer, and a little bit earlier, with more pauses along the way to get a better look at the great blue heron carefully treading through the wetland in search of a frog. Or the yellow eyes of the fox denning at the base of a cottonwood tree. Or trying to catch sight of the seven foot muskie that supposedly lives in Lake Nokomis. And I am making my way more quickly through my to-read stack. And I am making a comic book with my son. And having long talks with my daughters as we lounge on a blanket in the back yard.

And it is good.

I am assuming that I’ll be back in the thick of things come September. But who knows? Maybe I’ll become addicted to quiet instead. Maybe I will unhook from all internet distraction whatsoever. Maybe I will just snail mail my manuscripts to my editor every nine months and will only communicate by passenger pigeon with the rest of the world. Maybe I will become leaf and wood and muck. Maybe I will become claw and fur and feather and wing. Maybe I will fly away.

We’ll see.

In Which I Continue to Corrupt the Youth of America

Here is the male, Victorian, and shiny-shoed version of me, gazing out at row after row of scrub-faced students.  (And I’m not gonna lie to you.  I would totally rock that suit.)

Yesterday, I taught a world-building class to a bunch of completely adorable writing nerds at the Young Author’s Conference.  Today, I have a whole new crop of young writers, and supposedly the same workshop. It will not be, though. As a dyed-in-the-wool shoot-from-the-hipper, I am compelled by biology to stay up WAY TOO LATE the night before changing every blessed thing.

Last night, my inbox was full of notes from my student. “Dear Kelly Barnhill,” they said. “Can you email me that slideshow?” or “Dear Kelly Barnhill, what was that story you read by that other lady named Kelly?” Or “Dear Kelly Barnhill, Actually, the information you gave us about the planet Mars was in error. Let me give you a ninety page treatise that I just wrote just wrote this second.”

I love these kids.

And today there will be more. Of all the benefits of writing for kids, actually hanging out with said kids is pretty much the best of the lot.

What are you folks up to today?

A Pair of Useless Wings

This angel is not happy about her wings either.

Last night, I dreamed I grew a pair of wings with iridescent, shining feathers. They did not fly – or not that I could ever figure out. I couldn’t control them at all. They would shudder and flap one moment, and hang limp the next. They knocked against the walls, hit the ceiling, reduced a set table into a spangled mess on the ground with a casual flick. They didn’t fit under my clothes, so I had to attack my shirts with scissors and rip out sweaters with my fingers. They sometimes dragged on the ground.

And they hurt. Horribly. The skin around where the wings had erupted was red and raw and oozing. I left circles of blood and pus on the sheets.

And the worst part – the very worst – was the incessant compliments. It was all people could talk about. Oh look! they cried. Those wings! Look how they shine! Look at the colors! How lucky you are. How proud of them you must be.

My wings collected dog hair like you wouldn’t believe. They broke glasses and knocked books off the shelf. They sometimes smacked my kids on the back of the head. They made it difficult to drive, and sometimes tripped little old ladies as they hobbled down the street. They molted. They shed dander. They were a mess.

And it was funny, because my whole childhood, I imagined myself with wings. I imagined myself to, when confronted by a bully, or by stress, or by a simple social interchange that made me feel uncomfortable (there were, alas, a lot of those in my wobbly youth), I could simply shoot suddenly skyward, and leave the earth behind. I could become invisible. I could become air and wind and cloud – nowhere and everywhere at once.

Instead, I got a pair of oozing, dusty, malcontented wings. I was more weighted than before. And I was more fully present, too.

For those of us who write for children, this disconnect between what the child wants and what the adult understands is a sticky thing, and sometimes tough to parse out. When we sit down to write a book for kids, we must do some serious communication with our selves as kids, and I don’t know about the rest of the children’s authors out there, but my childhood self? She was a moron. For real. When I think about the things that she wanted, I end up with silly things, or painful things, or things I cannot use. A pair of useless wings, for example. Or hypothermia from my new-found ability to breathe underwater. Or a fist-fight with a bear that I accidentally insulted with my new gift of animal-talk.

What we want is not what we need. What we want reveals much of who we are, and where we hurt, while what we need reveals much of the external pressures of our physical environment. My needs were largely met as a child, but I wanted escape. Hence, wings.

What did you want as a child? What did you need? And were there any moments during your transition from childhood to adulthood in which you realized that what you wanted were about as useful as the ability to swear in Bear? Or a pair of painful, spastic and unflyable wings?

If so, I, for one, would love to hear about it.

In which the words transfix, translate, transmogrify, transform.

