Writing Process Blog Tour (#MyWritingProcess)

Well, it’s finally happened: my blog has been memed. (Can meme be a verb? And if so, is it transitive or intransitive? And is it irregular?)

Anyway. I have been tagged by the prodigiously esteemable Mr. William Alexander, author of Fine Fictions and Sundry Stories, and an all-around Fine Fellow. You can read about his process here. You can also browse his books – the National Book Award winning GOBLIN SECRETS , for example.

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If you haven’t read it, I insist you do so instantly. It is a wondrous strange little beauty, filled with intricate machines, beautiful baubles bent on your destruction, bravery, loyalty and dread. I just loved it. He writes short stories as well, and I’m always happy to encounter a new one. His new book is this:

 

17571252Middle grade science fiction in the vein of A Wrinkle in Time? Great Scott. Sign me up.

And since this is a meme, which means that I must pass it on like a game of Hot Potato, I do hereby name Mr. Steve Brezenoff, a writer whose books are both incisive and compassionate, who balances the highbrow and the lowbrow with deft skill and ease, and who manages to force us to remember the ache and confusion and agony of the teen experience while reminding us of the joy as well. His newest book is Guy in Real Life, and I insist that you read it at once.

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Anyway. The meme. I hope it makes sense. If not, don’t worry about it. I rarely make much sense.

Question the First:

What Are You Working on Right Now?

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Several things. My editor has a copy of my new book, The Boy Who Loved Birds, on her desk right now, and I am in a place of restless waiting for notes. This is a common phenomenon for writers: restless waiting. It is, I’ve been told, particularly unattractive. Oh well. I’m also finishing up a new book called The Sugar House – a Hansel and Gretel retelling set in Minneapolis. I very much enjoyed writing it. And then I’ll write the next book called The Girl Who Drank the Moon – which has a foundling child, a mad woman in a tower, a five-hundred-year-old witch named Xan, a poetry-quoting swamp monster named Glerk and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon with delusions of grandeur (his mother, hoping to boost his self-esteem, convinced him that he was actually a Simply Enormous Dragon trapped in a land of giants). I am rather excited about it.

Question The Second:

Why Do You Write What You Write?

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You know, my husband asks me this all the time. Or more specifically: why don’t you write best selling series fiction that makes millions so we can retire and then you can hire recent graduates to crank out your novels on your behalf like James Patterson? And, to be fair, that is an excellent question. Alas, I can only write what interests me. I write strange fictions because I am interested in strange things. I endeavor to write beautifully because I delight in beautiful things. I write creepy stories because I enjoy the inward shiver of the macabre and the unsettling tale. I write stories about childhood because childhood interests me – how we become, how we find our feet, how we build ourselves into the people we will be, how we shape the world around us. I write what I write to amuse myself. I write what I write to heal myself. I write what I write as messages in a bottle to the lonely, hurting child that I used to be. I write for my kids. And my future grandkids. And the kids in the neighborhood. I write to share the oddness inside me with other people.

Sometimes I do all of these things at once.

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Question The Third:

How Does Your Work Differ From Others in its Genre?

Oh good lord. I have no idea. Honestly, the notion of genre in general makes me itchy. I don’t like putting firm categories on art, and feel frustrated with the increasing balkanization of literature. Since stories, once absorbed into the Self become part of our internal landscape and our external mapping – since they, once read, become seamlessly integrated in the mind of the reader (and I mean capital-M Mind) they are forever interacting and communicating with every other story that the reader has read. Which means that A Wrinkle in Time is in a lifelong conversation in my brain with Little Dorrit. And The Odyssey. And Anne of Green Gables. And The Sandman. If it were up to me, all fiction would simply be fiction, and that would be that.

I think I’ve digressed.

Anyway, how does my book differ from – not other books of its supposed genre but any book at all? Simple. I wrote mine. Someone else wrote theirs. When we sit down to work, we bring the particularities and peculiarities of our specific life experience. My family. My fears. My hopes. My nightmares. My faith. My loss of faith. My travels. My mental health. My obstacles. My reading life. My bare feet on the green grass and my fingertips in the warm mud and my lungs taking in the air around me and my eyes widening at each new blessed wonder. My books are different because I am different. You see?

