“Where do your characters come from?”

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I’m sure I am not the only writer that gets this question. Usually it’s about halfway through the question and answer period after a reading, or during a school visit. The hand goes up. I know they’re going to ask it before they do. I brace myself.

“Where do your characters come from,” they ask. And I wince.

Because I seriously have no idea how to answer this question. At least not in a way that makes me sound sane.

But it shouldn’t sound insane. Not really. This is something that we do – all of us, all the time. We create characterizations out of nothing. We see people walking down the street and we make thousands upon thousands of assumptions about them, without even realizing that we are doing so. Our brains are built for narrative. We think in narrative, understand in narrative, process memories in narrative. It is the structure in which we organize information and construct truth. We may be walking down the sidewalk and see a broken bottle in the grass, and then go a little bit farther and see a cast-off shoe, and then go a little bit farther and see a bare spot in the boulevard, or some trampled flowers, maybe, and we start to connect the dots. We start writing a story. We can’t help it.  It’s our brains, you see?

Similarly, if I sit down on the bus, and the man who sits down next to me has a very long beard and very callused fingertips and hand-patched jeans and a tattoo that says “meat is murder” with a drawing of a pig wearing a crown of thorns (this happened to me once; I stole the tattoo and put it in one of my books)? Well. I start inventing all kinds of stuff. It’s a long bus ride. What else am I going to do. And by the time the bus ride is over, I already know that a woman named Elsie broke his heart and that he plays his guitar every night, trying to find the memory of her voice in the harmonics between the strings, and that his grandmother always called him by a name that was not his own and never explained why and that he hasn’t spoken to his mother in six years, even though she leaves a message on his phone every single day that says the exact same thing, “I’m just thinking about you and I love you. Call when you have a sec.”

He hasn’t told me any of these things, of course. And the character in my head isn’t him. Of course it isn’t. It’s just someone like him. It was my brain connecting the dots. It was my brain doing the work it is built for, which is to say, stories.

“Where do your characters come from?” they ask and I always want to shoot back, “Where does anyone come from? Your teacher, your friend, the guy who opens your drains, the meat inspector with the limp, the check-out clerk at the gas station with a wad of gum the size of a golf ball. Where do any of them come from?” And how can we separate what we know about the people we meet with what we invent? I don’t think we can. I think the creation of knowledge requires imagination. And that the world that we live in is largely imaginary. We invent the world around us and the people in it, again and again. We weave the known and the unknown into an experience that is uniquely ours. And we don’t even know that we’re doing it.

Instead I just say that I go fishing. I cast my nets into the sea of the mind and pull in a character. I don’t do this at all, but it is a quick and easy way of answering the question.

I get asked a lot which character is me. “Are you Jack?” they ask. “Are you Wendy or Violet or Cassian? Are you Ned or Aine or the horrible King Ott? Are your Sister Witch or Uncle Clive or Aunt Mabel? Which one are you exactly?”

The answer, of course, is none of them. And all of them. But mostly none. These characters have elements in them with which I identify, but they are not me. They are themselves. I met them one day and I got to know them, and I lived with them for a while. And I loved them. Each blessed one. They were like those roommates that you have in the crazy living situations that you get into those post-college ennui years when your life hasn’t quite found its feet. Those people that you stay up with until the sun rises talking about books or politics or music or whatever. Love. Loss. Love again. And you love them. Profoundly. And then their lives take a turn, or your life takes a turn, and they slip into the wide world and do not look back.

All you have then is a story.

The fact is, the world is filled with deeply interesting and broken and brave people. I have never turned anyone I’ve met into a character in my book. But I have honed in on the strange gifts of Self that people offer to me. I have kept little bits with me from my conversations and connections that never go away. For example: Once, when I was in my early twenties, I worked at a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon. It was a great job for an insomniac because I had to be there at quarter to five in the morning, when I was already up and fussing, and it gave me something else to fuss about. And I met a lot of interesting people in that job. For example:

The city inspector who would get really mad when people would ask if that little child was his granddaughter. He was sixty. His wife was twenty five. Every time someone said “granddaughter” his face would go red and his lips would suck in and he would hit the nearest table with his fist.

