Tag Archives: writing

Never Too Old for Back-to-School

It’s Back-to-School month for many students, teachers, librarians, and parents. Summer is at its peak, and yet the supermarket aisles are filled with crayons and notebooks and lunch boxes. It’s time to get back to the business of learning.

As authors, we never stop learning, really. At least we shouldn’t. Even though I teach workshops about writing, mentor new writers, and critique others’ work, I still seek out opportunities to learn from those who paved this road I’m lucky to travel.

The best teachers are perpetual students. I believe that with all my heart.

Walking with Jane Yolen at her home, Phoenix Farm, during Picture Book Boot Camp last spring.

It’s important for authors to look for learning opportunities and find ways around all the reasons why we can’t pursue them.  Too far, too expensive, too time consuming, maybe in a few years. Of course, some of those are valid reasons, and no one can do everything their heart desires, but if each of us sought out one mentor encounter a year — attended a lecture, went to a book signing, signed up for an advanced workshop — all opportunity would not be lost on “maybe next year.”

Have you ever been in the presence of someone and I thought, “This is golden. I need to remember everything about this moment?” I look for moments like that. Sometimes I find them among hundreds of people in an auditorium, listening to a speaker. Sometimes, it’s just me, face-to-face with a beloved author, feeling the warmth of their handshake and trying desperately to form words in my mouth that make it sound like I made it past third grade.  That was me at this moment:

Standing on Ashley Bryan‘s front step, Little Cranberry Island, Maine, June 2015.

Here in rural Ohio, I don’t exactly live in a literary hotbed. But, I do live within driving distance to The Mazza Museum, the country’s largest collection of art from children’s literature. I’ve made the trip there to hear dozens of authors and illustrators speak. I’ve sat mesmerized by Tony Abbott, had a conversation with Gary Schmidt. and listened intently to Michael Buckley.

Last winter I drove two hours in the other direction to hear what Kwame Alexander had to say, and one piece of advice he gave the audience made a beeline to my brain and has changed the way I think. “Say yes,” he said. Be that person that says, “YES!” to opportunities.

So what Back-to-School opportunities will our Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors bloggers say “YES!” to this year?  Maybe sign up for that amazing out-of-state-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Take a road trip to hear someone speak?  Attend a presentation at your local bookseller? Listen to a podcast?  Read that craft book on writing you’ve been putting off reading – you know, the one everyone says is “magical?”

It’s time. It’s time to get back to school.

How Travel Opens Our Writing Eyes

Writers definitely like their routines. Coffee, tea, a specific playlist, a brisk morning walk — whatever it is, we all seem to have something (or many somethings) we do regularly before we sit down to write.

There’s no doubt that routines can be helpful, especially for writers who tend to procrastinate. But recently, a writer friend who returned from a few weeks of travel to different locales remarked how stimulating the travel had been for her writing brain. It opened up her eyes, she said. Getting out of her usual routine made her think and see differently, and she came home with a new perspective on her work-in-progress.

And I thought, duh. Routines can easily turn into ruts for writers who work every day in the same place and at the same time, whether it’s at home, the neighborhood coffee shop, or that one corner cubicle at the library. Routines can drive and comfort writers but also can sometimes stifle creativity.

Travel, as my friend discovered, can open our eyes and writing brains to all sorts of possibilities.

First, of course, there’s setting. Being in a different place can generate all sorts of ideas for new and unique settings. When I travel, I love to look at big things like monuments and skyscrapers and oceans, but also small things, like how cobblestones are arranged on a street and the way people plant their gardens or what kind of curtains adorn the windows of an interesting looking house. And be honest, doesn’t an old, abandoned barn just beg to have you imagine its past?

Travel can provide numerous opportunities for developing unique characters with diverse backgrounds. Like many writers, I watch people wherever I go — their mannerisms, clothing, hairstyles, expressions, accents. I love observing people in line to buy hot dogs in New York, or a brother and sister building a sand castle on a beach, or an older couple holding hands on a park bench. I imagine their stories. I imagine how I would write their stories.

And dialogue! Travel gives a writer the chance to listen to people you might never hear again. Years ago, I took a summer class at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. One of our assignments was to sit outside for an hour and write down snippets of overheard dialogue. That was the best possible exercise in learning to write realistic, believable dialogue. I still do it sometimes, especially when I travel. I love hearing the flavor of another place through both natives and tourists. One line spoken by a passer-by can generate countless imaginary ideas!

Finally, traveling and getting out of a writing routine can make you remember to take risks and have fun! Sticking to a routine and having daily writing goals can sometimes make writers forget that all-important element of enjoying and having fun with your work. Traveling turns routines upside-down, and the unexpected, unpredictable places you go and people who cross your path will undoubtedly give you fresh, novel ideas. Even if you’re just going to a different coffee shop.

Defining Magical Realism

I want to talk about magical realism, the genre that confounds so many authors and excites so many readers, publishers, and agents. What exactly is it, and equally important, what exactly is it not?

Perhaps the word “exact” is misleading, since “exact” is hard to pin down in this genre. The basic definition of magical realism is that it’s literary fiction grounded in reality – with elements of magic. But. There are conditions to that magic.

The magic in magical realism is characterized by the very real role it plays in the characters’ lives. Supernatural events are often so much a part of their world that they go unnoticed or unremarked. And if they are acknowledged, it is not with a sense of unfamiliar wonder or questioning, but rather an acceptance of this reality in life. A common example of this mystical-as-mundane phenomenon is in One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Ghosts are a common and accepted presence in this saga of a family and a town whose story parallels that of the emergence of modern, independent Columbia. In other genres, the ghosts would be identified, investigated, discussed, possibly feared. But in 100 Years, the ghosts are simply accommodated without any fanfare.

In Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel, Tita is born in a river of tears that literally floods the kitchen – a moment of extreme magic that is told with a perfectly straight face.

This distinction – that these mystical elements are a part of everyday life – is critical to understanding what the genre is and also what it is not.

Why do we care? Because of late, the publishing/writing community has allowed its definition to drift and encompass all realistic fiction laced with a dash of subtle magic. For example, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me definitely has magic. But the stunning story of Miranda, some mysterious letters, and the laughing man on her New York City street is not magical realism. The same with Ask the Passengers, by A.S. King. Astrid, who’s struggling to define herself on her own terms, sends love to the passengers in the planes that fly above her. But Astrid never realizes she occasionally creates magic in the passengers’ lives, and never examines these supernatural events.The reason this still isn’t magical realism? The magic isn’t happening to her or her community and isn’t a natural part of the perspective of her culture.

So why does this matter? Isn’t it enough to acknowledge that there are many ways to embrace the fantastic in our fiction?

It matters because in addition to its unique structure, magical realism has important cultural significance. The literary giants who shaped and breathed life into this genre were Latin American – Isabelle Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They wrote about surviving colonialism and a culture of oppression. Weaving magic through their stories accented their despair and was key to surviving and interpreting a world more destructive than nurturing.

The fact that magical realism is grounded in this history doesn’t exclude non-Latin cultures from writing it. But it’s vital we remember that the genre evolved as an art form that could explore and cope with oppression. Threading touches of magic or even outright in-your-face magic through a contemporary story about non-oppressed cultures is not magical realism.

I love this quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez from an interview in the New York Times from 1982, when he was preparing his speech to accept the Nobel Prize: “It has to be a political speech presented as literature.” Pretty much sums it all up.

Want to read more modern magical realism? Try Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers or Nove Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us.