12.29.2010

Full Circle: beginnings, endings, beginnings again...


We all begin somewhere. Stories all begin somewhere. I began with my mom. She had me in January almost forty-nine years ago. It was not an easy birth. I was born too soon. They didn't know my mom had a chemical imbalance. She didn't do well, but we both survived somehow.


My parents were both artists, and even if they didn't stick together like glue, they provided the materials that inspired me to become the artist, the author, the illustrator, the creative woman I have become.


When I was little, I had decided that I wanted to be a children's book author and illustrator and kept that goal in mind despite many side trips down other roads. As an illustration student I still kept looking back to that sense of wonder that kept me alive and enchanted despite obstacles and difficulties.

My mom never lived to see my books get published. In fact she died six days after my twenty-fourth birthday in January almost twenty-five years ago. Ten days later the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Somehow that expressed my grief at the time- it was universal, galactic, unfathomable.



We didn't have much growing up, especially after my father left my mother for my brother's first grade teacher. My mother couldn't afford to pay our taxes or our heating bills. She didn't have health insurance, and she had been diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of the red blood cells. When she died, all that was left was the old, rundown farmhouse and barn we lived in, and she had sold it for less than the land was worth just before she died. We had to keep that sale going just to pay her medical bills.

What little was left was put into some stock for my younger brother and me to inherit when we turned twenty-five. Now I could have used that money to buy a car. A nice car for back then. But I didn't. I didn't touch it. Not for almost twenty-four years. I didn't know why. Partially it was because I wanted to prove I could build a life on my own and by myself. And I did.


This is the little studio that we restored. It used to be a work shed. It's over a hundred years old, and for the past fourteen years, this little building has been where I've created the art for the books I've written.

My mom always wanted a huge barn to paint in. She had a barn, but you could see through the floor boards to the old cement stalls below. The pot belly stove barely kept it warm in winter, and then one night a crazy kid in the neighborhood set it on fire and she lost four hundred of her paintings. It was the beginning of the end for her. I was the first one to see the flames from our kitchen window and had to tell her that the firemen were at our door.

But the other reason I think I didn't spend the inheritance is that I thought it was the last bit of "her" that I had left. If that money was gone, she would be gone. So I didn't touch it, and it grew. Just before the economy fell I was lucky to pull it out of the stock it had been sitting in all those years...

Now I'm skipping over a bunch of parts now, because they are not as relevant, but one day my beloved husband made me realize that if I used that money to build the studio I had always dreamed of, wouldn't my mother think that was better than it sitting in a bank account?

So. You know what? I used it all. I built that studio. It's almost done.


I can't wait to start writing, drawing, painting, dreaming, singing, dancing, creating... and the best part is that in the end, it came from my mother. It's her gift to me. Sometimes we have to take what seems like an ending and make it a beginning. It's true in writing, and in life, and you never know where it will lead you...

Have an amazing and inspirational 2011...
Here's to great beginnings, and middles and endings, too.
With Love,
Nina

11.29.2010

Inspiration: Friends, Stones, Stories...


My friend, children's book author/illustrator Paul Owen Lewis took this photo. That dark silhouette of a human being is me, hunting for agates. Paul and I went on a long walk the other day, working off Thanksgiving meals, and talking about writing, creating books, and being artists. We walked on the beach and discussed the differences between those who are compelled to create "art" and those who are more "family-oriented." Now, I'm not saying that artists are not family oriented. Not saying that at all. We both just happen to have a lot in common - we came from less-than-ideal family circumstances, we both write and illustrate, and neither of us has had biological children. This is no formula for being creative, by the way. There are as many stories behind the stories of authors and illustrators who have been "inner directed" to bring their inspirations to life.


Here we are, cold and happy. Hand-held portrait by Paul. We both love to find things on the beach. I hunt mostly for agates, but I also find petrified wood, jade, jasper, "zen" rocks, which are just stones that I respond to, and the occasional seal's tooth. Paul likes sea glass and perfectly spherical stones. As much as we have in common, we are just as different. Non-artist friends used to ask me how I could be friends with other authors and illustrators. "Aren't they your competition?" they would ask. "Not at all," I always answered. "Their ideas and their ways of doing things are completely different from mine." Just like Paul and I live in the same neighborhood, on the same hill, we have different views. When we walk the beach, he also sees things that I don't, and visa versa. Actually, that's not true. I find sea glass and give it to him. But there is comfort there in the fact that we are not wired the same. We share the same space, but we bring our own original perspectives to what we experience. That comes out in our stories and our art, as well. It is our fingerprint... or mental print, or something like that.