The lady who insisted that we call her “Mrs. Q” – I never learned her actual name. She was incredibly old – a body diminished to sticks and feathers and rice-paper skin. She had deep folds above her copper-colored eyes. She came in every day for a decaf latte that she would never finish. And every day, she would take out a yellowed sketch book. She never drew. She just looked at the pictures. I never knew why.

The guy who sold his zine (remember zines?) every Saturday from one of the back tables. No one bought them, so he started handing them out for free. He had been born a girl, and his wife had stayed with him loved him through his transition. I had never met a transgendered person before, though I know many now. I remember reading his zine – and he was very frank in his discussion of the trans experience, as well as his call for trans acceptance and the rights of all individuals across the gender spectrum – with a hunger for understanding. It’s not every day that someone gives you an open door to their experience, you know? He loved old band tee-shirts and he had very small feet, but large hands. He also had begun to lose his hair – an effect of hormones, he told me. “You don’t know before you start all this if you’re the guy who’s gonna go bald,” he said sadly, running his hand through his thinning hair. I told him it made him look distinguished. And I meant it.

And Horst. Oh, Horst! I’m pretty sure he was in the country illegally. He had been a student at the University of Oregon, but that didn’t work out, so he moved north to Portland. He always paid in cash, and said he avoided bars because he “didn’t believe in photo identification”. Horst was in his late twenties – blond, tall and narrowly built. He had high cheekbones and profoundly blue eyes. He asked me out every single day. Sometimes more than once a day. He knew I had a boyfriend (though I never said boyfriend. I said partner, because we were modern and forward in our thinking. And then people played the pronoun game, trying to pin me down as to which kind of partner I had exactly.). Horst was always cheerful about his lack of chances. “Make sure to tell me the second you’re single,” he’d say, giving a gentlemanly bow. The last time I saw him, it was December, 1998. I was twenty-five and recently pregnant, though I didn’t know it yet. Horst shows up in a long wool coat, covered, I remember, with tiny drops of rain, each shining like a jewel. He removed his hat. He had a purple, handmade scarf wound many times around his neck, and his face was so pale, as though he was made out of milk. He bowed again.

“I must bid you farewell, dear lady,” he said. He was always talking like that.

“Where are you going?” I said.

“I am taking my Volkswagon and traveling the width and breadth of you nation. By this time next year, I will be taking up residence in the desert, where I will prepare for Y-2k.”

There were a lot of these in Oregon at the time. Doomsdayers. Survivalists. My partner-soon-husband had just gotten a job with the city helping them with Y-2k readiness. People thought their microwaves would explode and their computers would melt, and that there would be utter anarchy.

“Why do you need to be in the desert to prepare for Y-2k?” I asked.

“You see, dearest,” he said, “we are entering a new phase of the human experiment. Currency as we know it will cease to exist. And good riddance. Numbers as we understand them will also cease to have meaning. Good riddance to that as well, I say. We are entering a time that we have been destined to enter since we first climbed out of the trees and learned to work together. Kindness will be our currency. Love will be our numbers. And an age of blessed one-ness will descend upon us all like sunshine.”

“Really?” I said.

“Most definitely,” he said.

“And the desert . . .”

“Oh,” he said with a casual wave. “I just like it.”

And then he bought a cup of chamomile tea. He paid for it in cash. And he foisted a fifty dollar bill in my hand as a tip. “Make sure you spend it this year, though,” he said. “It will just be paper soon.”

 

I have never put Horst in a story. But I think about him all the time. And I like to think that he is in the desert somewhere, staying in an old trailer, or a small cottage atop a small rise so he has an unobstructed view. And I like to think that he still has that scarf because the desert gets cold at night. And I like to think that he is paying for things in kindness. Because he is kind. And why not? And I like to think that he is meeting people and talking to people and that they are creating and storing stories of their own. That Horst exists in the narratives of people all over the country. And that he is everywhere. Perhaps in a story that you are writing, right now.

 

 

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“My god, Bones. What have I done?”

 

I woke up this morning and discovered there was no tea.

