“Attention is the beginning of devotion”
For the past week, I have been reading and savoring Upstream, Mary Oliver’s luminous new collection of essays. I am in awe of Oliver’s power of observation, her keen ear, her deft turn of phrase. In an essay on Emerson, she describes his writing as “a pleasure to the ear, and thus a tonic to the heart, at the same time that it strikes the mind.” For me, this is a description of Oliver’s own writing as well.
We had our first snow yesterday, and the everlastings and late roses were “crowned with the first tuffets of snow,” so I thought this was a particularly appropriate poem to share today.
“Song for Autumn”
Don’t you imagine the leaves dream now
how comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of the air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don’t you think
the trees, especially those with
mossy hollows, are beginning to look for
the birds that will come–six, a dozen–to sleep
inside their bodies? And don’t you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow?
Have you ever had one of those weeks when you have something going on every single evening? This is one of those weeks for me. I’ve been distracted by all I have to accomplish in the next few days. I’m still am not sure how I’ll manage it all. But I haven’t written a Slice in almost a month, and I didn’t want to let another week slip by without writing.
Then all of a sudden it was after eight o’clock. I’d been tossing around a couple of ideas throughout the day. I’d even started drafting one. But nothing was coming together. As I was cleaning the kitchen, considering my options, I heard snatches of the baseball game from the living room. It sounded like the starting pitcher had walked the first two batters. Not an auspicious way to begin a game.
As a lifelong baseball fan, I know that pitchers sometimes take time to settle into a rhythm and hit their stride. Sometimes their first few pitches are erratic: high, low, outside. Sometimes they don’t recover from these rough starts. They give up too many runs too early, and they are done for the day. But sometimes they settle down a pitch a brilliant game.
I realized that I was having trouble writing my slice because, like that pitcher, I couldn’t settle down. I couldn’t find my writing rhythm.
How often do our students find themselves in this situation? Probably more often than we know. They may have an idea, but aren’t really sure how to find their way into it. Or maybe they can’t choose between a few ideas. Whatever the case, we can establish routines and provide supportive writing environments, but we can never completely prevent a bad writing day. The key is not to give up, and to let our students know we’re not giving up on them. When the manager goes out to the mound to take the ball away, he doesn’t yell and scream. (Although he might later.) He’s calm and nurturing, just as we are when our students are stuck.
And just like that struggling pitcher, we will either settle down and write something, or we’ll put down our pen after only a sentence or two. But we’ll also be back tomorrow, pen in hand, ready to face the page with our best effort.
This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. This week’s topic, in preparation for the National Day On Writing on October 20, is “Why I Write.” Please be sure to visit Margaret’s blog to read more Digilit Sunday contributions.
“You were made and set here to give voice to your own astonishment.” ~ Annie Dillard ~
When I was growing up, I loved to explore. Inside or out, it didn’t matter. I was curious about what was under every rock and what I could see from the top of each tree. I wanted to know what was in every drawer and old trunk I could find. At one point, I even wanted to be an archeologist so I could say it was my job to find treasure.
I didn’t become an archeologist, but my curiosity has never left me. Daily walks are explorations. I always return home with something: a leaf or fragment of a wasp’s nest, an image in my head or on my camera. Opening a book and entering into unknown worlds is another way to delve into the unknown. Poking around an antique shop or a flea market also recaptures that thrill of discovery.
But the most important way I keep my sense of wonder and curiosity alive is by writing. When I write, I can wander through the woods where I played as a kid. Or pore over old photos from the desk in my grandmother’s living room. I can rummage around in forgotten boxes for hours and still be excited when some long-forgotten memento turns up.
Writing lets me puzzle through questions. The page, after all, is a good listener. Writing lets me have a conversation about subjects no one else is interested in. In both cases, writing clarifies my thoughts about my work and life. Sometimes writing captures my frustrations. Letting the paper absorb my irritation or discouragement helps to dissipate negative feelings.
Writing also allows me, as Ted Kooser so wonderfully described it in The Poetry Home Repair Manual, to have moments “full of joyous, solitary discovery.” I have experienced these moments, although they are they exception, not the rule. What I have learned during my life as a writer, is that the more you write, the more likely you are to make one of those joyous discoveries; a flash of insight, when the right words flow out in the right order. It is a deeply satisfying moment.
The writing I do for myself, because I want to, also puts me in a better position to help my students. I know that extended periods of time to write about things they’re passionate about is necessary if they are to become skilled writers and thinkers. I want my students to have the opportunity to see where their writing takes them. Who knows what they might discover about themselves?
Writing may be satisfying, but it can also be deeply frustrating. My writing always falls short of my expectations. So why do I continue? I keep writing because I always learn something new. And I’m always searching for the undiscovered treasure waiting for me at the bottom of the trunk.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge once reminded “clever young poets” that poetry is “the best words in the best order.” Joyce Sidman’s poetry embodies this advice. In her latest book, Before Morning (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), Sidman has chosen just sixty-six words and crafted them into a lyrical incantation full of love and longing.