What I've discovered is that friendship with my fellow creative folks is inspirational, not competitive. We need someone else who understands the strange world we inhabit. A world where ideas sometimes envelope us in a fog that makes us seem "not present" to our spouses or significant others. We find ourselves laughing, or crying at something we've read, or heard in song lyrics, and we feel things sometimes too deeply, or we find ourselves in weird synchronicity with our little world when the iPod chooses the perfect song to play with the story we are reading or writing, or just the thought that has gone through our head. 

So friends play a role in my creative process and keep me out of isolation, which I can easily slide into especially in the claws of winter. 

The stones also play a role for me. (and I don't mean the Rolling Stones, although I do love the sound of both that band and the sound the real stones make on the beach as the tide massages them in and out.)


I mean these stones. While I am out there, lost in my fog, searching for these little treasures on the beach, I am writing in my head. I am talking to my characters. I am singing song lyrics. I am telling myself subconscious stories. The agates sparkle and glow at me and ask me to take them home. They are my inspiration on my walking meditations. I bring them home and polish them, just like you would write down your ideas and then start polishing them. Over time, when I collect hundreds of agates, all polished, and waiting... I turn them into this:


...an agate luminaria candle holder. I have these all around my home, and they not only light up the dark nights, and make meals elegant, but they warm my soul. Each one of those little beach finds have found their potential. I hope that I can do that with stories, too. The pieces gradually come together to create a whole that is more powerful than the individual parts. It takes polishing, patience, and time.

Another thing that Paul and I both have in common is this love of natural objects. I know this is true for so many artists. 

Give me a beautiful bone, or a fabulous feather. 
Show me a root ball or a field of heather. 
Take me to the beach and leave me alone. 
Don't buy me an iPad or a new cell phone. 
I don't want a fancy vacation.
Just natural beauty and sweet inspiration.

You can sing that in the key of E, kinda bluesy.
I'd love to know what inspires you.

With love,
Nina









11.19.2010

Fear and Loathing in my Brain


I shouldn't feel this way. All doom and gloom and can't and won't. But I do. This photo recently taken in New York's meatpacking district reflects my angst. It also shows that my black Levi's are way too short for my 5'6" frame leg length. (I actually think they were stuck on my boots. The pants should have been tucked into the boots.) Fashion faux pas aside, what pray tell is causing me all this trepidation?

Come on, guess?

No. It's not the fact that I haven't posted in a couple of weeks. Sorry about that, I apologize.

No. It's not the impending Thanksgiving holiday and the incoming brother, and the outgoing finances from impending holiday spending and a studio/garage construction project over budget.

No. It's not even the rejection I just received on a picture book project from the publisher I've worked with for over sixteen years - and the fact that the editor I've worked with all those years has not personally contacted me in ten months. I'm over that.

Okay, I'll tell you.

But first here is another photo to show you how I feel.



Mummified. Or perhaps petrified. (I think you would feel petrified if you slept on a bed made of stone.)

What is causing all this is the fact that I just finished a draft of my first novel. It's sitting there in hard copy form, all 282 pages of it so that I can give it a read through and find all the typos, grammatical errors, missing transitions, and what have you. I had to print it because I can't edit on screen. Can't find typos to save my life or my vision. I've been working on this story in parts over the past year or more, but threads of it go back longer.

At first, when I finished it, I was elated. I thought I was so clever and creative. But now, only hours after I hit the save button for the last time, not so much. That stupid radio station that Anne Lamott talks about in her book, "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life"- "KFKD" has been playing in my head. It's been telling me, "you suck. This sucks. NO one is going to like it, care about it, want to read it, want to publish it, etc... don't quit your day job." But my day job is writing and illustrating.