And then I remembered that there wasn’t any tea by ten o’clock yesterday morning and I had intended to go to the store. And I forgot to do it. And not I am standing in the kitchen and my world is like this:

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I had a thing I wanted to blog about, but I can’t remember what it was because I don’t have any tea and oh god, oh god, oh god.

If any of you are able to beam me some caffeine, I would appreciate it.

Love forever,

Kelly Barnhill

BEA, Kids Author Carnival, and other items of note.

The sky outside has been promising rain for over an hour, which means that I have been delaying my run. It still hasn’t rained. It still wants too. And since I’ve already cleaned, I suppose I should actually try to write something. Actually, this is perfect writing weather – the creek flows, swollen and fast, just beyond rim of my yard. And the world between my window and the water is green, green, green, green. You’ve never seen anything so green. The sticky buds of the crabapple tree have finally burst, and the small leaves are shiny and supple and new.

Is there anything more beautiful than Minnesota in spring? I don’t think there is.

Anyway. Items of business. There are many, so I think I shall number them.

  1. IRON HEARTED VIOLET HAS BEEN RELEASED IN PAPERBACK!  51OdR1F9bDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I know. This is old news. But I got out of the habit of blogging, and I managed to not say it here. But I should say it, because, VIOLET! And DEMETRIUS! and THE DRAGON! And NOD and MOTH and AUNTIE and even CASSIAN! I have missed them, I really have. It’s a funny thing, living with characters for months and months and even years. You inhabit their skins, you hold their beating hearts in your hands. You know them by touch, by smell, by taste, by sound. You know them better than you know yourself. And then you put them in a paper boat and launch them into the river and pray they make it safely to the Sea. I loved them. I will never touch them again. That is one of the many tragedies of authorship. (Well, that and all the cigarettes and jazz and liquor and bad dates with Hemingway and the general Loose Living of the Author’s Lifestyle.) (I’m just kidding.)

    (Note: My life is not like this at all. But it is totally what I thought my author's life would be when I was a dreamy eighteen year old.)

    (Note: My life is not like this at all. But it is totally what I thought my author’s life would be when I was a dreamy eighteen year old.)

  2. First Book! On Wednesday and Thursday, I’ll be at Northport Elementary School, as part of First Book. If you don’t know this organization, you really should. They provide books to children in need, and partner with local companies to bring literacy volunteers to read with kids. One of the hard truths about kids in poverty is that their access to books is severely limited. Add to that the fact that they aren’t read to nearly as often as their more monied classmates (which is perfectly understandable when parents are working three or four jobs just to keep the lights on), which means that kids in poverty are often coming into Kindergarten with a language deficit – a 2000-word vocabulary, as opposed to a nearly 7000 word vocabulary for kids in the middle classes. Having better access to books is vitally important, and I am so thrilled to be partnering with this fine organization. I used to teach at a school in which 92% of our kids were over the poverty line, and later was a GED teacher for homeless youth, so this really feels like the different threads of my life are coming together. On Wednesday, I’ll be doing writing workshops with the kids, and talking about the writer’s life (see above), and on Thursday, I’ll be jazzing up the volunteers. Should be fun! br0057cs
  3. BEA! I’m going! I’m terribly excited, of course. I’ve never been, and from what I understand, it is something similar to being called to the Mother Ship. My new book, The Witch’s Boy, was selected as a feature for the “Buzz Forums” at BEA this year.  I had never heard of this, because I live under a rock, but my friends in the know assured me that this was a Big Deal. In any case, I’m super excited to go. And now I have to figure out how to do this thing without making a total fool of myself. If you are planning on being there, you should come and see me. I’ll be signing too, so you can stop by the Algonquin booth and find me there, but seriously, you guys? I could really use a friendly face or two in the crowd at the buzz panel. Stop by if you can!BEA_logo_starburst
  4. THE KIDS AUTHOR CARNIVAL! Seriously, how the heck did I end up on this lineup. This is insane! And wondrous. As an advocate for children’s literature and a reader of children’s literature and a sharer of children’s literature and a writer of children’s literature, I think this is just the greatest thing ever. Saturday, May 31. You’re coming, aren’t you? WELL, AREN’T YOU??? UPDATEDflyer_onesheet
  5. And lastly! My book doesn’t come out for quite a while, but the first blog review has been posted. And she wrote an Ode. AN ODE! It did indeed warm the cockles of my cold, cold, heart. The first professional review goes live on Wednesday (I think), so expect a link. But in the meantime, you can read this one. She sure was nice to my dear Ned and Aine. 