A hallmark of Sidman’s poetry is her unexpected metaphors and images, and Before Morning is true to form. We’re instantly lured into “the deep woolen dark” where “the earth turns to sugar/and all that is heavy/turns light.”A deceptively simple rhyme scheme is almost “hidden from sight,” but adds to this book’s rhythm and beauty.
Beth Krommes‘s scratchboard and watercolor illustrations give a marvelous depth to Sidman’s poem and resonate in unexpected ways. Sidman herself has said that the illustrations were “a complete surprise.” Krommes, who has illustrated two of Joyce’s earlier books, Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006)and Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), provides a setting that is instantly recognizable to readers: the hustle and bustle of daily life. Children will want to pore over the details of this family’s life and will find surprises on every page.
In her author’s note, Joyce explains that Before Morning is “an invocation—a poem that invites something to happen.” She goes on to encourage readers to think about their own wishes and find the best words for them.
I tried to find the best words I could to express how much I love this book. My wish is for Joyce Sidman and Beth Krommes to continue collaborating and creating stunning picture books like Before Morning.
Thursday was a glorious autumn day in Connecticut. The sky was clear blue, and the trees glowed in the afternoon sun. And even though the equinox was a few weeks ago, this poem describes the day exactly.
The miracle of a book is a mystery to children. They wonder where books come from. They think authors are, as E.B. White put it, “mythical being[s].” To children, books seem to be conjured out of thin air. Which, in a sense, like a spider’s web itself, they are.
In Some Writer: The Story of E.B. White (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), Melissa Sweet has woven a miraculous, magical book that peels back a layer of this mystery to reveal the very human side of one of our most mythical authors, E.B. White.
Sweet’s inviting prose and inventive artwork immediately draw readers into White’s world. The illustrations are a hybrid of photos, collage, and watercolors. Sepia-toned photographs of White with his father and brother in Maine are followed by one of Sweet’s appealing watercolors. White’s own description of the scene, from his 1940 essay, “A Boy I Knew,” is typed out on vintage paper using a manual typewriter, serves as a caption. The effect is beguiling. I wanted to be sitting there “at the water’s edge [on] a granite rock upholstered in lichen.”
Drawing extensively on White’s letters and essays, Sweet takes readers from White’s childhood in Mount Vernon, New York to his death in Maine eighty-six years later. As a boy, he was surrounded by words and discovered at an early age that writing helped him “to assuage my uneasiness and collect my thoughts.” Keeping her text focused on how early events in White’s life impacted his development as a writer and his future work, Sweet helps readers see the roots of Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan in his life and his early writings.
White’s early poems and stories were published in St. Nicholas Illustrated Magazine for Boys and Girls. Sweet includes copies of these, giving the book the intimate feel of a scrapbook of a beloved relative. Readers will want to savor every page. Glimpses of White’s masterpieces for children are found throughout his life. Sweet writes about White’s time as a camp counselor at Camp Otter in Canada, and we learn abouthis road trip across the country in a Model T after graduating from Cornell.
Each major work, as well as The Elements of Style, is given its own chapter. We learn of the difficulties White had finishing Stuart Little, the criticism it received from librarians, and the love lavished on it by children. Sweet describes in detail how White’s farm in Maine, his doomed pig, and a spider’s egg sac coalesced into Charlotte’s Web. Sweet’s description, drawing on White’s own words, of how the opening scene of this book evolved is a master class in revision. As every writer knows, “revising is part of writing.” These scenes show how the fantastical elements of White’s fiction are grounded in the real world. As White replied to one of his critics, “children can sail easily over the fence that separates reality from make-believe.”
No detail in the design of Some Writer is ignored: chapter numbers are old typewriter keys, old-fashioned labels are used for page numbers and to identify the essay or letter of White’s that is being quoted. Sweet’s collages are perfect mentor texts for creative ways to convey information.
The publisher lists the age range as 7-10, but middle school readers will also find plenty to be inspired by in this book. All readers and writers have much to learn from E.B. White’s quiet wisdom about writing and life. Interested readers will want to explore the extensive endnotes and bibliography of White’s own work, as well as works written about him. There is a touching afterword by White’s granddaughter, Martha, and notes from Melissa Sweet about her writing process and her art.
Sweet writes with the economy White advocates in The Elements of Style. “Every word tell[s]” a key part of White’s story. She blends her words and her art with White’s words and demystifies the process of becoming a writer… “through hard work and being open to the world around you.”
After White’s death, Roger Angell, William Shawn, and John Updike wrote in his obituary, “White felt it was a writer’s obligation to transmit as best he can his love of life, his appreciation for the natural world.” Sweet’s love of and appreciation of E.B.White, his work, and the natural world shine out from every page of Some Writer. In her author’s note, Sweet quotes White, saying “It has been ambitious and plucky of me to attempt to describe what is indescribable…[But] a writer, like an acrobat, must occasionally try a stunt that is too much for him.” Like Charlotte’s Web itself, Sweet’s “stunt” is nothing short of a miracle.
Review copy received from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. An Educator’s Guide for Some Writer is available here.