True, I made myself cry a few times while I was writing it, but maybe I was pre-menstrual or something. Maybe the outlandish narrator I dreamed up is completely far fetched. I won't say who he is, but I will say he exists in the imaginations of anyone who has ever read Mother Goose. Was I nuts to think that would work?

Yeah, I know I need to give it a rest. Both the complaining and the draft. I need to be objective enough to read it through before I go apply for a job as holiday help at Fred Meyer. And I know I'm not the only writer who has ever gone through this. We are all our own worst enemies sometimes. The only remedy seems to be a couple of glasses of wine, or a publishing contract.

I know, I know. Shut up. I should be thrilled that I did this. It's no easy task to write a novel. I marvel every time I read one I truly love. How much blood, sweat, and psychiatrist bills did it take that human miracle of a being to put that together? How many nights did they wake up and realize that they had a better direction for their character? How many times did their story change right in front of their eyes and fingertips as they were typing it? How many people get to weave bits and pieces of their lives, their thoughts and their concepts into something others may someday connect to?

The truth is, I really don't know if what I wrote is good, is worthy... but I have to believe in it. I have to take it to the next step. I never realized that writing was such an act of bravery, but it is. It really is.

To all of you who hang your literary laundry out to dry - I stand with you in solidarity. And now I'm going to take my underwear off the flag pole and go work on some picture books.

By the way, if you have any good ideas on how to deal with this mental gymnastics stuff, post a comment. It will save me on my shrink bills.
With love,
Nina

11.03.2010

A Sensorial Journey: Where Writing Can Take You


You could say it started with the papaya. Or you could say it started with my birthday at Blackcomb mountain in British Columbia. Or even before that- it could have started with visiting my sisters-in-law in San Francisco and staying at the Hotel Vitale across the street from the Ferry Building. Stories can begin anywhere, and sometimes finding the origin is like doing an archeological dig. It can virtually go back in time until we are all somehow connected by sequences of DNA. 

For the sake of time and space, I'm going to say it began in the shower at the Hotel Vitale. It was there that I discovered Fresh products, namely the Soy Shampoo, the Pomegranate conditioner, the Lemon Sugar Shower Gel and the Sugar Lemon Body Lotion. No, this is not an advertisement. It was simply a moment when I discovered something that smelled beautiful and felt beautiful, and added some pleasure and luxury to my life, and I began ordering the products online so I could bring that experience home.

Now we can fast forward to last January when my husband and I made a last minute reservation to spend my birthday skiing at Whistler/Blackcomb in British Columbia. It was the twentieth year that we had been going to ski there- and it was the place where we first "dated" and discovered that we had so much in common that we wanted to ski parallel for the rest of our lives. It was the day of my actual birthday, and it was pre-Olympics, but not by much. The snow was not great, but I was thrilled to be on a mountain on my "day." We broke for lunch early to avoid any crowds, and that was when he came up to us. 

"He" was a representative of Intrawest, the company that owns most of Whistler/Blackcomb. Now my husband would have shooed him away in an instant, but it was my birthday, and I was feeling a little cheeky. When I told him it was my birthday, he had an instant comeback: "You must be turning twenty-something." Now this 48 year old was quick on her feet and responded, "my ski jacket is twenty years old, I don't think so." Mr. Sales was suave though, and he replied, "I can buy you a new ski jacket."

Long story short: it was one of those resort club membership deals. Something my husband and I would never have gone near except maybe in a bad economy for the free wine and cheese. Yet we went along for the ride and I didn't get the free jacket, but I did get some nice mid-weight capris and a zip-T from the Salomon store. We didn't sign up for the big deal, but we agreed, especially since they didn't want to let us leave, to take the resort for a "test run." They called it a "passport."

Booth had never been to Mexico, and their resort in Zihuatanejo looked mighty fine, so we aimed our compass and our frequent flyer miles in that direction, and next thing you know, we were there... or here:


Zihuatanejo exceeded our expectations. But I'm not writing a travelogue. However each morning we would visit the delightful Isabel on the Calle Adelita and drink her incredible juice that she prepared fresh for so few pesos it was ridiculous. 

We spoke in Spanish and English and I could tell you more stories, but I have to get back to the papaya and how it wound up taking me on a journey. Yes. That papaya. The one that Isabel juiced and added to the orange juice sitting there... I could drink one now.

