Friday, June 19, 2009

It Worked!

It worked! Benign neglect, that is. This week, while gardening, I've been mulling over characters in the historical juvenile novel that has been on hold for about 2 and 1/2 years.

I wrote the first draft about 4 years ago. Then I realized that I needed to do a lot of research for the details before I could do the re-write. For about a year I was involved in what a writing teacher (Sands Hall) has called "research rapture". I couldn't get enough information! I spent hours at the public library scanning micro films, in love with old news. I couldn't get enough of historical novels of the time, and maps and nonfictional history. When I returned to the re-write, armed with buckets of trivia, the characters started shifting around.

And then, I got stuck. I got stuck mostly on how the characters were related to each other, and therefore, how they were relating to each other. But, stuck, is stuck, (and some of those writing exercises don't really unstick you). So, instead, I worked on collection of stories (that I recently finished), hoping vaguely the juvenile novel thing would work itself out. Since this is the summer I promised to return to it, it's been at the back of my mind, while I've been catching up on house and garden projects.

Yesterday I realized that everything had fallen into place, thanks to "benign neglect" and to one pivotal character. She's not the main character, but she matters greatly to a lot of the other relationships and events of the story and how they can unfold. Let's call her "Ellie". I was so surprised to learn that Ellie is Nora's older sister and not her cousin, and how much difference that will make.

After my elated "aha" moment, I had a guilty follow-up "aha": I'm glad I didn't work on this for 2 and 1/2 years, only to find out that Ellie was the older sister, which changes so much.

Think of all the rewrites! Good "writing practice", I suppose, but I'm not sure that I would have figured it out, just revising and revising. Even when you revise, it's tempting to "make things work". This was something that had to evolve in its own way at its own pace, away from my tampering. Like friends and family, fictional characters often need their own room to unfold, and it's best to leave them alone and let them work out their lives, while keeping them in your mind and heart.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Benign Neglect

I like to garden when I'm between writing projects. While I'm writing, my gardening mode can best be described as "benign neglect". This week-end, though, I finished weeding the long rectangle in back of the house that I call the flower garden. In the middle of that rectangle are the lime tree and the tangelo tree, and I surrounded them with bark to hold back future weeds. The garden itself is filled with geraniums, cone flowers, mums, gerbera daisies, and creeping thyme in the sunny spots, and ferns, sweet woodruff, Corsican mint, and a hydrangea in the shadier spots. Yesterday I added a larkspur to a sunny corner.

Then I made my way to the front lawn. One strip of it, near the brick planter, has never been more than a mudpatch with a few grass blades. I put a hydrangea at one end, near our front steps. Today I'll fill in the rest with stepping stones.

But the curb garden is the real tribute to "benign neglect". Last year the city cut down a diseased elm tree between our house and the apartment house next door. When it was time for a replacement, my husband and I requested the new tree be planted directly in front of our house. I filled in the old plot with hardy perennials: mallow, lantana, coreopsis, cone flowers, gazanias, Spanish lavender, geraniums (again), a purple flowering bush whose name eludes me, and seeds that produced blue mystery flowers. Then I more or less forgot about them, and they are flourishing.

If only writing benefitted so well from benign neglect. Or maybe it does. More than once, I've returned to a rewrite, or simply revisited a story idea I had filed away to consider later, only to find surprising things had happened behind my back. Muddy ideas now were focused; dull characters now had life; resolutions were in sight.

Hopefully, after this gardening spree, I'll find a few such surprises when I return to my next project. Until then, the stepping stones call.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Writing Groups

It's been awhile since I've blogged, because I've been doing what I was supposed to be doing: writing.

I was re-writing a story that the picture book group I belong to critiqued just before Christmas. Members of the group write for readers under nine: picture books, stories for children's magazines, and poems for children. (Some of us write for other ages as well, but that's another matter.)

Originally I had envisioned the story as a picture book. During the December critique, it became clear that there was no story arc and the character wasn't clearly developed. For awhile, I just left it on the back burner of my mind to simmer, and I went on with the collection I recently sent out. When I returned to re-write the story for a coming meeting, it had transformed: The main character was different. The story problem was different. The context of the original story remained, but with a new slant, due to the new character and plot.

