Monday, January 17, 2011

Reading and Writing. Behold!

I arrived home today from my writing residency--eleven days in St. Paul, and boy, oh boy was it a crazy, wonderful, kooky, insane, inspiring, emotional (did I say crazy?) week. Well, it was. Indeed. I am happy to be home in NYC, but find myself telling stories no one wants to hear about people they've never met. Do you know how that is? My older son (Gus) is walking around the house exclaiming: BEHOLD! (This exclamation comes from the game Dixit--an awesome game that uses the other side of the brain--courtesy of Kiel Phegley, a first semester writing student.) And Henry (8) who read the new Mo Willems, now feels he has unlocked the secret to successful illustration: "It's the expressions!"

I came home with signed books for them, including Godless by Pete Hautman, The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt--and others not signed, but purchased at The Wild Rumpus Book Store. These include a Moomin picture book, Who Will Comfort Toffle? also a lovely, quirky, sad short novel called Against the Odds, and a stunning picture book called Lola and the Rent-a-Cat. The latter two both about serious subjects: fear of losing a parent in war and then death and loneliness.

This semester I begin work on a critical thesis, so beginning tomorrow, I begin looking for very quirky middle-grade books that address serious topics. I plan to look at how extremely unusual writing and voice allows children to access difficult topics. Should be an emotional tilt-a-whirl. If anyone has any favorites, please tell me. I am going to look at The Pushcart War, an all-time favorite.

At school this residency, we learned about writing for character. The faculty was (were?) fantastic and came up with original and evocative talks. Everything from helping us to think about the meaning of work in our writing and what works when one chooses to anthropomorphize and recognizing your antagonist and how to use subtext in dialogue. This was a lot of the real CRAFT stuff of writing, and because of that--very exciting. ME FEEL SMART!

Before leaving on my trip, my grandmother died. I went off in the shadow of her funeral, and a eulogy I wrote that gave me an opportunity to look at the family's immigrant heritage (the Hochs arrived in 1920 from Kunkalevka, Poland via Antwerp.) While in St. Paul, I thought more than once or twice about writing historical fiction. It seems like it would be so much fun--at least the research.

So now I am home, and what are the boys reading? Henry is finishing the last of the Fudge books. Gus had a choice between a few books, and chose Godless. It's a National Book Award winner about a boy who starts his own religion, and then realizes how hard it is to control. Pete Hautman, the author, spoke to us at school about some of his writing epiphanies. A fun, irreverent, charming and smart speaker, he shared some great ideas. He learned a lot from Elmore Leonard.

One of the highlights was Gary Schmidt's graduation keynote speech (we had four splendid grads who will each have a novel ready to publish soon! Take note, editor friends!) in which he told heartbreaking stories of the kinds of kids he urged our four grads to write for, before anyone else. He always refers to kids as kiddos. Hearing Gary speak or read is something to behold. (Behold!) He wove together his many poignant, funny, delightful stories--stories about Nathaniel Hawthorne's journey from loneliness to marriage; disadvantaged damaged kids he'd reached; the women of Terezin concentration Camp who fought over the correct ingredients for their favorite recipes while they were dying of starvation. He read three scenes to us from his new book, Okay for Now--forthcoming in April. Watch out for it. I can only think of cliches to describe how involved we became with the three scenes he read.

Also spellbinding were our fourth semester critical lectures. We heard about Zen and writing, turning dreams into writing and understanding dreams to better understand yourself, a practical guide to the intrusive narrator (amazing!), and we learned and learned until our brains were stretched like balloons, I tell you!

In my morning workshop, I was Jane'd. That means that Jane Resh Thomas, one of the founders of the program, made an example out of my sloppy lard-ass writing. I found out (the hard way) that I use "filters" which distance my writing from my reader. Who knew? I felt hurt, defensive, and whined like a baby. But I promise you--I will avoid them now. In workshop, when we're up, we listen. No talking until the end of the hour. So if you want to explain something to your fellow writers, you have to wait until the end. I think my jerking body betrayed my attempt to appear unhurt. But it hurts. And I know how much I have yet to learn. And yet, yet, YET--every reader reacts differently. If that weren't true, we'd all read the same book. I only recently found out that those Dragon Tattoo books have violent sex scenes in them. No wonder they're so popular. Jeepers. Who knew?

Back to life. I have to go give the boys their good dreams and maybe read them a story. More to come--and I hope to add some books jackets and pictures to match this.

Oh yeah. I can't sign off without publicly thanking my dear friend and pal-o-the-month, Peter Pearson. He was a dear friend to all of us at the residency. I think he has a heart four sizes too large. But to me especially. He played his guitar while we sang an adorable song my lil Henry wrote about a book he'd read a few months ago. The song was for a school project. The book was Because of Winn Dixie, and we performed a funny interpretation of it at the graduation banquet. Little did we know that the author of the book, Kate DiCamillo would be sitting directly in front of us. It was a hit. We laughed. We were really happy. I think this happy feeling will last at least until tomorrow. I hope so.


  1. WOW! Jill, sounds like an amazing residency. Was thinking of you the past few weeks. Good luck with that critical thesis, sounds like you've got a great topic. The Pushcart War is one of my all-time favorites too.

  2. I couldn't have said it better, my friend. Your critical thesis will be amazing, and look at it this way: if all else fails, you can take your show on the road!

  3. And hey, tell Henry to come up with something on Despereaux. We can all rock out at your graduation.

  4. I appreciated this glimpse into life in a residency program. And wondered what "filters" create distance in one's writing?