Monday, October 28, 2013

Book Trailer and Guest Post: Falcon in the Glass by Susan Fletcher

Some time ago, I was privileged to host a conversation with my VCFA colleague and gifted writer Susan Fletcher and children's literature scholar Taraneh Matloob. Now it's my delight to invite Susan to write a guest post for me on WWBT--this time about her latest book, Falcon in the Glass.

Here's the trailer, with music and editing by that talented duo, Cooper Appelt and Laurel Kathleen

Here's what I asked Susan

Obsession and form dominate in this book--Renzo's obsession with the glass, the forms of birds and children that appear as if magically from the mist, and the glass and what it means. The interplay between these things does so much to help shape this beautiful story. Can you talk about that? What did obsession and form (structure if you will) mean to you in the making of this book?
Her answer is filled with all those internal contradictions that writers know so well--the fragile and the unbreakable, the fleeting and the enduring, the things that create the shifting, shadowy dance between vision and craft.

Susan Fletcher on Obsession, Form, and Falcon in the Glass

I guess I started with three obsessions from the get-go. First of all, Venice. Ever since seeing a video documentary on Venice about twenty years ago, I’ve been fascinated by that city and have wanted to explore it in person and in writing. Maybe it’s all those canals and bridges, or the reflections of water on stone and stone on water, which give the city a rippling feeling of evanescence. Maybe it’s the opulence, or the flamboyant history, or the fact that the city is sinking, which brings to mind the fragility of everything that’s beautiful. Maybe it’s the fact that when you walk through those old streets, you can almost imagine that the 21st century has dropped away and you’re living in some alternate Renaissance—with tourists.

In any case, my second obsession had to do with the shape of the story I wanted to tell. Years before, I had read The Kite Runner, and it had moved me deeply, and I’d gone back and asked myself why. Part of of it had to do with the book itself, which I still admire. But part of it, I decided, had to do with the type of story it is—a story of harm inflicted and later atonement. I can’t tell you why, but this kind of story pulls at me. And it has a particular shape: Someone hurts someone else, for human reasons that we can understand. And he then tries to go back and undo as much of the harm as he can—though undoing it entirely is impossible. So I knew the larger shape of the story very early in the process. A sort of forward movement with the hurting. And an echoing backward reflection with the attempt to undo. Stone on water. Water on stone.

My third obsession is longstanding. It has to do with creating things. Shaping things. The word “art” makes me skittish—but I spend the bulk of my days thinking about, teaching about, writing about, and in the act of attempting to create something original and harmonious: a story. I hadn’t really explored this territory yet in a novel, but I wanted to. So my protagonist, Renzo, aspires to become a glass artist. He is, as you say, obsessed. In this book I got to explore, through Renzo, some of the issues I have mulled over the years in my teaching and writing. How important is innovation in artmaking? What is the relationship between the hard work (and even drudgery) of developing the skills the artist needs on the one hand…and the flash of inspiration required for the art to break through to true originality? For me, finishing a novel requires a kind of dogged persistence. It’s a long process requiring a suite of hard-won skills. But when I approach a book with a sort of grit-your-teeth determination, I can crush all the life out of it. My best writing comes when I lighten up and approach my work in a spirit of play. For me, writing a novel is a delicate balancing act of craft, persistence, obsession, and joy. And I imagine that this is true of other art forms, too.

And finally, I found myself exploring the relationship between art and life. Some artists believe it’s necessary to sacrifice the fullness of their lives to their art. They believe that genuine art requires that level of sacrifice. And truly I have found that if you let it, life can shoulder aside your plans to make art. And if you want to create, you can’t allow that to happen. On the other hand, I think the most important thing I’ve done in my life isn’t writing my books—it’s raising my daughter. So in Falcon, Renzo finds himself caught between the demands of artmaking and life. I won’t say what happens, but I will tell where I come out on this issue: Life can disrupt your plans to make art, but it’s a full life that gives you something to make art about.

