Sunday, August 19, 2012

Story and Truth: SCBWI Conference Redux

"Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience."

Ralph Waldo Emerson's admonition could easily have cropped up in my work as a scientist or a science writer--but instead I heard it during the very first session of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators 41st annual summer conference.

"Ah," I thought happily, as I sat in the conference room of an LA hotel. "These must be my peeps."

I've been entranced by the writing of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman ever since completing an eighth grade history project on Transcendentalism. Imagine my delight when Emerson made a second appearance just a few hours later, in a workshop by Gary Schmidt on "Layering a Character." After handing out old photographs for a character development exercise, Schmidt attributed the universally dour expressions to extremely long exposure times--then added that Emerson was uniquely able to sit smiling for his portraits.

It's not exactly a grin.

In addition to the Emerson love, over the course of the weekend I heard mad props given to such diverse inspirations as Joseph Campbell, D&D, and being a mom. During the opening ceremonies, the faculty paraded by the microphone announcing their names and a single word of inspiration. Most words were not repeated, but “serendipity” was popular; it also happens to have been the name of my first pet octopus. Definitely my peeps.

Tony DiTerlizzi--who should probably get a prize for Most Energetic Speaker of SCBWI--even quoted a scientist in his talk. “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales,” said Einstein.

Actually, that quote may be apocryphal.

But although I welcomed the sense of belonging, it was equally valuable to be reminded that every writer's path and habits are different--sometimes drastically so. For example, Schmidt never talks about his projects with anyone, ever, until they're done. He hands his wife the finished manuscript after three years. I find myself more inclined to follow Stephen King and Orson Scott Card, who consider their spouses' feedback throughout the writing process invaluable. (No, neither of them was at the conference.)

Then there's the question of reading. Many writers, including the coordinator of my weekly writing group, absolutely refuse to read others' work while in the midst of producing their own. Others find such concurrent reading crucial. I belong to the latter camp, and was gratified to learn I could pitch my tent next to the likes of Clare Vanderpool and Karen Cushman. "Read a hundred or a thousand books like the one you want to write," said Cushman.

Cushman also spoke about the importance of telling the truth to children, an exhortation that came up a few hours later in another character workshop (can you tell I'm interested in character?) by Amy Goldman Koss. But although Cushman and Koss both say, "Tell the truth," they could hardly have more divergent opinions about what that truth is.

"I haven't noticed anything getting better and I haven't seen anyone change," said Koss, explaining why she doesn't put those themes in her books. But Cushman said, "I think books ought to be hopeful." I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to deduce my own view.

"And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three . . . "

As long as I'm writing about my personal attitudes, as a lifelong meditator, I was delighted by Deborah Underwood's talk on the Power of Quiet. She opened by describing how impressively busy our bodies are even when we think we're not doing anything. “If the chemical processes in my body relied on my knowledge of chemistry," she said, "I would be quite, quite dead.”

This reflection immediately brought to mind the words of another favorite writer, Lewis Thomas (who is, alas, quite dead): “If I were informed tomorrow that I was in direct communication with my liver, and could now take over, I would become deeply depressed. . . . Nothing would save me and my liver, if I were in charge. For I am, to face the facts squarely, considerably less intelligent than my liver. I am, moreover, constitutionally unable to make hepatic decisions, and I prefer not to be obliged to, ever.”

Hunh. Somehow I've managed to illustrate a blog post about contemporary writers with nothing but pictures of dead ones.

Our body's chemical processes may not seem to have much in common with the act of writing--but then again, perhaps they do. Both work best when our active, conscious minds aren't in complete control. We have to trust that our liver knows what it's doing, and on some level perhaps we need to have the same trust in the stories we tell.

After all, as Matthew Kirby pointed out in his workshop on Narrative Structure, the Campbellian view holds that there's really only one Plot. But Stories are infinite.


  1. This conference sounds awesome! I couldn't help laughing out loud in response to the Lewis Thomas quote - "I am, moreover, constitutionally unable to make hepatic decisions..." - delightful! We still haven't figured out a machine to replace the liver. You can live without a kidney on dialysis, and even without a heart thanks to bypass machines and artificial hearts. We still haven't figured out how to make something as smart as a liver, though. :)

    1. I crack up every time I read that! He had such a charming way of putting words together. Livers are so amazing--they're the most self-regenerative of human organs too, right?

  2. Yeah, they are. I love Lewis Thomas (I think you were the one who introduced me to his books?). This reminds me I need to go read all of his books. I really wish he were still alive today.


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