 

Question the Fourth:

How Does Your Writing Process Work?

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Not very well, I’m afraid. I am a chronic destroyer of my own work. My newest book, The Witch’s Boy, was fully erased and given up on, I’d say eight times. I slash and I burn, and my soul burns with it. So this is how it works:

1. I get a notion of a story – sometimes it is a little knot of text that occurs to me while I’m running. Sometimes it is a very clear idea for a character. Sometimes it is a very particular moment. In any case I will will not start the story. I will just start thinking about the story. For a long time. (To put this in perspective, The Girl Who Drank The Moon – the story I’ll be starting this summer – I have been thinking about for about two years. The book I write after that – Dispatch from the Hideous Laboratories of Doctor Otto van Drecht – I’ve been thinking about for three years.)

2. I get a box. I’ll put scraps into the box from time to time – little note cards, ripped out pieces of paper, articles, pictures, bits of string that I can’t remember what I was thinking of putting it in there, but there it stays. Baubles. Notions. Knick-knacks. Whatever. Things accumulate in the box.

3. I start to write. Longhand. I am a big believer in writing longhand. The problem with this is that I am not very organized and am prone to losing said notebooks. For The Sugar House, I have lost my notebook at the playground, at my kid’s school, at a coffee shop, at the gas station and in a public restroom. Fortunately, each time I’ve lost it, I’ve found it again. So far. But the future is wide and wild and scary and anything can happen.

4. I give up on the longhand. Eventually, the story starts moving in two directions at once, and I need to fix the beginning in order to re-do the end. Or I am just moving too quickly to be able to keep up. So far, I’ve only been able to maintain my longhand-only insistence for about 3/4 of a draft. When I start to move to the computer, each section goes into depth and breadth. So fifty pages in the notebook often translates to ninety pages on the computer. Each sentence is a jumping-off point.

5. I erase everything. I give up. I wonder why I ever started writing in the first place. I say mean things to myself.

6. I confess my erasing to my writing group who tell me to knock it off already. I get back to work.

7. Steps five and six repeat a bunch of times.

8. I read the book out loud. I realize it’s not as bad as I thought. I read loudly, dramatically, and with gusto. My neighbors think I’m nuts. They are not wrong. I edit as I read. I repeat this process about ten times.

9. I send it out. And I collapse:

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10. And the process starts over.

 

 

 

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Feral Children

A typical scene on my block.

A typical scene on my block.

The other day, I had my writing group over for dinner so they could eviscerate discuss my new book The Boy Who Loved Birds, which I am still considering erasing forever. It was one of those perfect evenings in Minnesota – pleasantly warm with a gentle breeze, all blossom and fragrance and birdsong and green, green, green, green. My back yard bumps right out onto park land, so from the table on the patio, you look out onto a green slope and a green field and a tangle of woods and a swollen creek with a charming footbridge arching prettily over the water. If you look up idyllic in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure it says Kelly Barnhill’s goddamned patio.

Anyway, somewhere between the tortellini and the wine and the orange popsicles, a scene unfolded before us – familiar enough to me, but my comrades were stunned by it. A troop of shirtless boys – a couple with hand-torn strips of cloth tied around their heads in makeshift headbands – came tramping down the hill, passing by the yard and heading over to the fallen down willow tree by the water’s edge. The boys in my neighborhood call it “The Fort” or “The Village”. The girls call it “The Fairy Tree”. Obviously, the girls have the correct name, but we try not to make the boys feel bad about it.

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Two of the littler girls trailed behind. To the untrained eye, it looked like they were tagging along. For those of us in the know, it is clear that they are there to a.) be in charge and b.) collect evidence for future tattling, blackmailing or politicking. They stopped on the hill to roll down it – boys and girls together. When they got to the bottom, they stood as if this was the most normal way possible to travel downhill, and proceeded to march across the field.

