Dazzled: That's how I felt at the SCBW&I Conference in LA this week-end. I took a picture of the overhead ceiling chandelier in the main auditorium where all the keynote speeches were given; but the photo didn't do justice either to the chandelier or to the luminaries that distilled such wonderful inspiration and wisdom from the stage about writing, illustrating, and the book industry in general. (So -- no photo for this post.)
I can't begin to condense into one post the richness of these keynote speeches and panel discussions. Instead, I will probably be pulling out snippets from my notes from time to time and blogging in terms of what the conference meant to me. There were professional bloggers who blogged about every address and every session, including those I missed. (Interested persons can go to: http://scbwiconference.blogspot.com/ to get the highlights.) In the meantime, one insight was much repeated, whether from an illustrator like Loren Long, who advised "readers must feel the book; search for your own emotional hit", or a fiction author like Marion Dane Bauer, who advised that "stories begin where the heart beats, where your heart beats," or the advice of biographer, Deborah Heiligman, who wrote, Charles and Emma, that you have to be passionately involved in your project: The key to any work of art is the true and honest emotion that drives it. Illustrator, E. B. Lewis said it another way: You recognize that first mark that captures what the right picture will be.
Daunted: So... the emotion. Advice I heard over and over again in various sessions as well as keynotes was that if you want to know what will resonate with kids, tap into the kid you were, and how you felt. Hah. Well, the kid I once was felt a lot of misery. My family moved a lot, for erratic reasons, and my childhood memories are full of pain: the pain of loss, of uprootedness, of abandonment. And in a life that turned out well (I have a happy adulthood), I notice that I try to wiggle out of painful scenes in my writing. I tend to over-protect my characters. You might say I run interference for them, and sometimes glide past where the real power of a scene might lie. Sometimes tip-toe past. But, as they say, "no pain, no gain." So I came back from the conference
Determined: I'm determined to be a braver writer than I've been in the past. I know from real life outside of story pages, that tracing a nerve of pain can turn it into a vein of gold. Young readers are coping with pain of their own. It's a good lesson for them to stumble on when reading a story that matters to them. They don't identify with the character who has it too easy, who has no worry or fear or ache. To be human is to experience the dark as well as the light and to turn the encounter into some lasting wisdom, something that made the journey worthwhile.
So... no more running interference for my characters. It's time for them to learn their own lessons and make it on their own. With a supporting nudge from me, of course.
How about you? Do you avoid the more difficult emotions and try to slide your characters by them? Or are you already brave enough to let them learn what only they can learn?