Archive for October, 2012

Despair and soaring joy


Every artist feels it, I’m pretty sure.  My feelings about the novel I’m finishing up have zinged all over the place.

Now that I finally know what I want in each of my chapters, though, I can work any time and any place, including this chair in a hotel in Albuquerque last week.

“You write children’s books?” people say to me.  That has to be incredibly fun.

Recently, someone added, “Lucky you.”

Yes.  And no.  So much of art is out of our control…comes swimming up from some odd and mysterious place…refuses to become what it needs to be.

It’s been almost three years since my last two novels for young readers came out.  Granted, Lanie did make quite a splash.  Any American Girl Doll of the Year has instant fans.

So it was a tiny bit distracting to travel around and do book signings–including this one when I won the Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota.  But it also made me long to write another book for that age of reader.

Why couldn’t I simply sit down and do it?

Sometimes I was distracted by the fun of volunteering for Ethiopia Reads (

And the book’s schedule wasn’t always in my hands.

But the main thing is that  it’s simply flat-out hard and failure-making hammering out a compelling work of fiction.




At the recent writing retreat, I realized that I had left some of the scaffolding hanging around from various drafts.


I’ve never had quite such a vivid experience of the well-worn advice to “murder your darlings.”


But this week…deep satisfaction. Soaring joy in the work itself.  And a lot of memories of different places where I wrote and revised.

Lucky me.



The myth of the solitary artistic genius and me

All the published authors I know are introverts.

One of my friends was talking about being part of an incoming class in the Vermont College MFA in children’s writing.  At the get-to-know-you session, people were asked to move here and there in the room depending on such things as where in the world they live…or whether they write YA or picture books…or whether they are introverts or extroverts.  With the last question, she said, the room almost tilted as people moved to the INTROVERT side.

When I put together my last VCMFA lecture on the lizard brain struggles of artists–and how to use insights from our own insecurities and fears in our writing–this is one thing I talked about.  A recent visiting author, who used to teach at Vermont College, said she started every residency loving everyone but by the middle of the 10-day residency, her “black Irish heart” would take over.

It’s hard to be an introvert, squeezed together with other introverts, and not feel the beating of one’s black Irish heart.

That’s why it’s so amazing to be part of my beloved annual writing retreat.  The generosity and warmth and laughter and smart conversation are something that sustains my work and something I yearn for all the rest of the year.  And this year was expecially amazingly wonderful because I went into the week feeling despair about my novel for young readers and where I am in the draft and came out in love with it again.

I had the chance to read the whole thing aloud to a fellow writer and illustrator and hear where she was confused…where she laughed…where she said “I love it; don’t change a word”…where she said, “You’re not yet having the effect you want.”

She was painting this retreat.  I got the idea of asking her if she’d be willing to listen because of another artist pairing of a writer and a painter.  It turned out to be exactly what I needed.  And she was only the latest person from this group to give me the gift of listening and reading.  The gift of warm but ferocious feedback.

Yes, art is often made in silence, humans walking that lonesome valley all by themselves.  But not always.  Sometimes we wrestle with the joys and terrors of collaboration and of what it means to have and maintain a team.

It takes generosity of spirit.

It takes people who are willing to mentor and people who are eager to be lifelong students.

When I saw this picture of Ethiopian artists working with the young children at one of the Ethiopia Reads schools in Addis Ababa–in probably the most crowded and dangerous part of that big city–I thought about how much the human community gains when we can dance together in the deep play of art.

Perhaps there are solitary geniuses in this world who can write a stunningly wonderful novel without ever venturing out of the playgrounds in their own brains.  I can’t.  I need a team.

Lucky me that I have one.  Last week in this place will warm me through many solitary days.

Revision…and appetite…and bring on the chickens.

Revision time.

I am in Boston on the edge of my annual writing retreat…it’s shocking to think that this group has been getting together for something like seventeen years.  Our lives, our writing, our despairs, our soaring bits…they are woven together.  Nancy Werlin and I went to Dian Curtis Regan’s wedding in Colorado Springs this summer, for example.  And now we’re together as our writer selves.

We are ready to talk (or I am, anyway) about chickens and how they fit or don’t fit into our scenes.  We are ready (or I am, anyway) to revise.


I used to hate it.

Sometimes I still do.

But sometimes I love the process of cutting and chopping and mixing and tasting and sampling and tossing things out and moving things around.

Adding a shake of a spice here and a little crunch there.