“Hey kids!” I called out to them.

“Hey Kelly,” the kids called back. Or some of them did anyway. My son ignored me entirely. They tramped by and disappeared into the green.

My writing group turned to me.

“You live in a damn Norman Rockwell painting,” they said.

“Is it like this all the time?” they wondered.

And the thing is? On my block, yes. It is like this all the time. Kids wander this way and that – from back yard to tangled wood to alley to bridge to riverbank to field to garage to basement to somebody’s kitchen to back yard and back to the field. They travel on bikes, on scooters, on roller blades, on skateboards and on foot. When the field floods they bring out paddle boards or kayaks. Sometimes they try to wrestle giant carp swimming in the shallow waters covering the grass. From time to time, parents will text or call with the whereabouts of this child or that child. If I am looking for my son, for example, I’ll check with the parents across the street, and if they don’t know, I’ll ask the parents next door to them, and if they don’t know I’ll check with the family down the block, and if they don’t know, I rely on the fact that I can call out really really loud (it’s one of the perks of being a former singer – I project) and eventually my son hears me and comes home.

The kids here. They run wild. It is good that they run wild.

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“Do you want to just tell your kids that they’re not allowed to grow up to be messed up? Do you tell them look at what we have provided for you! It’s perfect!”

Unfortunately, even the most idyllic childhood doesn’t rescue us from having our own dark nights of the soul. Pain – physical, emotional, spiritual – is inevitable. We were born broken. We will die broken. We will be broken along the way. However, I like to think that this little kid paradise tucked into Minneapolis will give them something special as they muddle their way through the perils of childhoods into the skins of the men and women that they will become. I hope that the wild children that they are right now remains an essential part of who they will be. I hope that, even when they are old, that their souls are still muddy, grubby, grass-stained, sweaty, hard-muscled, bright-eyed, and still utterly, utterly wild.

One of the benefits of the feral childhood – because, let’s be clear. That’s what they have. Sure they brush their teeth when they are told and do their homework on command and clean their rooms when under duress and come in for dinner after only the seventh or eighth warning, but they are far from domesticated – is that they have this opportunity to claim the world that they inhabit. This is a powerful thing for a child – something unavailable to them when they’re at school or baseball practice or church or grandma’s house. When they roll down the hill and tramp across the field, there is no rule that they do not negotiate and agree on among themselves. There are no clocks or watches. There are no gold stars or percent marks or work books. Heck, there aren’t even shirts half the time.

In the green world, there is only now.

In the green world, there is only us.

Here are my hands, the children say. They belong to me.

Here is the grass, their voices shout. It belongs to me as well.

Here is this stick. It was made for my hands. Here are my arms. And my muscles. They were made to wave this stick around. There is no truth but motion. There is no rule but play. There is no reality outside of myself and this stick and this mud and this tree and this water and this green. This is the only world that matters. 

Here is this field they say. It belongs to us. Here is the creek. It also belongs to us. And so does the sky and everything under it. How good – how very good it is to be THIS boy. And THIS girl. This very one. 

There is no greater thing on earth than a child in motion.  Bless you, my children. Bless all of you. May you own the world forever.

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The Mountain Dew Guy, the Snickers Guy, the Hot Cheetos Guy, the Taquis Guy

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My daughter’s school, like many others, has banned the sale of junk food on the premises. This astonishes me, given that she goes to the same high school that I went to, and I can’t imagine my high school career without the rush to the pop machine after third hour in hopes that you might be able to drop your quarters in and snag a soda AND eat your lunch in the same twenty minute time-squeeze they called a lunch period.  I can’t imagine a South High experience without those gooey chocolate chip cookies that they were always selling four for a dollar, which tasted exquisite for the first bite or two, followed by a mournful compulsion, followed by nauseous regret.

I mean really, how can one experience the true euphoria of post-track-practice -high without the requisite bag of Funions or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups? Is it even possible? Kids today live lives of deprivation and woe, and I am sorry for it.