Flash forward to this August, and an email in my inbox. It was from Fresh. I had been ordering their products online for years, so I was on the mailing list. They were announcing an essay contest to tie in to the new "Eat, Pray, Love" movie that they had just created fragrances and candles for. I had not seen the movie, but I loved the book. The contest asked that you write an essay in 250 words or less describing a "sensorial journey" that you had taken, and include a photograph. I knew immediately what I was going to write about. Even though I had been to Zihuatanejo in April, it was still vivid in my mind and my senses. So I wrote this essay, I titled it, "Zihuatanejo in a Bottle:"

Can you smell that papaya? Can you smell the salty sea air as it flows around Isabel’s fruit stand on Calle Adelita in Zihuatanejo, Mexico? Can you smell the oranges she just juiced to mix with that papaya, that huge cup of sunshine that you are about to drink as you inhale the scent of health, relaxation, the very vitamins and minerals that make Mexico a place to be breathing in? There are almond trees, mango, and banana trees around the corner. There is the central Mercado filled with the intoxicating aroma of tortillas frying, salsas cooking, fresh coffee beans, Mexican vanilla and cinnamon. There are waves rolling in from the bay and fisherman bringing back the catch so fresh it smells like the ocean. There is the warm scent of your husband’s neck, after an afternoon on the beach, his first time in Mexico and he swam with a five foot long loggerhead turtle. There is an afternoon breeze, filled with a cocktail of songbirds, tropical flowers and love. If Zihuatanejo were a fragrance you would want to live in the bottle. We were only there for six days, but the scent of this trip, this enchanted paradise will thankfully never wash out of our memories. 

This is 212 words. A paragraph. I wrote it in fifteen inspired minutes, and I included the photograph of that papaya at the top of this post, and then I sent it off into the cyber-ionosphere.

The beauty of the contest was that you could read the other entries and see their photos throughout the month of August. On September 1st, the contest closed and the judging began. 

I had never entered a contest like this before. Sure, I'd clicked some buttons and randomly entered into some lottery-like mass-marketed things that gave you virtually no chance of being anything but spam. I'd tried my hand at the New Yorker Magazine Cartoon Caption Contest thinking I was actually funny enough to win the prize of a signed cartoon print. (which I could have drawn myself.) But a contest where my writing was being judged, no, not really. (Not unless you count my application for the MFA program, but that wasn't supposed to be a contest.)

On September 9th I was in the plumbing supply store buying a toilet for my new studio under construction and my cell phone rang. It was the publicity assistant at Fresh calling to tell me that I had won the Grand Prize in the Fresh Eat Pray Love contest. I was nearly speechless. Not to mention embarrassed because I was staring at toilets.

Over the next few weeks, the reality of what I had won started soaking in. My little essay- barely one at that, had garnered me and my husband a trip for two to New York City- hotel and airfare, and I was to meet with Lev Glazman, the co-owner of Fresh to consult with him as he was to create my own personal bespoke fragrance. 



It is a long journey from Seattle to New York City for such a quick trip. But Lev had taken an even longer one from his childhood in Russia to the incredible company he and his partner, Alina had created. My experience meeting Lev and the stories he told were more valuable than any airfare or hotel or shopping spree. The connection was as potent as what I learned about fragrance, which held a lot of irony for me.

I used to wear fragrance. I stopped wearing it in 1997 when I went through major clinical depression. I stopped being able to smell or taste back then. I stopped eating and sleeping. After medical intervention and a lot of inner strength I pulled out of that tailspin, but I didn't recover my ability to tolerate a personal scent. But over time my chemistry changed, and little by little I started to warm up to natural essenses- mostly made by my friends at Tree Frog Farm on Lummi Island. 

What Lev showed me- or actually revealed to me- is that we respond so differently to fragrance. We have our own way of smelling and tasting that is unique to who we are. Some of us may be incapsulated in a commercial fragrance, but some of us may be a mysterious layering of code: floral, woodsy, citrus, musky... it's mind boggling. Good thing Lev is a genius and a scent-ual spirit guide.