This is the way writing happens, even when you work alone: You leave a story for awhile in order to resolve a problem; all kinds of things happen behind your back. A good writing group enhances this process, though, simply because of the old adage that "two heads are better than one". (Make that six heads.) They see what you fail to see. They catch what you fail to catch. Their questions clarify places where what was in your head never made it to the page.

I can't say enough for writing groups, particularly when the members write for the same age group as your target audience. There are probably still glitches in the story that will surface at our next meeting. But each re-write brings it closer and closer to the finish line.

And, oh, what a great feeling it is, when you finally finish a story!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Midtown Wildlife

We live in Midtown, which is like a small village that has been plunked down in the heart of the city. It's about a five-minute drive to the main library, the State Capitol building, the K Street Mall, the Community Center, and all the new restaurants and lofts going up in quite modern-looking buildings. But our neighborhood is a clutch of tree-lined streets, old bungalows and Victorians homes with long yards and curbside gardens. It's about a five-minute walk to small boutiques, galleries, and sidewalk cafes. And almost any back door in Midtown opens onto a world of urbanized nature.

Let's start with the birds. I've observed jays, robins, sparrows, and finches, along with the ubiquitous crows that fly in clouds away from their roosts along 21st street in the mornings and return, cawing raucously each evening, around five p.m. Our garden seems to be home to a family of doves that coo all day long. Then there are the hummingbirds who hover over the herbs and flowers I've planted. From someone's yard nearby, I often hear a woodpecker drumming. One day, while walking Cezar, I spied a gray falcon calmly sitting on a garden fountain about a block from home. Occasionally my husband and I hear its strange shriek high above our neighborhood and hope that all the other birds have found safe cover.

The wildlife in our neighborhood doesn't stop with birds. I've awakened to Cezar's growls at night and peered out our back window to see possoms poking and scratching through our lawn. One evening I saw two raccoons on the roof of our alley garage, investigating our grape vines. (Those vines have a way of reaching out long tendrils everywhere.) Another evening I saw a family of five racoons in front of the apartment building down the street. Two large ones, presumably the parents, were on the ground. Three smaller ones clung to the trunk of an immense palm tree. The parents immediately glided away into the darkness between building and side fence. One of the young ones peered back at me from its foothold, and for a transfixed moment we locked glances. Then Cezar growled. As calmly as you please, the young racoons manouvered down the tree and disappeared into the same darkness as their parents. I assume they all went in search of more cordial adventures along the back alley.

Birds, raccoons, possums... What else? Once, while driving in Fair Oaks a few years ago, I saw a coyote padding down a sidewalk like someone's friendly dog. So far I love the wildlife in my backyard. But, I'm glad the coyotes haven't made it to Midtown.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Art and a Place to Put It

I love to go to the Crocker Art Museum and have long wished we had a bigger museum in Sacramento. Some of my happiest memories have involved walking around for hours in museums like the De Young in San Francisco and the Metropolitan in New York, but I'll settle for an art museum of any size.

Happily, the Crocker has expansion plans that are moving along. My neighbor and I went to see the Maxfield Parrish exhibit last Friday, and we got a flyer showing what the finished museum will look like. It will nearly double the size of the present one. The woman at the front desk explained that currently the museum can only desplay about 1/3 of its collection at any one time. I am certainly looking forward to the day when they can display at least 2/3.

Still, "The Economy" has raised its ugly head: If funds run out, the endeavor will have to go on hold. This is a time for members to contribute and for nonmembers to join, enabling the musuem to continue its great work. In addition to displaying art through the ages and bringing wonderful exhibits to Sacramento from other museums, Crocker offers all kinds of family programs, including art classes for children and for adults. (I plan to sign up for a pastel workshop in July.)

The following is a site to visit for anyone desiring to know more:

Meanwhile, the Parrish exhibit was delightful, as were the remarkable animal portraits by Mari Kloeppel and the remaining selections from the the Buddha exhibit featured earlier this year. And, of course, the museum store is like a candy store for art lovers. Needless to say, neither my neighbor nor I left empty-handed.