 

And that is it, my dears. It is time for me to dive back into THE SUGAR HOUSE. Beautiful Miss Lacy will get more spidery, and awful Mrs. Otterholt will get more goddessy, and all the while poor, beleaguered Nate will have to figure out how to do right without getting himself into more trouble. What are you working on today?

One More Thing About Teaching . . . the side benefits.

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I’ve been doing fiction workshops in schools for a bunch of years now, and one would think that I would have made it easier on myself by creating a bunch of fairly standardized lesson plans so I wasn’t having to make it up as I went along every dang time. Alas, if one should think such a thing, one would think wrong. I’m not much of a planner as a general rule. When I shoot, I shoot from the hip. Every time I organize a workshop, I re-invent the whole thing. It’s the only thing I know how to do.

This year, I decided to teach the kids about story structure – cause/effect, three-act, non-linear, etc. I had them plan out the stories they had started, starting with fleshing out their main characters, identifying the central problem and mapping out what was going to happen in the beginning section, the middle section and the end.

To demonstrate what I wanted them to do, I pulled out the longhand manuscript of my new WIP, called The Sugar House, and did my own story plan on the white board. So as they were planning out their stories, so I was planning out my own. And talking about my own. And wrestling out loud.

And here’s the thing about spending time with third and fourth graders. They are incredibly encouraging.

“Wait,” one boy said, after I had written the central problem for The Sugar House on the Smartboard and was waiting for the kids to write down their own. “Is that book out?”

“Which book?” I asked.

“That one,” he said, pointing to the notebook in my hand.

“Oh,” I said, “No. As you can see, I’ve just hit the 150 page mark in my notebook, and I’ve run out of space. So now I’m going to start transferring it into my computer, expanding the details, and do fussy little things like work out the ending.”

“Oh,” the boy said.

Later as I wrote out the main events – beginning, middle and end – for The Sugar House as a demonstration, and waited for the kids to write their own, the same boy raised his hand.

“Well,” he said. “It looks like you did it.”

“Did what?” I asked.

“Worked out the end. Right there. ‘Nate and Mrs. Otterholt save the day even though they still hate each other’s guts.’ That’s a GREAT ending.” He smiled encouragingly.

“Well,” I said. “Thank you. I actually haven’t gotten that far yet in the actual narration, but I’m pretty sure that’s how it will end. I’m glad you like it.”

He paused. Raised his hand again.

“So,” he said. “It’s coming out, like, next month maybe?”

“No darling,” I said. “But I’ll let you know when it does.”

“Good,” he said. “Because I can already tell it’s my favorite book.”

 

And that’s what it’s like with these kids. I read them sections from The Witch’s Boy and they tell me it is their new favorite. I read them sections from other books that I love – Winter of the Robots, Breadcrumbs, Goblin SecretsThe Thirteen Clocks and they tell me those are their favorite books too. They stand up when I walk by to give me a hug. They ask me to autograph random scraps of paper which they shove in their pockets, lose, and then ask again the next day.

I have spent the last year staring at my manuscript in a state of utter fear – writing, erasing, writing, erasing – wondering why I do this job at all, wondering why I scribble words just to pronounce them failures and kill them forever. Wondering how I could ever hope to do right by these characters whom I love so very much.

And then I go to a classroom. And I share my characters with kids. And the kids love them as much as I do. This right here – this is why I teach. I teach to remind myself why I write, and I write to have the opportunity to connect with the kids I teach. The two are connected. And it’s only when I’m in the classroom, that I can feel that connection in my bones.

Time to get back to class. I hope everyone has a wonderful Friday!