This personal bespoke fragrance is a "once in lifetime" opportunity- a dream that I didn't even know that I was wishing for when I wrote those sentences. Now I realize that my writing has taken me to a place I didn't know existed before and I have so much to learn. My husband is excited, too. He had never told me, but he secretly had mourned that I had forsaken fragrance after my depression, and now I will have one that is me alone. 

What is even better is that this will invariably inspire not only more words, more stories, but hopefully friendship as well. 

Think about it. What does your writing do for you, and where can it take you? The possibilities are endless and hopefully the journey is just as sweet.

Love, 
Nina





10.21.2010

Writing By Numbers

Remember "Paint by Numbers?" You know. They were kits that had little containers of paints and cheap brushes, and they came with a canvas marked with numbers so that when you matched the numbers and painted them where they belonged, you, too could paint like this:


My mother hated "Paint by Numbers." With a passion. She was a fine artist. She was also an abstract expressionist. (She was a student of Hans Hofmann in the 1950's in Provincetown, MA.) I used to tell my friends that the only way you could figure out how to hang one of my mother's paintings was by the way the paint dripped. Mom didn't understand my literal nature, and always told me to "color outside of the lines." I told her that if she painted something recognizable, maybe like dogs - then she might sell some of her paintings.

We bantered back and forth like, well, mother and daughter. Mom wanted me to be a fine artist. I wanted to make a living.

Mom never lived to see my books get published. She had a very sad and difficult life, and she died of cancer, multiple myeloma, six days after I turned twenty-four. She always knew I wanted to be a children's book author and illustrator, and she had no problem with that. She actually had an epiphany before she left this world and became my "Avant-Guardian Angel"- that's what I call her... When I chose to major in illustration at Syracuse University, she told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was going to "become a commercial art prostitute." Those were fighting words! So I sent her to The Society of Illustrators in New York City to see a show.

That show changed mom's opinion of illustration. "It's art," she told me, shocked. "It has composition and good design." "And someone was paid for it," I added.

Many, many years later, though, I began to understand my mother's conceptual idea of commercial art prostitution, as I grew weary of being paid to illustrate for advertising agencies and corporations. Yes, there was money, but there was no soul. I didn't want to be a "wrist for hire" anymore, and that was part of the reason I plunged headfirst into my childhood dream of writing and illustrating my own books.

Writing, unlike painting doesn't have a "kit" you can buy. There is no "Writing by Numbers." I guess the closest you can get, especially for kids, would be "Mad Libs." I loved Mad Libs. When we took road trips- usually driving from Queens, New York to Martha's Vineyard in dad's 1962 VW Microbus- which I had named "Chug-a Boom" because of the way it ran... I was in charge of asking for the adjectives, nouns, verbs and adverbs. Mom and dad supplied them, and I would try to teach brother David just what adjectives and verbs and nouns were. "No David, orange is not a verb." David loved oranges. I cracked myself up when I read that nonsense back to the family. The nonsense stuck with me. The family didn't. The family cracked in pieces.

But really, the point of this post is that numbers and writing seem to be at odds, yet they become awkward dance partners. You can't write by numbers, yet word count seems to be on everyone's lips.

Meet Word Count:


He's worse than the vampire who sucks the blood out of you and keeps you up all night. Word Count sucks the life out of your story - that is if all you care is how many words it is. Word Count tells you if it is a Middle Grade or Young Adult novel. Word Count tells you that you need to edit down to the essentials if it is a picture book. I keep hearing that picture book word counts are getting lower and lower. I have some picture books that have 1200 to 1500 words. Now they like them in the 300-500 range. Go figure.

When I teach children's book writing people always worry about Word Count. I always try to tell them not to worry and just write the story. It will find the right level and will become the genre it should. I know. That sounds so Zen, and in practice, it is not that simple.

But... once you step out of your picture book shoes, and you put on some adult boots that were made for walking... Word Count welcomes you to his world. His cousin, Word Document will even count those words for you. You can watch as you type each one.

Now I've never thought of writing as a numbers game. But that was before I did this:

This little piece of insanity is National Novel Writing Month, also known as Nanowrimo. It is brought to you by some enthusiastic folks in the San Francisco area who seem to love numbers and Word Counts.

