So Many Days

so-many-days-coverA while ago, years probably, the way things are blurring together, someone gave you an idea for a picture book.

“Doorways,” was the idea, which was passed along to you in a three-degrees-of-separation kind of way.

That’s the kind of idea you like. A better word for it would probably be “challenge.” One word, nothing too specific, bedeviling in its abstraction.

Doorways. Look at it long enough and it looks weird, dour even, maybe because of that beginning DOOR.

You picture some of the doorways you’ve known in your life, the literal ones: the many-paned one that led from the kitchen to the dining/living room in the house you grew up in, the door that was never closed because the house was “heated” from the woodstove in the kitchen.

The small door that led to the tiny triangular bathroom in your first one-room apartment, the door that people who didn’t know you assumed led to the rest of the apartment,  the “real” apartment.

The doorless doorway of your friend’s childhood bedroom.

The doorway of your youngest child’s room, hung with beads.

The chained door that you’ve thrown yourself against more than once.

The door that you tried and tried to open, only to come away with the knob in your hand.

These are a few of the doors you’ve known. Passages from one place to another, doorways that you step through. Now you look down at your feet, those long feet that have walked you from one place to another all your life, some you wanted to go to, others that you didn’t but had no choice.

How do you write a picture book about doorways? What can you say? What does it even mean? Think of a song. Make up a little song. Make up the kind of song you used to make up when your children were babies.

“So many doors in all your days

So much to wonder about –

Who will you be and where will you go?

And how will you know?”

You didn’t think much about who you would be and where you would go, way back when. You wanted to go everywhere, and you were young, and you went far, and often alone.

The age you are now seemed unimaginable when you were young, but you don’t feel much different. You’re more patient now, not by nature but by necessity. You’ve let go of some of the things you wanted so fiercely, not by nature but by necessity.

You’ve gone places you longed to go – children and books and friends and loves – you’re lucky. You’ve gone places you never wanted to go, never would have chosen to go – funerals and heartbreak, loss that felt too painful to bear – you’re human. To be human is to love what is mortal.

How do you go from one place in life to another when you don’t know what’s coming? How do you keep going? How can you fit a lifetime of wonder and longing and heartbreak and love into 32 pages?

Can you?

You keep trying. You think of your own children. You don’t want them to hurt, to go through those sudden terrifying doorways that they, being human, will someday have to go through. Will they know that you are watching over them?

You imagine a bird, a kite, earth and sun, the unimaginable depths of that dark ocean. You keep returning to that refrain: How will you know? Sometimes you won’t, is the answer that comes back.

So many doors in all your days

So much to wonder about

Who will you be and where will you go?

And how will you know?

You think of your children again. Please, let them know that you will always be watching over them, no matter where you are, where you have gone.

You are loved more than you know.

And finally it’s a book.  “So Many Days,” illustrated by the quietly brilliant Taeeun Yoo, edited by the wonderful Caitlyn Dlouhy, due out next week from Atheneum. Up top there is the cover.

And wild and sweet the words repeat

jergie-as-santa-claus-20091It was the second day of a three-day blizzard, and she had just come in from shoveling.

She had decided to shovel every time four or five new inches had fallen, because it was heavy, wet snow, and it stuck to the shovel, and she figured that her back would break right in half if she left it all to the bitter end, which was supposed to be two or more feet.

Those she loved were not with her yet, and she made some lemon squares and roasted some vegetables and rubbed the skins off many boiled potatoes.

The snow was falling outside the upstairs room with the blue-green walls where she sat with the dog and the cat, all of them looking out at the street, where two tracks meandered down the nearly-unplowed expanse.

It was beautiful. The big pine outside her window was laden with snow, and so was the one across the street, and colored and white lights on houses and trees and bushes glowed through the falling snow up and down the block.

Earlier that afternoon she had watched as bundled-up women and men came struggling out of the apartment buildings, wrapped gifts piled high in plastic laundry baskets. They had started their cars, brushed snow off windows, shoveled around the tires and then helped push each other out of the drifts and into those two tracks.

Her  car with its four new high-performance all-season tires could no longer be called the Death Cab, and so she herself braved the snow and drove to her brother and sister-in-law’s house a few miles away. They ate tortellini and salad, and she partook of a vegetarian Scotch egg, a culinary first.

Her nephew showed her his favorite ornament on the tree, a small beaded candy cane. He told her he would be leaving out some cookies and water.

“Do you mean cookies and milk?”

No. He meant cookies and water.

Earlier in the day, on the first of her several shoveling expeditions, she was shoveling the sidewalk when a man came strolling down the street with a snowblower. Strolling, yes, an odd word, but the only one that fits.

“Are you shoveling that whole sidewalk?”

Indeed she was shoveling that whole sidewalk.

“Let me snowblow it for you. I’m going this way anyway.”

She let him.

She spoke to her mother and father, who were due to fly in the next day from their faraway home in the foothills of upstate New York. They compared respective snowfalls and decided that if they, they being her mother and father, arrived less than 36 hours late they, they being everyone, would all be pleasantly surprised.