One of my favorite books talks about revision in terms of appetite.  We have some vague understanding of our readers’ appetite for a bit of color here and a change of pace there and some tension or some laughter.  Ingredients.

We sample and taste and say, “Hmmm.  Needs something.”  We try something new.  We sample and taste again.

Sometimes we ask our skilled reader friends to take a taste.

The Vermont College MFA program where I teach understands the power of good readers who will talk about what’s happening to them as they read our words–the movies in their mind, as one writing guru puts it.

And now I get to be student…of my own writing–for at least a week.

It’s exciting.  When kids ask me, “Who’s your favorite author?” I talk about this group of writers.  Generous.  Warm.  Funny.  Tough.

When I was a kid growing up in Ethiopia and going to a small school, I never met any authors.  I never even thought about the authors of the books I loved.  And now I get to learn from authors.


Bring on the despair.  And the joy.  And the chickens.

Building in Ethiopia…buildings, communities, friendships

I’m thinking today of my friend Liz who adopted a child from Ethiopia and ended up with a whole new life handed to her.  Or maybe she grabbed it.  When I first met her, she had decided she needed to bring clean water to the area where her son was born.  The amount she had to raise felt astonishingly big to me.  But she did it…and every time I checked in with her, she was still having fun.

Today, she’s running as part of a triathalon.   This time, her goal is to build a library.

I never, ever thought I’d be involved in a project that actually built things in Ethiopia.  Probably Liz never did, either.  But consider the story of a young man–now in graduate studies in Washington DC–who was one of the first youngsters in his area to get a chance at higher education.  When he came home on breaks, he said, boys clustered to ask how he did it.  He would hand out books and other print resources and say, “Don’t return them to me–pass them on to someone else.”

The library was his dream.  We’re piling on.  Thus reading ripples…as the reading of TROUBLE rippled from the Boston event Liz and I were part of together.

Today Liz is running to finish Habtamu’s dream of building a library in his home town.  She wrote this:

“Mudula, Ethiopia is located in rural mountainous area in the southwestern part of the country. It is the largest town in a district of over 100,000 people. There is no public library in the area and few books in existing schools.

Degale Library is named in honor of the 600 year old fig tree
that stands majestically in the center of the market area and has been a
cultural and spiritual symbol for centuries.”  Fig trees and big ideas stand.

Degale Library will be part of six building projects Ethiopia Reads ( is overseeing in that rural part of Ethiopia.  The young American volunteer who supervised the building of the first wrote this recently:

On April 20th the Kololo community and Ethiopia Reads celebrated the completion of the Kololo school.  After nearly six months of swinging, lifting, mixing and slathering mud, painting and cleaning, the school’s construction was finished. The school’s furniture for each the structure’s eight rooms was delivered by the end of June.   Teacher and librarian training began this summer, and with full support from the local government, so school could begin this fall.

For the last week of March and the first of April we lacked sufficient funding to pay workers their weekly salary.  The community trusted Ijigu and me at this point, and had no problem continuing work under an I.O.U. program.  Hours were carefully noted, and when the final installment arrived we paid all of the workers in a lump sum.  A really beautiful moment occurred when five of the workers told Ijigu and me that they were working as volunteers, because they cared about their community’s future, not in hopes of being paid.  Five workers felt so strong that they declined payment for their hard work. (It took some doing, but we found a way to get each of the five to accept.)

On April 20th the school was complete.  There were a few unfinished projects (the bridges needed to dry and be hoisted into position, window putty was not fully complete, and the bathroom needed a small bit of work.  The same five workers told Ijigu and I that they would relish the opportunity to finish the build in the next couple days on their own).  That evening we held a sizable party to celebrate the community’s hard work. Approximately 150 or so people showed up and we had a wonderful time. Community members shared funny stories and told jokes of their new ferenji family. The evening finished with a gift giving ceremony for the five standout workers, and drinks of local brew with village elders.  The night’s activities made for very pleasant last sleep over in Kololo.

The last month of work was an excellent showing on the part of project management, particularly regarding personnel management.  Salamnesh, Gazan, and Temesgin assisted Ijigu and me in managing the workers as they put the finishing touches on the school. The final pours went well, the doors and window glass fit perfectly in all but 2 of the 43 pieces, the last bit of touch up paint went well, as well as a variety of other tasks.  The school came together beautifully,  The community is very proud of themselves, as they should be for completing such a monumental task.Build on.