The concept is that you sign up (it is free, but you can donate to keep their programs going- you get a halo if you do that) and you challenge yourself to write (at least) 50,000 words from November 1-30th. That is 1,666.66 words per day, every day, for thirty days. That's a lot of words. My husband said, "can it be the same word?"

Some people may cheat. Maybe they copy the dictionary. Maybe they have serious logorrhoea. (My father has had this during manic episodes- he could have written 50,000 words a day then.)

However, honestly, I think most folks see this as a learning opportunity and a chance to stretch their writing wings- in full view of a large audience of eager participants. This is the first writing event that I know of that makes writing a "sport." All you have to do to claim victory is to have at least 50,000 words when you get to the November 30th finish line.  Some don't. Some have 300,000 words. Personally I think they must be on something to do that- like Lance Armstrong. I suspect doping.

Last year I wrote through a week of school visits and speaking in Beaverton, Oregon, and of course we all have to get through Thanksgiving. I had a week of David, who still thinks orange is a verb. (Ironically I went to Syracuse U, where we are "The Orangemen.") I did "win" Nanowrimo and wrote over 55,000 words of a novel. I completed the first draft in mid-January and wound up with 62,500 words total.

Of course I realized that it was not about the numbers. It was about the deadline. Most writers, when given the opportunity, would rather procrastinate. We all love to give excuses, and I know that yes, I can actually be working out a story problem while I'm washing the counter top or looking for the one millionth agate on our beach... but if someone says it's "due tomorrow." I'm ready to go. Final polishing be damned.  And like that agate on the beach, what you write during Nanowrimo will not be polished.

The beauty of this thing is that it makes you turn off your inner editor and just write the damn thing.

So. I'll be at it again this November. I'm a little less anxious this year. I think. I hope. I'm pretty sure I have a strong thread of a plot that I want to follow, and I know that my narrator is way out there... but I'm going to take the challenge and get it all on paper/screen and watch everyone's numbers as they grow. Word by word. Ann Lamott has that wonderful writing book, "Bird by Bird,"which got its' title when her son had to do a book report on birds and was overwhelmed. "You just take it bird by bird," she told him. And he did.

I know so many of you have a novel in you somewhere. I did a cartoon about that a few years back- it showed a doctor pulling a book out of a patient's gut. "yeah, he said he had a novel in him," was the caption. Nanowrimo may pull it out of you. Join me this year... let me know if you're going to do it. We can support each other and joke about our friend Word Count.
My username on Nanowrimo is Ann Denial. (an angram of my name, and possibly my pen name?)

Love,
Nina

10.13.2010

Giving Birth to a Baby Book


I've never given birth to a child. When I met my husband his boys were two, four and six. Doug, the youngest, was still in diapers. For some odd reason a lot of people seem to assume that you need to have had children- birthed babies- in order to create children's books. That's crazy talk. Maurice Sendak loves his German Shepherds, but he didn't donate his DNA to a little "wild thing" in order to get his creative license. Neither did Dr. Seuss or Beatrix Potter. I'm not saying that I chose to not have kids. It just happened. Life can be that way. 

What I am saying is that I believe that in order to create children's books you need to be in touch with your inner child. You need to be enchanted by this amazing world around us. You need to be curious like George, and wild like Max. You need to ask questions like "Why?" and "Who?" (I know I drive my dear huz nuts when I do this, but I can't help it.) You also need to think of your books as your children.

It's an apt metaphor: your books are your children.

You conceive an idea.
It gestates.
You do the labor to create it.
You send it off to a publisher to see if it will "get into school."
In "school" you work hard to make it the best it can be.
It goes off to press and "graduates." 
You have to let it go and see what kind of life it will have, helping when you can.
Some will be successful and some not.
You love them all, nonetheless. 

I have birthed many books. They are all my children. Each one was a completely different journey. Each one has its' own story. Over time I will share many of these stories here, but I thought that I would start with what I call "The Little Book That Could," my most successful book to date, "Peek-A Who?"

When I decided at about age nine that I wanted to be a children's book author and illustrator for real, I never thought I'd make "baby books." Baby books, also known as "board books" were for babies. My goal was to create illustrated literature. I was a sophisticated little girl who loved books, some way over my head. My mother had me reading James Thurber, Edward Lear and Greek mythology when I was in elementary school. 

