I’ve been getting together with a group of fellow children’s book authors for more than ten years. At first, we took a long weekend from our crowded lives to write, write, write–and read our writing to each other and discuss delicious books we’d read and also talk about each other’s work.
Then we started taking a whole week and sharing the cooking, too. This year, we cooked on this old stove. I made bread when it was my turn. It reminded me of my mom pulling crusty, steamy loaves of bread from the wood-burning fireplace in Maji, Ethiopia. That was always quite a production–needing to push small sticks in and nudge them out until the temperature got right enough for bread. Mom would mix in a little white flour that came from Addis Ababa but mostly use the flour ground down at the mill my dad installed at the foot of one of Maji’s magnificent waterfalls (using a book to figure out how to do it).
Walking always jogs new ideas loose when I’m stuck, stuck, stuck. This time, I got to walk down these stairs to the beach. Water loosens ideas, too. Walking by the water in the beautiful Massachusetts air was satisfyingly wonderful for my work in progress.
Being on retreat was perfect this year. I spend so much time thinking about Ethiopia Reads and (recently) about how to find the right pieces of furniture for the new house. We want them to be lovely…inexpensive…and to fit neatly right in the small spaces we have available.
Can anyone say Craigslist?
Any artist has to find spaces–claimed from the roly poly tumble bumble routine of life–to do the work. Doing it with friends is a sumptuous pleasure. Doing it in the Boston area is extra pleasurable for me because that’s where Jim taught me how to pay attention to birds when I was working on Lanie’s story.
With all the agonizingly hard effort and disappointment and stretch of writing a novel or picture book, it’s sometimes frustrating to me that readers, who also have to take time from the roly poly tumble bumble routine of life to be good readers, sometimes get careless and distracted.
We felt immersed in the National Book Award mess because Franny Billingsley, who goes on our retreat, had just gotten flipped by the most unfortunate of human errors. When her book title was read aloud to those making the public announcements about the National Book Award finalists, the title of another book was heard–and announced. Before the sorting was done, the error had caused lots of hurt and lots of flap…not good for the serenity needed for writing and revising.
To my irritation, I later read a brief magazine article that summed things up this way: “They belatedly nominated Franny Billingsley’s CHIME (about a teenage witch) instead.”
No way does that parenthetical bit capture Franny’s book, which is about a girl who can hear the Old Ones who whisper in the swamps and are longing to not have their waters drained by the coming of modernity, a girl who has accepted terrible truths about herself and turned them into self-loathing, a girl who has started to courageously ask what’s true. It doesn’t capture the delicious sentences and words of CHIME, the way Franny cares intensely about the musicality and craft of language.
On November 16, the National Book Award winners will be announced. I will listen and remember sitting around this thick table, eating thick bread slices, having nourishing conversations, loving the community that keeps us going on this hard path.
Thank goodness for readers who care as much as writers about the satisfying thwuck of words on a page and for characters who seem so real–so having opened their fragile innards to you–that you close the book and imagine that when you step outside the door, you’ll see them.