Hello, again, friend:
This last Saturday afternoon, I rode with friends to Lancaster County to see a bit of Amish country—a rhubarb festival, some quilting shops, a wine-tasting. We passed many carriages and buggies, a family fishing at a pond, bicycle scooters, all leading us to talk about childhood and play. No, I told Tina and Georgeline, I didn’t learn how to ride a bicycle. I didn’t roller skate as a kid. I didn’t learn to swim until I was twenty. Didn’t ice skate. Just what, Georgeline asked, did you do as a kid?
Well, I said. I did once transpose the heads of Ken and Barbie. And I read a lot.
Like Lisa describes in one of her letters to you, I did play with words. I loved wandering through the library and coming home with stack of some of the same books she mentions. J.R.R. Tolkien and Jack London. I loved dog books. Horse books. Mrs. Pickerel Goes to Mars and Beneath the Ocean books. Rebecca of Sunnybrook farm books. I loved books about enchantments and princesses and frogs and knights and quests. I loved The Grey Fairy Book and still have the copy Margaret Beasley gave me when I was at Berea College.
Still, my reading wasn’t all that playful. I read Dostoevsky when I was fourteen. D.H. Lawrence when I was twelve. The Scarlet Letter when I was nine (though I admit I didn’t much get why Hester had to wear that red letter across her breasts). One of my favorite children’s books was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. I was, in short, a weird kid, and sometimes a bit of a drag where fun was concerned, most it because my OCD mother didn’t allow the dirt-making possibilities of play.
I know well why I didn’t play much when I was child, but why has play with language become so challenging these last years as I have dived deeper into teaching, writing, publishing my work? As you say, Nancy, “over and over again I hear that writers must have a tough skin, that we must be superhuman in dealing with critiques and reviews and criticism.” On some level, I think my skin has become too thick these days and I am taking the fearless inventory of how.
There are, first of all, the rules of the day world. The platforms building. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Elo, Pineterest, Reddit, Linkedin, Tsu, Goodreads. Tours, conferences, workshops, readings. Highways to travel and doors to knock on and miles of calls to make before I sleep, etc.
The dream world and its rules interest me more. The writing itself and the ways I have learned it over the years. I am forever thankful for the mentorship I have received over the many years now in bringing characters and pages and sentences and whole books to life, I have, these last years, reexamined some of the guidelines, both the ones I have proffered and the ones I have witnessed or read or overheard. For example: no espionage; no robots; no romance; no children’s stories; no horror. Or on the wary list: dreams; ringing telephones; visions; lingering illnesses; being too personal; being too lyric; not being lyric enough; being politically correct; not being politically correct. I won’t even mention (though I guess I just did) writing memoir.
Whew. My own skin is either thicker than thick with all the inner and outer world stuff, or it is way too thin, to the breaking point. I didn’t play much when I was kid, and now here I am, workworkworking it, this Writing Life. These beautiful spring mornings, I find myself wanting to pick up my Pan pipe and lean out the window and summon it. Magic? Play, certainly. How I long for the play that Lisa rediscovered when she returned to writing after having stopped for some time: “I just put the words down, one after other, 1700 words a day. There was no order: I wrote scenes in whatever order they appeared in my head. I ignored contradictions and plot holes, and told myself I’d fix all that later.”
“It is the job of artists,” says Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, “to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’ — the boundary of the unknown.” But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.”
Like you, Nancy, I’m thinking more and more about the consequences of “moving our characters around according to our own whims and not their needs and the needs of the story.” While I don’t see myself writing a fantasy novel, I am more and more intrigued by the possibilities. The what-if’s and the why-not’s. What would happen if my words and I took a long, fast ride on a back road and we leaned way out the window into the dark and saw the stars with nary a light anywhere and sang our hearts out then and there? And then, of course, we’d go home again and settle down to the pages ahead…