As I started my career, I focused on fiction, which is my true love. I published "The Night I Followed the Dog," "Private I. Guana," and "When Pigasso Met Mootisse" with Chronicle Books from 1994 through 1998. In 1998 I was thirty-six years old and it seemed like there was something in the water and many of my friends started having babies. I wanted something to give them to celebrate these auspicious occasions, but these babies would have to be little geniuses to get my fiction when they didn't even have teeth... They say necessity is the mother of invention. I needed a cool, hip, intelligent and interactive baby book to give to my friends and I couldn't find one. So I invented "Peek-A Who?"

I wrote the text in about ten minutes. Okay, how much time should it take to write: 
Peek-a Who
Peek-a Moo
Peek-a Boo
Peek-a Zoo
Peek-a Choo-Choo
Peek-a You?

But the dummy took a lot longer. I illustrated, designed, folded and cut Bristol board.
This is the original dummy cover.

When you opened it, you saw this.

The inside spreads looked like this.

I glued a piece of aluminum foil to represent the mirror at the end.
I thought the mirror was important because little kids love to see themselves in the mirror, and ending the book on the child made for a very satisfactory ending. Little kids' worlds are all about them, after all.

I sent it off to my editor at Chronicle Books and waited to hear if they wanted to publish it. I don't remember how long it took for a response, but it seems to take weeks if they are interested, and months can drag on and on if they are not. I got a fairly fast response, but it wasn't quite what I expected. 
    "It's cute. But you can't just have one. You need to create another to go along with it."

Since when were baby books like potato chips and you couldn't have just one? No big deal. I'd come up with something else. Eventually - which was over a year later, I came up with "Ready, Set, Go!" There was no mirror in this one, but I had it end on a "pull-the-tab." I had no idea I was creating "novelty books." I just wanted a surprise, a clever way to end the books.

Chronicle sent me the contract for the two board books. We worked on the design and then I started the illustrations. I tend to change illustration media like most people change clothing. Maybe I have a bit of schizophrenia, but in reality, the book "tells me how it wants to be illustrated." (Books are talking to you? Break out the straight jacket.) Seriously, I knew that chalk pastels were the best choice for "The Night I Followed the Dog." I painted "When Pigasso Met Mootisse" in gouache because it was a book about painters. "Roberto the Insect Architect" begged for mixed-media collage - the illustrations needed to be "built like a house." 

But for baby books? I wanted simple, bright, bold color with strong outlines.  However I didn't want the art to appear static or boring. I love scratchboard and woodcuts, but they take too long to create. Again Mother Necessity spoke to me. (yeah, maybe I'm losing it, I hear a lot of voices...) She said, "why don't you paint the illustrations to look like a woodcut?"

So I did. 
For those of you who are into "art materials"- and you know who you are... (when I was in art school we used to ask the visiting professionals, "what size pen point do you use?" As if that would make us better if we used the same tools...) This is done with Holbein Acryla Gouache on Arches 140lb Hot Press Watercolor paper. (Holbein and Arches- you owe me, how about some free supplies?) Might as well throw in the brushes- I use tiny Windsor & Newton Sceptre Gold brushes. (Athletes get sponsored, why shouldn't artists and writers?) But as you can see, what makes this work is that first I paint my paper black. Then I paint on top of that in color and leave bits and pieces (and outlines) of the black showing to create this woodcut effect that adds "energy." 

Apparently it worked. All of it. "Peek-A Who?" is in its' 24th printing as of this post. It has sold well over 300,000 copies. (I don't have exact numbers. I also stopped checking my Amazon rankings and reader comments years ago. I don't watch TV and I only read the newspaper when I'm in the city. Ignorance isn't bliss, it's survival.) I'm astonished and proud of this little book. I love hearing praise from parents and kids alike. The book has a life of its own. I may have birthed it, but once a book is published it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to readers- they decide its' future. 

