“…it was really that they could not make their own images.” 🤯💛
This is so wonderfully clear– I love teaching writing/theatre/storytelling with kids best because each experience gives them a landmark and an anchor point of knowing they CAN make their own images, and what that feels like.
This also reminds me of how confused I was that you’re supposed to stage a house in order to sell it… Because people can’t picture what it could look like! And I always preferred an empty house because other people’s stuff cluttered up my images and visioning of how I could make the room look.
I don’t believe not every person has this ability– why? Just because the thought is too sad? I guess it’s something I can’t imagine!
But really, what child doesn’t play? What kid, with nothing more than a stick or a pinecone to entertain them doesn’t imagine– make images– of something else??
And what pairs so well with this is Tom Guald’s Edison quote:
“My so-called inventions already existed in the environment. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does.”
Like atoms, like matter not being able to be destroyed, only reused, ideas and images and inventions all exist around us. So being an artist, a poet, that is to say, a healthy and reverent human, is SEEING THE INVISIBLE THAT IS ALWAYS AND ALREADY PRESENT.
If you’re an artist or inventor, then you try to make the invisible visible. But everyone cansee it, and they only stop seeing it through training or trauma.
What I want to do is make sure no one loses it entirely. I want every kid (and thus, person) to know where at least one secret doorway to Narnia is within themselves and always be able to find it again, even if they don’t go through daily or often at all. It’s like how Europe was for me in my podunk, I-don’t-quite-fit-here childhood: knowing it existedwas a balm, a magic token. A bully could only hurt me superficially because I held within myself this whole other marvelous world, even when there were long years between trips.
I’ve always thought that it’d be nice to have Faith– Christian belief that I really believed. It’s interesting that this faith in Europe isn’t so different as believing that there is a Heaven, that someday we’ll all belong and live in beauty and peace.
Isn’t faith holding in one’s mind and heart the image (the living image) of something invisible yet tangible? And in both religion and art aren’t we charged with making “Heaven on Earth?”
A friend just joined a writing group an mentioned that feedback can feel so personal. Here’s what I told her:
Writing groups can be so tricky, I think, because English classes teach us that the way to give feedback is through pointing out the problems, but that can be stifling in the early creative stages of a project.
If I’m at the very end or am stuck then I totally want someone to just tell me how to cut it up, but if it’s in a younger stage that feels so harsh and generally not useful.
I have always liked the 4 step feedback method I learned from storytelling coach Doug Lipman. It’s up to the writer/receiver how far to go in the steps. Even if you only do the first one it’s really helpful to hear from multiple people what they like about the story.
*First: reader says specific things they like (might be plot element, language, imagery, tone, etc)
*Second: writer asks questions of the reader (ie, Was it clear that 1 year had passed? What did the main character look like to you?)
*Third: reader asks questions (ie, What feeling for you want the reader to have at the end? How old is the main character?) This step can be tricky because readers want to give suggestions but phrase them as questions.
*Fourth: reader gives suggestions; I think phrasing them as “what ifs” is best (What if you start with a flashback? I think you can cut the part about the dog).
I’ve never liked “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” I hated that the fable was pro-hard-working, no-time-for-fun-or-art ant. I identified with the grasshopper, and it was pretty scary to see that not only did no one delight in (or even appreciate) his music in summer, no one wanted to take him in or give him food in winter. It seemed to me like the two options were: work hard and be safe, or do what you love and perish. (I have been known to be dramatic now and then).
I’ve been working in my flower gardens a lot this summer— some latent Gerdin gene has kicked in and I’m channeling my grandma. My husband said he really appreciates it, that it makes it nicer to live here. I told him I think I contribute the most in the “Thriving” category, and he’s really good at the “Surviving” category— and we’ve been in the latter for a long time.
Doesn’t anything bridge that enormous gap, the apparent chasm between Surviving and Thriving?
Honeybees have the satisfaction of work— of taking something in and making something new that is not only nourishing but sweet and good. Honey is medicinal. It literally never goes bad— you could eat honey from a pharaoh’s tomb (if you weren’t worried about possible curses) or from a Viking cellar.