The pop machines were the first to go. The candy machines followed shortly after. And high school, for a very little while, became a very sad place.

Today, I was Target with my fourteen year old, shopping for god knows what.

“Mom,” she said. “Mom. Mom. Mom.”

“What, what, what,” I said, as I was trying to catalogue the entire contents of my fridge and pantry in my head, and plan for the meals for the next few days, and curse myself for not thinking ahead and writing out a damn list.

“Mom. Mountain Dew. It’s on sale. LET’S BUY SOME.”

I stopped in my tracks. “What are you talking about?” I asked. “You’ve never had Mountain Dew in your entire life.”

“Shows what you know,” she said. “I have it every day.”

“How?” I asked.

“The Mountain Dew Guy.”

“I hate that kid.”

“HE’S THE BEST.” She nearly shouts this. In the middle of Target. People turn and stare and wonder if my kid is crazy. Yes, I want to assure them. Very much so.

The thing is, I already knew about the Mountain Dew Guy. Ella’s spoken of him frequently. With the elimination of the vending machines in an effort to make our kids more healthy and whatever, an underground economy quickly sprung up in the halls of South High, and I’m guessing other high schools as well. A cottage industry of sorts. Or a backpack industry.

This is how it works: There are kids at school with suspiciously overstuffed backpacks. They sit down in the lunch room – or anywhere really – with the backpack sitting next to them, unzipped, the merchandise visible, but easily hidden from the adult gaze by the quick application of a math book or whatever. The independent vendors have their particular specialties. There’s the kid who sells Mountain Dew (“You want to get that right away in the morning, because it’s not cold anymore by third period,” Ella explained.). There’s the kid who sells Bugles. There’s the kid who sells Snickers. There’s the kid who sells Skittles. There’s the kid who sells protein bars. There’s the kid who sells Coca-cola. There’s the kid who sells Gatorade. Each one has a single item specialty, though there are a few who cycle through different products depending on the day.

Kids sidle up. They already know the price. Everything is one dollar. No one decided this, of course, but it is the easiest denomination to scrounge for the high school consumer. “Anyone can find a dollar,” Ella explained. “And sometimes we pool our coins together and share the Mountain Dew.” Which explains why her entire lunch table all succumbed to Strep Throat in the exact same week.

“Mountain Dew is really bad for you,” I told her. “You really shouldn’t drink it.”

“I don’t do anything else bad for me,” she countered.

“This is true,” I said, “but I’d rather you choose something good. Like French chocolate. How about you get hooked on that?”

“Is it a dollar?”

“No,” I admitted.

“Well then.”

She picked up the twenty-four pack of Mountain Dew and gave me the giganticest smile in the world – all braces and pink cheeks and hope. “Please?” she said.

“Not in a million years.”

“You’re not as nice as the Mountain Dew Guy, Mom,” Ella said, walking dejectedly behind me, appearing to all who noticed as the saddest fourteen year old in all the land. “You are not as nice at all.”

“I know, buddy,” I said.

And so afterwards I took her out for lattes. Which are somehow better for her, though I haven’t yet figured out how. Reasons, I expect. They are better because of reasons.

Regarding BEA, the Kids Author Carnival and other NYC shenanigany stuff.

This weekend, I had a whirlwind, didn’t-see-90%-of-the-people-I-hoped-too-but-still-saw-SO-MANY-GOOD-FOLKS, magnificent visit to good old New York City in order to participate in Book Expo America, or BEA for those who know the publishy-lingo. I went because my book had been chosen as a Middle Grade Buzz title, which was a huge and astonishing honor. My publisher, then, was kind enough to introduce me to lots of librarians and book sellers, and to make a goodly stack of the ARCS of THE WITCH’S BOY available for those who wished to read it before the book came out.

A lot of people wanted it, apparently, because within the hour, the goodly stack was a memory of a goodly stack and all the books were gone. This was surprising to me.