Today, while doing All The Things that writers are warned away from (“Do not go unto the Goodreads,” the prophets said, “and yea, resist the sin of the self-google, as it is a vile thing, and an abomination. And for crying out loud, do not seek thy name in the din of the Twitter of Babel. For that way leads to darkness.”)…

I did all of those things. All of that and more. And bless me Father, and so forth, but I’m not even sorry about it. (I still may do my ninety-seven Hail Marys, though. Just in case.)

Anyway, on Twitter, I found this:

bosnian tweetThe text is a bit blurry, but it says: “Priče su beskonačne. Beskonačne su koliko i riječi.” It is a sentence in Bosnian. It means, “Stories are infinite. They are as infinite as worlds,” which is a sentence in Barnhill.

This, obviously, is not the first time that I’ve seen my writing translated. Heck, the Swedes translated a whole book, and the Brazilians are doing the same thing, to be released sometime in the near future. And it’s certainly not the first time I’ve seen myself quoted on Twitter, either. That also happens a lot. And it’s interesting to me, just seeing what sentences leap out for people, what phrases they catch in their hands, shove in their pockets, and carry away. Sometimes it’s quotes from one of the books, and sometimes it’s quotes from the stories, and sometimes it’s quotes from this blog.

And it’s never the quotes I think that will matter. That’s the beauty of it. We write words and words and words down and we hand them to the world. Here, we say. Words from my mind and words from my hands and words from my mouth and words from my body. Take them. Take what you want and leave the rest behind. And make of them what you will.

Here’s the other beauty of it: everything we read, we read in translation.

It’s like this: The writer reaches into the swamp of their experience, of their imagination and worry and wonder, and pulls out word after word after struggling word. They are slippery fish. They are ornery amphibians. They are fighting butterflies. They are living and struggling and raging and alive. And we pierce them through the throat and pin them on the page and know it is only an approximation of what we had in our heads. The story in our head is alive. The story on the page is not. And finishing a book is a kind of grieving.

But! The reader! The reader gathers our pierced fish and our impaled butterflies into her arms. The reader presses each word to her chest. She teaches them to breathe. She returns them to her own swamp. And they wriggle and flutter and swim and live. And they adapt to their new surroundings. They follow new patterns. They feed on new species and change color and texture and heft. They are transformed.

The book you read is different than the book I write. The book I write is an approximation. The book you read is an approximation. Both are only mostly true.

And it’s easy to forget this. The other day, a little girl sent me a scanned picture of a drawing that she did of Iron Hearted Violet. And it was a picture of the end, with Violet and Demetrius in a new world, walking toward a new life, and the dragon is hiding in the trees watching them.

“I don’t believe the dragon actually died,” she said. “I think the dragon is following them and will tell them that he is alive in two days.”

This is her translation. It is mostly true. And it is just as true as my own approximation of the story. I write the words, I give her the words, and the words transform. But the story?   Well. That is something else entirely.

I don’t know if any of the words on this post make any sense to you, or if they are useful to you, or if they matter at all. All I know is that I offer them to you – fully and completely. All I know is that you will gather them up, breathe upon them, and make them live. All I know is that the act of reading is not only an act of faith, but it is a kind of resurrection as well. And it is good.

Here. Take these. Make of them what you will.

Tonight! At Nokomis Library!

(this is not me. this is Flannery O’Connor as a little child – and even as a little child, she was way cooler than I could ever be.)

I’m giving a reading tonight (Tuesday! May 21!) at 6:30. I’ll read a little from JACK, a little from VIOLET, and a little from the new book, THE WITCH’S BOY. I also will be answering questions and going off on tangents and engaging in total non sequiturs and maybe cracking jokes. It’ll be awesome. There will be books for sale, AND a drawing for my last two ARCs of Iron Hearted Violet.

And we may even talk a little about some butt-kicking princesses in history.

Like this one:

(princess Alice of the UK. Feminist. Philosopher. Ran the field hospitals during the Franco-Prussian war. And generally rules.)

Or maybe this one:

(Joanna of Flanders. Part princess. Part Freedom Fighter.)

And it’ll be fun.

AND YOU SHOULD TOTALLY COME!

On World-Building, Conferences, and Other Bits of Bookishy Goodness

This weekend is the Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference at the Loft (located at Open Book, pictured above), and I have been having a wonderful time. Not only was the workshop that I presented right away at the beginning, leaving me to attend sessions feeling both footloose and fancy-free, but I had the opportunity to bear witness – once again- to the mind-blowing levels of literary talent that resides in my dear State. I had lunch with John Coy, Steve Brezenoff, Erin Soderberg, Bryan Bliss, Jeff Geiger and Charlotte Sullivan. I went to an AMAZING workshop on sex in YA literature by Carrie Mesrobian and Andrew Karre. And later, hung out at the bar with the aforementioned, along with Swati Avasthi, Heather Bouwman, William Alexander, Stephen ShaskanTricia Shaskan and Heather Zenzen. So much talent, ladies and gentlemen. So very, very much.