Honey is specific to plant and place: Tanzanian honey tastes different from Minnesota clover honey. It helps with allergies. It’s antiseptic. It can be made into mead.
And unlike ants who, to my eye, work at a frenzied, militant pace, honey bees dance to tell their hive where the good flowers are. They stitch a thread of connection from blossom to blossom over acres, over miles. If you could trace the line of their movement it would be, I imagine, a visual poem.
And they aren’t storing up fuel for decay, like ants; they are stuffing their furry, golden bodies into flowers, into the very center of colorful, feminine, temporal, perfumed chambers. The magic, the pollen, clings to them— they don’t cling to it, they don’t hoard it. And when they make honey— it’s just regurgitation. They are vessels, they transform nectar without doing anything particularly special or difficult.
What also appeals to me is that if one honeybee fails— if one is somehow flawed and simply can’t do its job for a day or a week or its whole life… well, it’s one of many. It is impossible for the failings of one bee to kill the world’s flowers, fruits, vegetables. It is impossible for just one bee to save them all, either. There’s no pressure, no blame, and no credit. But there is beauty. There is sweetness.
When I was very young, my parents kept bees. I can still remember my dad in the dust-colored suit, netting protecting his face as he moved slowly among the hives with his tiny bellows of soporific smoke: a sweet and comforting smell.
I like that the bees aren’t killed or driven out or even alarmed in order to harvest the honey— they are made drowsy and dozy. They sleep. Maybe they dream. Then they get back out there, following sweetness, and do what they do best.
We found a 5 gallon bucket of honey stored in the root cellar some years after my parents divorced. It was crystallized and thick, a deep golden amber. We scooped it out and heated it slowly. And it was still good.
Don’t worry about how everyone in your town or your school does it.
You have great ideas— you must follow them. Be curious. Discover things.
If you’re somewhere where you feel alone, I’m sorry. I understand. As you get older and get to make more choices for yourself you get to choose where to make your home. You get to seek out and choose the weird-cool people, the ones who get your jokes, who are interested by your curiosity, who give you fuel and inspiration.
Be proud of yourself. That’s never been a sin. Don’t shrink from who you really are. Reach up, reach out, send roots down deep. Create your own ecosystem. Make a beautiful world for yourself and invite those who will treasure it as you do.
Know when fear is in the body, when it’s in the past versus when it’s from the present. Let it flow out of you through your feet, out through the palms of your hands, let it disappear like fog and mist from your breath.
You can do magic.
You can see more than what is visible at a glance, more than what is believed in or accepted. When you look for magic, you will find it.
The people, both real and imagined, animal and human, who you admire are reflections of yourself. Be proud of them and proud of your own goodness, your own cleverness, your own strength, your kindness and tenderness, your faith, your courage.
Be generous with yourself. Adore yourself the way you do puppies and kittens and baby horses. Marvel at your existence. Put down the shame you carry. Put down the lies that keep you small.
We are here to delight in beauty— and there is always beauty. We are here to breathe, to be present, to connect and to notice. Whenever it feels right, share that noticing with someone else— with a person, with a tree, with a ghost, with the air around you. Say, “I see you, and you are beautiful.”
When I was a kid, Roald Dahl was my favorite author. I loved “James and the Giant Peach,” and thought of it every time we flew to England to visit my grandparents. I looked for cities in the clouds, for the people who painted and hung rainbows. I imagined the BFG gathering dreams, though I couldn’t picture him coming to my rural Minnesota farmhouse to blow them into my bedroom; but in England on narrow streets between small brick houses, it seemed he was real.
When I watched “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” I felt betrayed— how could Roald Dahl have made Charlie and his grandpa behave so badly? It didn’t feel like his other stories— and sure enough, when I re-read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” I discovered my hunch was right: Charlie was the only child who didn’t act selfishly (and Willy Wonka wasn’t creepy).