Thank you, Susan, for this sensitive post on a book as rich and beautiful as the history, art, and humanity it brings to the page. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Commonwealth Education Trust, MOOCs, and Me

Sometimes an experience comes along that puzzles you, intrigues you, opens your mind up to possibility and makes you want to learn more. It was in this spirit that I accepted an invitation from Judy Curry of the Commonwealth Education Trust to come to Philadelphia for a workshop to put together a MOOC on writing for children.

Yes, I said MOOC, which stands for Massive Open Online Course. Not something I can claim to know anything about. But at the end of this three-day workshop, and with some of the reading and preparation and thinking that led up to it, I'm in awe of this project.

Look at the amazing people who were in that workshop with me:
Tololwa Mollel, writer, author, dramatist, storyteller, performer

Shelley Tanaka, writer, editor, and, I'm proud to say, my teaching colleague at VCFA

Lani Wendt Young, writer, entrepreneur, activist, blogger, storyteller

Summer Edward, writer, Caribbean children's literature specialist, blogger

Alice Curry, writer, anthologist, children's literature scholar

Judy Curry, Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Education Trust.

And here are the fabulous others who are part of the think-tank for this work but couldn't be there for this first round: Gene Luen Yang, Nnedi Okorafor, Finegan Kruckemeyer, John Agard.

We plotted, planned, drafted, revised, charted, mapped a 12-week sequence of online offerings for people anywhere who might want to write for young readers--anywhere with Internet access, that is to say. The course, when it launches, will be offered on the Coursera platform, which already boasts 534 courses and 107 partners.

Some of the love that made this work possible comes from Alice's anthology of stories and poems collected, commissioned and submitted by writers from around the Commonwealth.

Finally, we heard from Al Filreis at Penn who's been teaching poetry online for some years now, and now leads a course in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry through Coursera:

Filreis says that teaching poetry online has been transformative for him as a teacher.

How does one teach writing in this way? The idea of reaching out to massive numbers of people is mind-boggling, elusive, incomprehensible, and completely fascinating. It's exciting to me that I was able to take part in this very beginning conversation. Down the virtual road, I hope this work will stir up international interest in stories for young readers. I hope it will also give voice to writers from many places. And in the end I hope it will lead to original work from many geographical and cultural perspectives.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Listening with Our Pens: Narrative Humility for Writers (Guest post by Sayantani DasGupta)

Sayantani DasGupta is a physician, a writer, and a teacher with a remarkable voice. Her collection of traditional tales from Bengal, The Demon Slayers and Other Stories, coauthored with her mother Shamita Das Dasgupta, is regionally specific and richly complex. Her collection of narratives and essays, Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies, bridges the artificial divide between women's lives and scholarship in gender, health, and medicine.

I'm delighted to welcome Sayantani to WWBT with this guest post. Her ideas about narrative fascinate me, and I'm sure that I'll revisit and think about this meditation for some time to come.


I spend my life at the intersection of the stethoscope and the pen. Although I was originally trained in pediatrics and public health, as a writer, as well as a faculty member in Columbia University’s Master’s Program in Narrative Medicine, and co-chair of Columbia’s University Seminar on Narrative, Health and Social Justice, I spend most of my days writing, teaching, and thinking about the role of stories in healthcare.

Narrative Medicine is the clinical and scholarly endeavor to honor the role of story in the healing relationship. Long before doctors had anything of interest in their black bags – no MRIs, no lab tests, no fancy all body CAT scans – what they had was the ability to show up, what they had was the ability to listen, and bear witness to someone’s life, death, illness, suffering, and everything else that comes in between.

And so, I spend most of my days teaching clinicians-to-be how to listen. I do this by having them read stories, and take oral histories, and study lots of narrative theory. I teach them the work of scholars like medical sociologist Arthur Frank, who explains that when illness or trauma interrupt our life stories, we need new stories to help navigate these uncharted waters. Although it was always there, illness and trauma bring into sharp focus our basic human need for narration. We are, after all, fundamentally storied creatures.

