This week I came across a video by one of my favorite authors, naturalist Sy Montgomery, who’s often described as a cross between Emily Dickinson and Indiana Jones—what’s not to love about that! As a resident bird-nerd, her Birdology is one of my favorite books.
She mentioned a quote frequently attributed to the Buddha, though some think it has theosophist origins. Either way, it’s instructive: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
I’ve been thinking about this lately—the different ways that we are students, and the various forms in which our teachers appear. For me, last month, they were fiction and nonfiction picture books. I participated in writer-educator Carrie Charley Brown’s March challenge, Read for Research Month, otherwise fondly known as ReFoReMo, where we studied mentor texts of our own choosing, and where Emu’s own Penny Parker Klostermann was a contributor.
At first, I thought I’d only participate sporadically—I want to do this, but do I really have the time? I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by things like promotion (for another post!), trying to write new manuscripts and just the every day stuff that needs to get done. But once I started, I was hooked. Since I primarily write picture books, I already read a lot of them. But this was taking the time to look more closely,
to get under the skin of the story, seeing the bones, the story’s structure, the way its muscles, rhythm, refrains, and repetition are bound together. Finding a story’s heart, and something somewhat more elusive: its soul.
It has been enlightening, and liberating. Not because I’ve never done this before, but because I was ready to be a student, to see these stories as teachers, and uncover what my works in progress were really about. I usually read a picture book and I love it, or like it. I may find it kind of meh (or maybe, I even hate it—I’ll keep those to myself). So I tend to have an almost visceral, emotional reaction—I laugh, chortle, cry, gasp—and now I would take this one step further, dissecting the HOW of this reaction.
I have several works in progress that were all rather meh. One near to my heart was a fiction picture book about two rat sisters, pets of two human sisters, modeled on our own pet rats, Nera (who died on Christmas day :( ), and Lucia.
But I was stuck in reality for the first draft—it was a rescue story, of a rat trapped behind the refrigerator (which really happened to Nera); I ventured away from that in the second and third drafts, but still, the story wasn’t really feeling like it was going anywhere. Then, I decided that it was time to step away from my words entirely, and let some other books teach me about possibility. And what a world of difference it has made! I’ve changed everything about the story—it has moved from fiction, to nonfiction. The voice, which had been somewhat lyrical in tone, is now humorous and ironic—at least I hope it is! I found the heart of the story I wanted to tell.
And most of all—I had fun doing it! It’s not there yet, but it feels like I’m heading in the right direction.
While writing this post I was also reminded of grad school, when I studied under the late poet-activist, June Jordan, whose teaching strategy was to have us write what she called “imitations.” We would slip on the skins of other poets, and try out their voices. Imagine writing an “imitation” of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl or Emily Dickinson’s I Heard a Fly Buzz? Challenging indeed!
We can slip into the skins of picture books by writing or typing out the text. The act of doing this helps us to feel its rhythms, the pulse of the story in our fingers. To absorb it even more fully (and better yet, read it aloud while doing so). I’m not an illustrator, but one could do the same with images, “imitate” or mimic an artist’s style, feel the line, smell the color, hear the scratchboard. Sometimes though, our stories need to steep a bit longer, like a good cup of tea.
Reading mentor texts, gaining perspective, enabled me to let go of the words themselves, black and white on the page. Sometimes that’s the hardest thing to do, even though we know, deep down, that it’s essential. There is so much to learn, even if we’ve been writing a long time, by opening ourselves and our hearts to being a student.
The ReFoRe challenge let me play, and experiment, and be, and that is the way of finding our true stories.
So, who are your teachers: literal, literary, or perhaps figuratively speaking?
Where, when, and in what form will they appear?
Here’s to being ready!
Maria writes fiction and nonfiction picture books while dog Becca snores at her feet. This is what they do when they’re not writing (or snoring). Her debut picture book, Penny & Jelly: The School Show, illustrated by Thyra Heder will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July 2015, with a second Penny & Jelly book to follow in Spring 2016. Maria has both fiction and nonfiction picture books forthcoming from Roaring Brook Press, Aladdin Books and Boyds Mills Press. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy Literary. To learn more, please visit her website: mariagianferrari.com, or visit Maria at Facebook.
Photos of Maria & Becca by Monogram Arts Photo.