Maybe because I had British grandparents I read more BritLit as a child, or maybe that was just what was good. (“The Chronicles of Narnia,” everything by Enid Blyton, the many adventures of “Dr. Doolittle”). I felt drawn to Roald Dahl not just because his stories were so fantastical— a grandmother who smoked cigars! a girl who stood up to her horrible principal! a giraffe with a telescoping neck!— but also because he and my grandad blended together in my mind. My grandad wrote me airmail letters on thin blue paper, always with a fountain pen in all capital letters because otherwise, he said, I wouldn’t be able to read his “poor penmanship.”
Getting a book by Roald Dahl was like getting to be with my grandad, though I don’t recall him ever reading any of them to me.
When I was about nine I told my mom I couldn’t wait for his next book (I’d read everything for kids by then). “When do you think it will come out?” She had to tell me that he’d died a few years ago. In my memory, that was around the same time as other blows: my parents’ divorce, my grandad dying suddenly of a brain tumor (and us not flying over for the funeral).
Roald Dahl was an adult, but he wasn’t like any adult I knew. He was wicked and weird, and he had gone to boarding school in England (worse, even than going to my small town school and not really feeling I fit in).
As an adult he is still one of my most favorite writers. I aim to write books that could be the children of his and Astrid Lindgren’s work. I’ve read his adult short stories. I’ve read his twelve month memoir of a year, and I’ve thought off and on about how he had a little writing shed on his property, and the marvelously odd assortment of things he kept on his desk (including the head of his own femur after he had it replaced!).
But it had never occurred to me, a child of the era when tvs still had clunky knobs that turned with a chunk chunk, that I could search for videos of Roald Dahl on the internet.
… They exist! He only died in the ‘80s, so there are BBC clips and whole documentaries! I watched a short one today in which he walked us out to his shed! It was cluttered and the plaster was peeling in a way very reminiscent of when my studio was bare sheetrock with so many black screw heads they made a constellation! He sat down in his armchair, put a long packing tube across the arm rest, laid a large writing board on that at an angle, sharpened six pencils (“always six”), and began to write. In a voice over, he described what he was doing and how the whole process went, which was, of course, fascinating. But what made me shout with delight and surprise was he said he always sits in a sleeping bag, pulled up to his chest! I was, at that very moment, in my own backyard shed (wearing a big fur coat), with my own sleeping bag pulled up to my chest!
It reminded me of the many times I’ve thought of printing off portraits of writers and others I admire: Roald and Astrid, of course, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Lorna Landvik, comedian Maria Bamford (the newest addition), and marketing and business genius Seth Godin.
There have been days when I lugged Stephen King’s “On Writing” around and then held it to my chest. Or I propped it up on my writing desk next to Anne Lammott’s “Bird by Bird” and Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking.”
Why does this matter? Why does it help?
Though I live in a very creative community with a higher saturation of artists than your typical small town, I am still so alone. I’m alone in that the norm is still to have a Regular Job or a Professional Career— the kind that you don’t have to provide a definition for at parties when someone asks what you do. Even in the arts community I tend to feel alone: it’s not like traditional oral storytelling is part of the Academy Awards and in the public eye. I’m alone because that’s just the general background music in my life— it’s not as tragic as it was in my teen years, and it’s a feeling I expect to have my whole life. How could I not? I’m a pioneer, an explorer gazing West. All the things that interest me require me to go where I’ve never gone before.
Being alone like this is both wonderful (I am an introvert, after all), but also a little crazy. I recently visited my alma mater, an arts high school in the Twin Cities. I was nearly floating off the ground with happiness by the time I left (rather like Charlie and his grandpa in the erroneous film adaptation, before they realize they’re going to be sliced to ribbons by the ceiling fans). Why was I so elated? Because I was reminded that for two years, Monday through Friday, I lived in a community of artists. Everyone was there to explore, to be creative, to learn, to practice a craft, to try weird stuff. And, as my theatre teacher so off-handedly commented, it was an ensemble program; there were no divas or super stars. We did three months of improv before moving on to other subjects. I dream sometimes of what it would be like to be surrounded by other middle grade writers— how much more I would be likely to write if every casual conversation at the coffee shop or grocery store was about word count and trying to figure out just what the protagonist wanted, and how cool but complicated it was to invent a language for pixies.