But besides all this, what I also do is teach my students to listen by writing stories. I have them do listener response – writing in reaction to a poem or story we read in class. I have them write to a prompt – ‘when was the last time you witnessed suffering?’ I have them write ongoing personal illness narratives – weekly narratives in which I ask them to tell of the same experience but from a different point of view or genre or form to help unpack not only their own personal stories (stories which inform how they in turn will listen to the stories of others), but discover how stories work – in regard to plot, form, function, and voice.

So yes, I’m training people to be better doctors by teaching them how to be writers.

Over the years, I’ve explained some of how this all works with a philosophy of listening I’ve been calling Narrative Humility.* Narrative Humility is not about gaining any sense of competence or mastery over our patients, or their stories. Rather, it is about paying attention to our own inner workings – our expectations, our prejudices, our own cadre of personal stories that impact how we react to the stories of others. You can hear me talk all about it here, during a recent TEDx event at Sarah Lawrence College (where I also teach).

But it serves to reason that if doctors can borrow skills from writers to do their jobs better, then perhaps the reciprocal thing can happen as well. In other words, does narrative humility have any lessons for those leading the writing life?

1.     Active Listening – This is an easy one. Writers are told all the time to listen: for regional accents, for scraps of interesting dialogue, for pieces of intriguing stories. We listen to ourselves too through journaling, going on writing retreats, and digging deep into our cadre of personal and familial stories for sources of inspiration. We even talk about listening to our characters, and letting them co-create the story that we’re telling. For writers, as for doctors, listening is a necessary adjunct to action. It is a way of filling ourselves up – like blood into the heart, air into the lungs – before we breathe out stories, images, words onto the page.

2.     Embodiment – In the words of Arthur Frank, illness stories are not just told about bodies or of bodies but through bodies. Similarly, they are received through particular bodies. This connection between body and voice (which I write about here in a post called Writing Our Bodies: Embodiment, Voice and Literature) is perhaps a critical connection for all writers to make. We can ask ourselves: How is the story I tell connected to my body? How does it emerge from my bodily experiences? In the words of memoirist and writer Nancy Mairs, who writes about having MS and using a wheelchair, “No body, no voice, no voice, no body. That is what I know in my bones.”  

3.     Wonder – The notion that stories are not objects we can fully comprehend or master is a difficult one for most medical professionals, who aren’t necessary trained to embrace ambiguity. Like clinicianss, writers too need to master certain technical skill sets – we need to know how to develop a plot, deepen characterization, build tension, and draw readers in with our world-building. Yet, like those in the healing arts, we writers cannot allow those technical skills to somehow suffocate that other, more ineffable quality so central to the creative process: the ability to receive, to witness, to open one’s creative heart. And so, both professions must embrace both ways of knowing – the technical and the artistic, the ‘scientific’ and the creative.

For both doctors and writers, stories are bones and the blood of our professions. Containing equal measure of the known and unknowable, of the earthly and the ephemeral, the work of storytelling, like the work of healing, must be approached with a sense of humility. Humility for the stories we tell, humility for the stories we have yet to tell, and humility for those stories just beyond our grasp – waiting for us to be ready to receive their whispered secrets.

*Here's the citation for that Lancet article on narrative humility: The art of medicine: Narrative humility. DasGupta, Sayantani, The Lancet; Mar 22-Mar 28, 2008; pg. 980.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Process Talk: Don Tate on Illustrating The Cart That Carried Martin

It's a rare picture book with two creators that manages to look as if it came from a single inspirational source. The Cart That Carried Martin from Charlesbridge is such a book. I'm so pleased to be able to interview illustrator Don Tate about his glorious art for this book. 

[Uma] Don, welcome to WWBT. Talk to me about what research was involved in illustrating Eve Bunting's text for The Cart That Carried Martin. What did you learn from this project? 