This is the Work You Were Born For: some thoughts on teaching kids the practice of Story

 

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Good grief. I haven’t blogged in over a month. What on earth have I been doing?

(actually I know exactly what I’ve been doing, and I’ll get into that in another post. right now I have important things to discuss with you. ahem.)

Anyway, once again I am spending a week with some amazing third and fourth grade students at Chanhassen Elementary. I’ve been doing this same residency for a number of years now, through my work with COMPAS, a statewide community arts program, and every year I am stunned by the brains of elementary school kids.

They are philosophers, these kids. They are scholars. They are giant hearts with legs. They are analysts. They are deep thinkers. They are Big-Idea-Types. 

One of the things that I do at the beginning of the residency, and I feel this is vitally important, is I get the kids all jazzed up about writing stories by talking to them a bit about why we tell stories at all. Because they all know stories – of course they do. They read them and listen to them and watch them on television. They act them out. They observe them in photography and sculpture and paintings. They watch high drama unfold every day in the casual gestures of their parents or the overheard side commentaries of their classmates in the hall. These kids are always engaged in Story.

So I tell them stuff about stories. Big stuff. Broad stuff. Big Idea stuff.

“The act of making a story is not the words you write on the page,” I tell them. “When we write the words on the page, we’re just making a pathway for the reader, and a pathway for ourselves, to journey toward the story. The story, you see, is separate. It is a prize waiting at the center of the universe of your brain, and only you can take us to see it.”

Stuff like that. They eat it up, these kids.

“Stories,” I tell them, “are uniquely human. When we write a story or think a story or tell a story or listen to a story, we are connecting ourselves to every other human being who has ever written or thought or told or listened to a story. We are connecting ourselves to the larger human family.”

I tell them this, and they are itchy to start. I can see it in their hands – the way they hold their pencils.

“Human beings,” I tell them, “have told stories even before they had language. At first they told stories through song, through dance, and through rhythm. They made pictures in the mud. They painted on caves. They invented language to be able tell stories more effectively and efficiently.”

This blows their minds, actually. I can see it on their faces. I have to work pretty hard at the beginning of the class to catch all their attention in my little butterfly net and hold them close to me, but at this point, I could stand perfectly still, and each one of my little butterflies would simply cling to my hands and arms and eyes. They don’t fly away. The kids hold their breath. I hold my breath. This is my favorite part, I think.

“Telling stories is your birthright, folks.” This is true, you know. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it. “This idea. This story in your head. These words that are about to pour like water out of your giant-bucket brains and onto the page. You were born to do this work.

And then they do. With gusto.

So far, I have gotten stories of hidden super powers and stories of kidnapped parents and stories of hidden treasure and stories of mad scientists who only wanted to find a way to make their teeth stop hurting. There have been friendly bears, wicked giants, dragon librarians, stealthy spies and a boy who becomes King of Poopland. I’ve gotten stories about a best-friend-zombie and a best-friend-talking-bunny and a best-friend-ogre and a best-friend-robot. I’ve gotten stories about a mall full of people suddenly possessed by ghosts and two sworn frenemies who are the only ones who can fix the situation. I’ve gotten stories about parents who download an app and then their children disappear.

So many stories.

And it’s good for me, even though it wears me out – the driving, the teaching, the geyser of enthusiasm that pours out of me every class period and with every interaction with students. It’s tough on an introvert. Necessary, yes, but tough. My family has been most attentive and sweet when I come home. But still, I love doing it because, even as it depletes me, it fills me up at the same time. Standing in a room full of thirty kids all attacking their pages at once, writing furiously as though chasing their stories down like bison on the plain? Well. As I pour, so am I filled. It’s amazing. And bearing witness to the raw enthusiasm from these kids, their joyful chase of the stories in the bright Universes of their brains, that I, too, am born to do this work – this teaching, this writing, this sharing of stories. And that it matters, you know?

The story matters. The telling matters. The sharing matters. The reading matters. It all matters.

It’s nice to be reminded.

 

I have more to say, of course, and some Very Cool Stuff About Various Books to share with all of you, but that will have to wait until tomorrow. I gotta go get ready for class.

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