Seth Godin talks often about marketing as “People like us do things like this.” As in, you speak to your tribe, to your niche, to your tiny, specific, weird corner of the world. And I thought, “But what if there aren’t ‘people like us’ around?” What if I’m not bumping shoulders with 299 other people pursuing a life built on art, because at least in my physical, everyday life, I’m not.
I suppose that’s why I watch actors interviewed on late night shows, or watch the Oscars. It’s why I listen to Seth’s podcast. It’s why I watch Maria Bamford’s comedy. And it’s why I want to put those portraits up in my studio. I want to remind myself, This is where I come from. This is my family tree: Roald and Astrid, Uncle Lewis and his magic wardrobe, the next door neighbor who writes about daemons and parallel worlds, even Stephen, whose books are too creepy for me, because he flies so far past “normal.”
So I was delighted, I felt Roald Dahl was visiting me, having a chat in my garden shed when I came across his interview. I ask myself, “What would Roald do? How would Philip say it? Would Astrid be worried what people think?” I line their pictures up in my mind; I know they would root for me, nod in approval, tell me to keep going, because though it is frightening to step into the unknown, it is also marvelous.
It turns out that I can sing. I mean I can do some operatic Edith Piaf thing.
At SVEA rehearsal last week I was goofing around and did a Big Viking Lady high note. Tina and Erika whipped their heads around so fast I could almost hear their necks cracking. “Ok, you can not tell us you can’t sing loud,” Tina said. I began to melt into my seat, shrinking like a snail. “I was just faking it!”
Erika looked at me with an expression that was not quite disgust— not towards me, any way, but the way one is disgusted by the patriarchy or crappy cafeteria food. “That is not faking it.” (The look was more like what you’d give a kid who is old enough to behave properly but tries to revert and pitch a fit. Um, no. That’s not happening.)
My immediate reaction was to sweat. Profusely. To squirm. I think I went into some stand-up routine patched together from every video I’d watched online in the last month. Then, as if to prove them wrong, I did some acrobatic scales. (I might have even rolled over like a dog: pleeeease don’t look at the roll of toilet paper I destroyed, here’s my belly!)
Or something like that.
I tried to sing some songs like that during rehearsal. It sort of worked. “You were doing fine, and then I don’t know what the gremlins said to you, but you went back to singing from your throat,” Erika said, still with a slightly appalled, no-nonsense look.
Tina said I should work with Erika to figure out proper breath support. Basically, the jig was up: not only do they know I can sing in a Big Voice, but because they witnessed it, my conscious brain is forced to confront this information.
It was exhilarating and horrifying, and after rehearsal I was exhausted and as crabby as if I had a hangover.
This week was more of the same. Tina got me to be goofy and I did the Big Voice… and then I had to peel off three layers of clothing (I fully expected to be forced down to my long johns before the hour was up). I thrashed around and did my penitent stand up comedy shtick. “I’m pretty sure this is going to happen every time until I sweat out the demons.” They graciously did not quit SVEA and go in search of someone with more stable emotions or core temperature.
Every time I tried the Big Voice I waited for them to say it was too loud!, but instead Tina said I’m still not louder than them and we are just now starting to blend well.
It is an extremely uncomfortable feeling. All I want (I think) is to be Fabulous. Rock Star-Ballerina-TED Talk Lecturer-Academy Award Winner-Best-Selling Author-Fabulous. But this is so loud! I’ve tried to trace back to the inciting incident that is causing the alarm bells to clang so furiously, and I’m coming up with nothing. Being a good singer was totally ok in the more stayed, Baptist side of the family, and I had a voice teacher with a Big Voice, so I was certainly exposed to it. I don’t have a clue.