[Don] For research, I found hundreds, if not, thousands of photos online. They informed and inspired my drawings. I also visited the Martin Luther King Jr. National Site in Atlanta, where the cart is now on display. I took photos of the cart at every possible angle, and of the newly renovated Ebenezer Baptist Church. 

What impressed me the most about the day were the sheer numbers of people who turned out to celebrate King's life. I learned that about 1,300 people were at the funeral held at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and between 50,000 and 100,000 followed behind the wooden cart that carried King's casket. Reading the numbers are one thing, seeing the photographs of the size of the crowds, that’s a whole other thing. The crowds were beautifully overwhelming. 

When studying history, I sometimes feel a disconnect between myself and the people I’m studying about. Stories about slavery, Reconstruction, the 1960s civil rights years, that happened awhile ago, most of it before my lifetime. The people can seem so far away. Almost unreal. Photographs don’t lie, though, and serve as a reminder that these things really happened, the people were real. Slavery, whippings, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynchings, beatings, fire hoses and dogs — real people, just like me, experienced these things. As I looked through the photos of King's funeral and procession, I saw myself. That's why stories like The Cart That Carried Martin are so important, so we don't forget.

 [Uma] You work in many media--why pencil and guache for this book? And the style here is quite different from some of your other work--would you like to talk about how form and content came together for you here? 

Honestly when I read a new manuscript, I don't have a particular media, look or "style" on the ready. The story leads me to a particular media or style. Sometimes I don't even know until I sit down to render the first piece of art in a book. I may create sample studies and settle on illustrating a book in oils, only to sit down and pull out my watercolors, if that's what feels right when I begin to work. Most of my books have a slightly different look. But they all seem retain a familiar clarity, a sharpness -- hard lines, bold colors, tightly rendered ("muscular," as one reviewer described my art work). That's me. But for The Cart, I needed to loosen up because of all the crowd scenes, or else I'd have driven myself crazy trying to draw every little eye and nose and ear in a crowd. Loose lines, light-flowing colors, I felt that would be best for this story. And besides, with the subject matter being a funeral, realistic paintings might have given the book too somber a feel.

[Uma] There is one spread in this book that is utterly transcendent in its power--it's the one where the men walk in front holding the reins of the mules, and "The widow walked behind, her grief hidden by her veil." The words are so simple, and the art in the scene is deceptively simple as well. But something in the way the crowds melt at the edges, the perspective, the smallness of the people and the simple power of that wooden cart at the center--well, you just take a moment and center it there in a truly unforgettable way. All right, I'm done raving. I want you to tell me how you composed that scene, and what the creation of those pages meant to you. 

[Don] Again, photographs of the day inspired the scenes. Love was the dominant theme for the day. As the cart wound its way through Atlanta streets, people looked on with admiration. They held hands. They embraced. They caressed the cart. Men walked alongside, reaching over to touch the casket.

At first I worried about picturing the coffin. To me, coffins are scary. When I see one, I get a sick feeling in my stomach, and I turn my eyes away quickly. I assumed that most kids felt this way, too, so I wasn't sure how to show the coffin. I experimented with drawing the cart at different angles, hiding the coffin on only showing hints. But ultimately, that would have been defeating the purpose of telling the story of the day. I chose to picture coffin in full view, where necessary. How could a scene with a coffin be scary when surrounded by so much love?

And finally:

[Uma] What's up next? Any projects coming up I should know about?

[Don] Oh, I have a lot on my slate. I feel blessed. The next project I'm illustrating is the story of John Roy Lynch. It's the story of a man who in ten years went from teenage field slave to Reconstruction-era Congressman. It is written by my friend, Chris Barton. Next, I will illustrate a book that I wrote. It's the story of George Horton, an enslaved poet who became the first African American to be published in the south, before the Civil War (his poetry protested slavery, a brave man, huh?). And I'm under contract to illustrate two more books, one that I wrote as well.

Thank you, Don! Congratulations on your beautiful book. I look forward to your new work and to many more conversations to come!