Anyway, some day soon I am going to write a love poem to my publisher, Algonquin, who is filled with wondrous, magical and fiercely intelligent people that I absolutely adored meeting and talking to and getting to know. Meeting the whole team was nothing short of a joy. Plus they made this cool poster for the books – both for kids and adults – that are coming out soon. See?

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Anyway, I am still processing much of the many wondrous conversations I had over the course of the long weekend, and I am still rather jumbled up, I’m afraid. Instead, I will have to provide a List of Highlights. Ahem:

 

1. Meeting my beloved editor, Elise Howard, for the first time.

In case you did not know, I am a giant.

In case you did not know, I am a giant.

Seriously, you guys. She is amazing. I have been telling people for the last year and a half how much I have treasured my experience at Algonquin, how my editor’s insight and intelligence and her knack of seeing not only the bones of the story, but its sinews and connective tissues – the chambers of the heart, the connections in the brain, the ineffable soul (all of it; she sees all of it) – have pushed me into a space in my writing, and a level of artistry,  that I never would have reached on my own.  And I am forever grateful. And I absolutely LOVED meeting her and hanging out and picking her brain and listening to how she works and even chatting about random things – kids, other books, goofy goings-on in NYC. The whole bit. It was most grand.

2. I lost my phone. Three times. And found my phone. Three times. Which was a blessing.

3. Bringing my husband along. I have never done this, actually. And, as it turns out, it was the first time we were away from our kids since 2003. For those of you doing the math at home, that was . . . some years ago. In any case, there is nothing like getting organized for a panel – a Buzz Panel, no less – and seeing your favorite friend in the audience.

speaking of . . .

4. THE BUZZ PANEL! It was awesome!

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Despite various snafus regarding microphones (which is why I am standing at that podium instead of facing the people I was actually talking to) we actually had a great conversation. I enjoyed the heck out of all of those people (and Rob and Kat, your books are currently being read to pieces by my kids. So.)

5. THE KIDS AUTHOR CARNIVAL! Also awesome! Thirty-seven kidlit authors and an army of bloggers and great crowds of book-loving kids! And how great was it to hang out with hordes of kids swarming the halls of the Jefferson Market Library (which, by the way, looks like Hogwarts), with a bunch of my kid-writer buds that I’ve known for months or years online, but only just got to meet in real life. This whole thing was organized by Claire LeGrand – who is just as amazing in person as she is on the page – and it was a huge success. I had no less than twenty parents come up to me and say that this MUST happen next year. And I agree.

6. Catching up with my beloved Genevieve Valentine, whose new novel, THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB (a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” story in 1920’s Manhattan) (I KNOW! I think you should read it too!) releases tomorrow.

7. LIBRARIANS! SO MANY LIBRARIANS! I met children’s librarians and teen librarians and regional librarians and school librarians and legal librarians and scholarly librarians and possibly-nefarious librarians.

(“But,” my son asked. “Were any of them ninja librarians. Or secret-super-hero librarians?” “Yes, my darling, ” I told him. “They all were.”)

8. The food! The best part of  any NYC visit is the food. And yes. I am still full.

9. The books! I have three tote bags full of books that I managed to haul all the way back home. My arms hurt. And my eyes are tired because I stayed up too late reading. There are worse problems to have.

10. Standing for an hour chatting with people at BEA, signing book after book after book until my hand started to shake, and meeting people that I have had lovely and heart-felt exchanges on Twitter, and seeing their beautiful faces and hearing their beautiful voices, and realizing that social media – despite its capacity for silliness and cruelty and infantilized blatherings posing as profound – really does bring us together. It truly, truly does. To those of you who I met for the first time, but have known for far longer than that, I’d like to say this: thank you. Thank you for stopping by. Thank you for lending me your time and your spirit. Thank you for existing in the world. Thank you for your continued conversation with me about books and culture and race and gender and childhood and teenhood and growing up. About the world and everything in it. About the universe we know and the universe beyond. Thank you so much.

Okay. Now to get back to writing. Because this book isn’t gonna write itself.