She advised her mother to pack extra food and a change of underwear. Her mother advised her to take a prophylactic dose of ibuprofen before her next shoveling expedition.

On her third shoveling expedition she discovered that the snowblowing man hired by her 85-year-old neighbor had snowblown a miniature mountain of snow directly in front of her backyard gate, sealing her in.

This  was an interesting challenge which she met full-on, wielding her shovel as both pickaxe and shovel. As she worked she mulled the past tense of snowblow: Snowblew? Snowblowed? Snubled?

She reminded herself that the days were already growing longer and that the time of greatest darkness was already behind her.

She vowed to straighten her back with each shovelful, and lift with her legs, but she broke the vow immediately.

Late that night her best friend called her, sleepy, and they discussed the  amount of produce wasted when one was forced, by lack of time, to do one large grocery shop per week rather than a little shop daily, basket in hand, as the French do. Or as they would like to believe the French do.

They discussed the habit some people have of sending a single family emissary early to an event, an event such as a candlelight service at a small church, say, with many extra coats in hand, and draping those coats up and down an entire pew.

They discussed the habit each had of buying gifts, wrapping gifts, hiding gifts so they would remain safe and undiscovered, and then forgetting that they had bought, wrapped, and hidden these gifts.

Her best friend wished her sweet dreams and hung up. She looked around the blue-green walls of the upstairs room, at the orange and fuchsia silky curtains flung over the curtain rod, at the little white lights strung around the window, at the snow falling outside on the laden pines.

Near midnight, she put on her coat and scarf and mittens and her giant men’s boots and went to be with others, to sing songs and light candles.

She smiled at everyone, and they all smiled back.

Two one-day creative writing workshops, Northfield, MN, 24 January 2010

typewriter-have-a-wonderful-dayI’m pleased to announce two one-day creative writing workshops, Writing from Photographs and The Art of Writing Picture Books, to be held in Northfield, MN on Sunday, January 24. Fellow writer Brad Zellar and I will be teaching the workshops concurrently. See below for details, and please forward this email to any friends and writers who may be interested. Thanks!

Workshop #1: Writing from Photographs: Inside and Outside the Frame
Date and Time: Sunday, January 24, 1-5 p.m.
Location: Northfield Arts Guild, 304 Division Street South, Northfield, MN
Cost: $50 (includes all materials)

It’s said that every picture tells a story, but that’s only true if we apply our memories and imaginations to reconstructing or re-imagining the constellation of circumstances and details that literally frame all photos. In a sense, then, a photo is actually a mere scene from a story –a beginning or an end, perhaps, or a mysterious, poignant, or telling incident that unlocks the story’s secrets.

What would the complete picture have shown that the photo does not? What happened just before the shutter was snapped, and just after? Time is forever frozen in the image, but life went on before and after that particular moment, and that life, and those details, are the proper story of the most evocative photos.

Bring in three photos of your own, ones whose largely untold stories fascinate or resonate on some imaginative level, and we’ll provide others. Through a series of guided writing exercises, discussion, and analysis of both published and peer writing, you’ll come away with insights and techniques for character development, scene setting and storytelling, both real and imagined. All experience levels welcome.

Brad Zellar is a writer, editor, photographer, and former bookstore owner. His journalism, fiction, and photography have been published in a variety of newspapers, magazines, journals, and anthologies. He is the recipient of awards from The Society of Professional Journalists, The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and the Minnesota Magazine Association. For as long as he can remember he has used found photographs as inspiration for fiction, poetry, and essays. Zellar is the author of “Suburban World: The Norling Photos” (Borealis Press, 2008), which the Coen brothers used as their primary reference for their most recent movie, A Serious Man.

Workshop #2: The Art of Writing Picture Books
Date and Time: Sunday, January 24, 1-5 p.m.
Location: Northfield Arts Guild, 304 Division Street South, Northfield, MN
Cost: $50 (includes all materials)

Anyone who has ever read a book to a child over and over (and over and over) knows the power of the best picture books, those astonishing collaborations in which illustrations and text both reflect and deepen each other. Text and art are inseparable; two halves make up a greater whole. “Goodnight, Moon,” anyone? “Where the Wild Things Are?”

How does a writer approach the telling of a book in which the illustrations are half the equation? What sorts of subject matter are possible, and how best can you present them? What are the central questions and tension of your story? What’s the best pacing for such a compact (thirty-two pages) book? Through a variety of in-class writing exercises, discussion of published materials, and lecture, you will gain an understanding of the questions, challenges and delights of picture book writing. Instructor will also explain the submission and publishing process of picture book writing. All experience levels welcome.

Alison McGhee is a Pulitzer prize nominee who writes novels, picture books and poems for all ages. She is the recipient of many awards, including four Minnesota Book Awards, a Best Books for Young Adults award, and three Booksense 76 picks. She is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of several picture books, including “Someday” and “Only a Witch Can Fly,” which the New York Times recently named one of the Best Ten Illustrated Books of 2009.

Each class is limited to 20 students. Please email alison_mcghee@hotmail.com to register. Looking forward to seeing you in January!