(As for our out-of-town guests, while you may not be Minnesotans per se, I feel that we can work on you to rectify this situation. YOU GUYS! Move to Minneapolis this instant! How can you not want such awesome, book-writing neighbors?)

Anyway, I taught a workshop called World-Building for Fantasy Authors… And Everyone Else. Here is the description:

It doesn’t matter what kind of story you’re writing—contemporary or historical, realism or fantastic, speculative or introspective, science-fictive or science-facty—there is one thing that is always true: Place matters. Our characters have bodies and those bodies occupy space. Our characters are in time, and the time frame in which their life is contextualized affects not
only their world view, but what is possible. The world, the landscape, the climate, the culture, the laws of physics, the resources, economics, politics, and religion are all are integrated into our characters. And we must know them. We will explore the mechanics of place and discuss how to integrate our characters with their surroundings without committing the sin of info-dumping or tedious expositions.

Frankly, I’m not sure if I actually taught any of those things. What I do know is that I said a lot of words, and that people laughed and asked questions. I have no idea what I said. It was as though a waterfall of language started pouring out of my mouth and I was powerless to stop it. I may have told them how to build a thermo-nuclear device for all I know.

There is a slim possibility that I might have – completely by accident, mind you – said a couple of Smart Things, as evidenced by the fact that I was asked to repeat things so that people could write it down. Unfortunately, each time I had this moment of ice-water panic because I honestly had no idea. Like at all. My response was, “Erm, erm, blabber-blabber-blabber,” while my mind said sheet! (though, maybe some other words too that I won’t write here) I figure it was likely a monkeys-typing-Shakespeare situation. It happens, I’m told.

Hopefully, I didn’t completely blow it.

(Who am I kidding. I surely did.)

Anyway, I had a bunch of folks come up to me after, hoping to snag a copy of the handouts. Unfortunately, I had just enough run off and only had a couple extra, which I gave out right away. I promised folks that I’d put them on the blog, so here they are.

First, the rules:

Rules for Worldbuilding

 

 1.    In order to think outside of the box, it is useful to actually have a box.

World building is hard. And fussy. Get a box. For sure you will need it.

 2.    Be a collector.

Remember that bit about the box? Forget your fancy internets. There is still something about the tactile artifacts grooving together on your shelf. Note cards, diagrams, maps, cut-outs from magazines, a cool picture that your kid made that made you think that he might be downloading your brain, fortune cookies, objects found in the gutter. Whatever. Put it in the box.

 3.    Research matters

While our out-of-the-way and terribly out-of-fashion planet has only sported human civilizations for a miniscule portion of its long life, many of those civilizations have been pretty rad. They make excellent starting-points. From the Mongolian Empire to seething London to the Maori’s astonishing traverse across the Pacific ocean, human cultures find incredibly inventive ways of organizing themselves, creating art, fostering innovation, building, destroying, hating their neighbors, and finding new and exciting ways of killing each other. We are superstars at all of those things. By understanding how civilizations build and run and replicate themselves, we can begin to build worlds of our own.

 4.    Remember when you learned about journalism in third grade and you had to ask Who, What, Where, When, Why, How, and then write an article about your teacher’s new brand of chalk, or whatever? Well, do that.

This is Quick-And-Dirty Worldbuilding 101. Often, we are blundering into the worlds of our creation, utterly blind. And that’s all right. Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to pull yourself out of the draft and take a look around. Make a sheet of the basic questions. Be a reporter. Find answers as best you can. Put them in the box.

 5.    Be a Smug, Insufferable Know-it-All

You have my permission.

No matter what kind of writing you’re doing – historical fiction, fantasy fiction, contemporary, sci-fi, or a little bit of each – the writer will always know more than what is shared on the page. Our job as writers is to hold the flashlight for our readers – illuminate the path, illuminate enough details to go on, and allow them to create the world on their own. A massive infodump is the result of a writer who does not trust his or her reader. Trust them. They’ll keep up.