In a moment of furious self-analysis alternating between anguish and incredulity, I thought about my sister, Abbey. Abbey has a really cool voice. Though I haven’t heard her go for Edith Piaf/Viking Opera Singer, she has an amazing low range, she has cool vibrato, she has a voice much bigger than her physical stature would lead you to expect. She’s an itinerant musician. But she’s my little sister. Part of my brain kicked in in a delightfully cliché superior-older-sister way: Well, if Abbey can do it, you can definitely do it. (Ahh, the ego is a strange horse to ride, but sometimes it gets you where you want to go.)
Last night, while still feeling the detox of demons leaving my body (scrabbling around for better handholds?), I told Jay about it.
He said, “You’re a better singer than you think.”
I said, “Ok, but I’m way weirder than you think! What happens when all that comes out? What about the spew of weird improv-comedy blather?”
He said I should just let it out, but then didn’t seem thrilled by my immediate showcase of character voices and anecdotes. (To be fair, he was already in bed with a pillow over his head when the whole conversation began.)
It feels so weird, it feels like driving on ice— if I take away one filter [Don’t Be Loud], it feels like all the other filters and barricades between me and the edge of the cliff vanish, too.Who knows— maybe in addition to being able to Sing Big and be Extra Weird, I also have wings and I won’t plummet into madness/freindlessness/stardom/a whole new personality. Maybe I’ll fly around, have a great time, and never be afraid of that particular edge again.
Besides the emotional discomfort, it feels physically weird, wrong, strange, like learning better posture or how to cross country ski. Nothing is habitual, and I’ll suddenly drop all my breath support and not know how to get back on board. Honestly, it’s the first time in my life I’ve thought maybe I should start exercising because cardio feels bad! That I should practice feeling horrible and doing something anyway, both for the improved breath support and core strength, and to do something that feels physically more wretched than singing! (If you see me at a Zumba class, you’ll know why).
I think it might not take a thousand years. I’ve been thrashing around through first drafts of stories, and over and over again it turns out if I just flail for a minute or two, I settle down eventually and things turn out pretty well, or at least I have something to build on.
In the meantime, I guess I’ll be heating our house purely on the power of the Shame/Courage circuit. If you see me around town wearing a clown nose and muttering to myself, count it as a sign of progress.
So I put on my storytelling hat (or in this case, sparkly skirt) to add some oomph to the event. I wanted to stand out– for it to be obvious right away that this was going to be FUN. (And I’ve always found costumes liberating; No point in being shy if you’re already wearing a square-dance-worthy crinoline and stripy tights, right?)
Though I didn’t refer to the cards, I brought them along; there’s nothing worse than drawing a blank on what story you planned to tell next!
I told “The Hot Air Balloon Race,” “The Pharaoh’s Tomb,” and “Godfather Death,” plus some nice little transitions about my cousins’ farm (of which the Johnson farm in the book is pretty much a complete copy). I answered a few questions, and then closed with “Letter From Antarctica.”
It was a wonderful event! The stories flowed. I didn’t get stuck on specific words– a real concern since I never wrote down my oral stories but always worked them up aloud. It was fun to see where embellishments came in that don’t exist in the book.
Three times as many people showed up as the library expected, including a guy I’ve seen there many times but have never spoken to. He turned out to be a Pillar Listener– his face lit up, he was so engaged and, unlike my dear Midwesterners, he showed it! Whenever I was wondering if people were really with me, if my crazy outfit was too over-the-top, I panned over to him and got an infusion of creative affirmation.
Afterward, my friend Jeff Niesen gave me this! The slightly Tim Burtonish version of me (!!) and some of the characters from the stories.
“Absolutely wonderful new juvenile book at the library.” -Grand Marais Public Library
“Terrific book reading Rose… such a gifted writer AND performer!” -Mica
One librarian told me ‘I wouldn’t just say this– I read a LOT of books– But I just LOVED it!’ As someone who has loved libraries forever (and regarded them as magical places), this is high praise where it counts. (And it’s pretty cool to see my book on the shelves– even cooler to find out there’s a waiting list for it. I love my community!)
Click your heels. Make your wishes. Try something new. Tell stories you love.