 6.    If You’re Going To Bother Being a Know-it-All, it’s Important to Actually Know It All.

Local history. Local lore. Personal tragedies. Family sagas. Weather. Architecture. Energy. Power dynamics. Religion. The history of said religion. Social norms. Cultural taboos. Structure of governance. Laws of physics. Agriculture. Flora. Fauna. Holidays. Family relationships and structures. Food. Medicine. Law. Punishments. Water purification. Waste disposal. Landscape. Soundscape. Smellscape. And so on. Do you know these things? You should probably know these things.

 7.    Remember the Senses.

Again, you learned about them in third grade. Your writing is best when it is centered in the body. The more your reader can experience the physicality of the scene, the more compassion they’ll have for your characters. So thinking about the experience of corset-wearing or the sensation of weightlessness, or the taste of roasted peacock, brined in the collected tears of the Blessed Sisters of Perpetual Virginity, or the smell of the breath of the manticore, right before it rips out your throat. These are helpful storytelling tools.

 8.    Give yourself a break already and write the damn story.

Look. You’re not going to know All The Things. And even when you do, some of those things will change. In the end, you’re job is to tell the story of an individual trying to make sense of their lives, make sense of their world, and to put whatever disrupted elements that are wreaking havoc with their lives back into some semblance of balance. Expect changes. Expect revelations. Keep moving.

 9.    Integration, integration, integration

 Place matters. Character matters. Story matters. And what’s more, all three are inextricably linked.

It is not the clever description of a world that draws in a reader – rather, it is the interaction between the individual and that world. By understanding our characters, we gain insight into the peculiarities of the world in which they live. By understanding the world, we gain insight into the point of view of the characters that we have grown to care about over the course of the narrative. By linking the reader’s understanding of the world to the character’s understanding, we illuminate our characters at their most essential, their most basic, and their most true: this mind, this spirit, this longing, this heart.

We are shaped by our surroundings, just as we, in turn, shape our world. 

You ready? Let’s go build a world.

Next. Resources. I gave out a list of resources, that I instantly started adding to the moment that my yap started flapping. I added Guns, Germs and Steel, for example. And The Tattooed Lady.

Anyway, here’s the list that I gave:

Helpful books for World-builders

Here, in no particular order, are some books that you should have. And use. A lot. 

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood.

Yes, it’s a novel. Yes, it’s a sprawling epic of the slow decline of a powerful industrialist family in Canada, and, like some things about feminism and sex and marriage politics and what have you. BUT it is also a sly exploration of the broad thinking and subtle questioning of a pulp-fiction fantasist in the midst of the painstaking process of building a world – weaving in elements of history, legend, supposition, conjecture, myth, and that great, wild hope that there is, in truth, something more.  If you haven’t read it yet, then, dear god, I insist you do so at once. If you have, then knock your TBR stack to the ground and read it again. And you’re welcome

 

London, A Biography, by Peter Ackroyd.

This book will change how you understand cities forever. The story of London over the past 2,000 years, spun in yarn after yarn after yarn. Part history, part gossip, part architecture, part politics, part social critique, part lore, part personal stories, part tall tales. A city is built from timbers and iron and stone – but it is also built out of stories. It is equal parts design, politics, betrayal, ingenuity, lust, vision and luck. It is all of those things at once.

Collapse: How Civilizations Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond.

Instead of analyzing how Civilizations conceive of themselves, grow and thrive, Mr. Diamond has, through exhaustive research, tracked how they crack, shatter, and crumble to dust. Much be learned about how someone lived by looking at how they died. Similarly, by exploring how cultures fall apart, we can better understand the cracks in our own cultural foundation – and how we are all, most likely, doomed.

 

Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. LeGuin.

What? You don’t have this book. My god. Go to the used book store and purchase one AT ONCE. A must-have for the fantasist, and a should-have for everyone else.

How to Build a Flying Saucer and Other Proposals in Speculative Engineering, by T. B. Pawlicki.

Fringe science at its best! Not only is there an exhaustive essay on the engineering details of the design and construction of the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge and the like (lest your characters take a notion to do some time travelling), but it is full of other fun tidbits for the geeky worldbuilder. Navigating time streams. Planetary intrusions. Transmuting elements. Standing waves as energy sources. And so forth.

I have no idea if any of this is useful. I hope it is. What I do know is that there is nothing better than being in a roomful of people talking about books and thinking about books and recommending books to one another. There is no better feeling that surrounding oneself with people who are learning, and working, and committing themselves every damn day of their lives to improving what they do and growing as writers. Every day, we move a little bit closer to that one true thing – that moment in Story that lets us hope more, love more, want more be more. 

Here’s hoping we all find it.

 

Happy Writing, everyone!

Happy birthday, Mr. Baum

Today, the inestimable Anita Silvey on her wonderful blog discussed The Wizard of Oz, and instantly, and I felt my heart give a great leap.

I don’t know about any of you, but I was an obsessive Oz fan as a kid – like in a wild-eyed, trembly-hands, gotta-have-it-now sort of way. I was an addict. I read those books over and over and over again, sometimes staying up late into the night just so that I could plunge straight from the ending back to the beginning, without coming up for air. In fact they were the first books outside of fairy tale collections and Compton’s Encyclopedias that I read with any kind of voracity or fervor (I was late to books as a child, preferring to listen to recorded books on my Fisher Price record player, or just pretend that I was reading than actually read – like, with my eyes). L. Frank Baum changed that for me.

L. Frank Baum built me into a reader.

In fact, you can’t scratch very deep into my work to see the thumbprints of Mr. Baum on my odd little brain. People swallowed by trees. Children transformed into a cloud of locusts. A boy made of roots and vines. A razor-toothed demon child pressed tenderly to the breast of its chosen mother as it eats out her heart. I don’t think I would have written those things had I not been enamored by all things Baumian as a child – that giant, insufferable bug, for example (who continues to lurk in my dreams, dear fellow!). Or the man made of clockwork. Or the boy who transforms into a girl – though she still is referred to as “father” by one of her creations. Or the man made of sticks and a pumpkin head (an idiot, of course, but a beloved idiot). Or the desert that will transform you to dust. Or a tin man in search of his long-lost head. Or a group of people made of tubers (who just need to be planted if you accidentally cut them in half, which is a useful trick if you think about it). These things have taken root inside of me, and they will never go away.

Mr. Baum has indelibly weirded me.

I remember running into a girl I knew from school at the library. She was getting a stack of Sweet Valley High books. I never read any of them – still haven’t. Not from any kind of book-snobbery, mind you. I am egalitarian and ominvoracious when it comes to my reading habits. Instead, it was that those books smacked of a clique that I was not invited to join. I was too awkward. Too funny-looking. Too odd. For me at that age (and still now, kinda), the Sweet Valley High books represented what I would never be. Pretty. Popular. Aware of social norms and behaviors. And what have you.

I was an Oz kid from the start.

And because of that, I was a regular at the library. The house I grew up in was five blocks from the local library, and I was allowed to walk it by myself – and I did so quite a bit that summer. On the day in question, I had my stack of Oz books in my arms (most of which I had read already) and she had her stack of blonde twins in matching tennis outfits giving sidelong glances to hunky football players. We nearly ran into one another headlong. Startled, I dropped two books on the ground. She looked at me for a moment, deciding whether to speak to me (she often didn’t). She blew out her breath in a long, slow stream, as though extinguishing a candle. Finally, she spoke:

“Are those books for you?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

She decided to give me a chance. “They’re not for anyone else? Like your baby brother, maybe?”

“No,” I said. “I like these books. They’re really good. This one has a girl who’s made of-”

“Thanks, but no.”

“Okay,” I said.

She sighed and turned away. “Can you go five minutes without being completely weird?” she asked over her shoulder.

She didn’t wait for a response, and I didn’t give one. We both knew the answer anyway. I brought my books home and enjoyed them prodigiously.

Since many of Baum’s books were out of print, my Oz obsession also taught me about the magic of inter-library loans. Now that is a useful tool for a dorky, off-putting and vaguely unpleasant child (which, let’s be honest, is what I was) to learn about. Transformative, even.

It’s a funny thing, too, as a children’s author – one who once was the type of child who just didn’t fit - to realize the potential impact that the weird stories that I fuss at and labor over might have on the developing brain of a child that I have never met.

Will that child, like I was by Mr. Baum, be permanently weirded? Is weirdness a virus? Or a curse? It gives a girl pause, I’ll tell you what.

Or perhaps it is something else entirely. Perhaps instead a book is a tool for validation. Perhaps it is an open, honest, unblinking eye. Yes, says the eye, I see you. I see your weird notions and your strange imaginings. I see the way you stare too long and laugh too hard. I see your turns-of-phrases and your lingering dreams and the beautiful places in your head how you wish and wish-  with everything in you- that they  were real. 

We are the same, whispers the eye.

We are the same, whispered the Woggle-Bug and the Patchwork Girl and the Nome King and the forgotten and ill-tempered head on the shelf. We are the same, whispered the military force armed with knitting needles and the flying couch and the girl who lost her rainbow. We are the same, the author told me. And I believed him.

And this is what I tell you, right now. Kids, grownups, whatever. In your oddness, in your weirdness, in your bits that don’t fit. We are the same.

Happy birthday, Mr. Baum. And good on ya.