After "Peek-A Who?" and "Ready, Set, Go!" I created "Grow Up!" and "Who Loves You, Baby?" I also sewed up a dummy and created my first cloth book, "Button Nose" to help little kids learn to get dressed by themselves. My other baby books have done well, but not as well as "Peek-A Who?" My only theory is that it was "the pure concept." It was done out of love and need. The others were, too, but they were filtered through the publishing process. Chronicle Books would love me to come up with another "Peek-A Who?" I wish. But you can't create the same book twice. Well... let me rephrase that, I can't create the same book twice. Some people seem to land themselves a franchise. 

What I will say, however is that each book is a new opportunity to reinvent yourself, and that is what makes creating children's and baby books so exciting. I have a new one that is sitting on my editor's desk. I hope she will let me give birth to it fully- and then I'll be thrilled if you will take it into your hearts and homes the way you have embraced "Peek-A Who?" 

I'll keep you posted.
Love,
Nina








9.28.2010

The Beauty of Rejection

I didn't post last week. Sounds like a confession. It is, sort of. I had company. I had work. I had life. And I had no idea what to write about until yesterday. I did this cartoon over four years ago. It really has very little to do with what I'm actually going to say, but in so many ways it reflects what goes inside all of us- artists and non-artists included. We all want our "day on the stage" and "the crowd goes wild."

But if you put yourself out there, you are possibly setting yourself up for rejection, and that is what I'm writing about.

Anyone who wants to get published, or is trying to get published, whether that is with their writing or their art- or their music, or their acting... just about anyone who wants to do something with their lives must face rejection. Sometimes it is a form letter:

Dear Whoever You Are:
We are sorry but your story/art/face/craft/DNA is not right for our list. Good luck placing it elsewhere.
Sincerely, The Editors/Directors/POTUS/Dictator in General


Sometimes there are no letters, no calls, no thank you for trying.

Sure, you can be mad. Sure, you can blame them, blame the state of the world, blame your rotten luck and bad timing. But that won't get you anywhere but in the aisle of the drugstore looking for antacids. I have a much better remedy. Here it is, case in point:

This is the rejection letter I received yesterday. It's not from a publisher. It is from the highly competitive low-residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Warren Wilson College. I had decided at age forty-eight to apply to this program to deepen my skill level. Even though I have realized my dream of writing and illustrating children's books, I have never stopped learning. I've been working on a novel, and I came to a crossroads whereupon I decided that working on a degree in creative writing would be exciting and challenging. I had done some online research into good low-residency programs, and there are many scattered around the country, but then I reconnected with my former English Lit professor, Tobias Wolff, and he suggested Warren Wilson.

Warren Wilson's tag line, "we're not for everyone... but then, maybe you're not everyone" appealed to my "going against the grain" sensibilities. I wrote my application essays, included 25 pages of my novel, and got my two letters of recommendation: one from Tobias, himself, and one from my lovely editor at Chronicle Books. I thought I had a pretty nice package there. But the odds were against me and I knew it. Warren Wilson only takes 7-10 new students each semester in the Fiction Degree Program. I would be up against folks of all ages. Some fresh out of Ivy League undergrad English Literature underwear. I was wearing old art school rags.

Nevertheless I motored on and kept checking my oil pressure levels. As the deadline approached for their reply, I sensed internally that I didn't make the cut. Call it intuition, or call it hocus-pocus. Driving down I-5 yesterday, my husband called me to say that a letter from Warren Wilson had arrived.
"Is it thin?" I asked.
"Yes." (not good.)
"Should you open it or should I wait until I get home?"
"Either way."
"Open it."

This is what it said:

Dear Nina:
On behalf of the MFA Academic Board, I thank you for your interest in our Program for Writers but am sorry to say we are not able to invite you to begin the degree program. In recent years our pool of applicants has grown considerably and, while that is gratifying, it means we are accepting a progressively smaller percentage of the writers interested in joining us.


I know this result is disappointing. I hope you can take some encouragement from the fact that our readers praised your manuscript and asked me to indicate their interest, as well as their regret that we do not have more places to offer. All of us involved in the application process appreciate your dedication, and wish you the best for your work,
Yours, ------ ------ MFA Director


I’m okay with this. Truly, I am. Of course I’d like to know if this is the “form letter” they send to all rejected applicants. And I’m wondering if I should have tried to get a recommendation from J.D. Salinger before he died. (just kidding!) But the truth is: I have so many books to write and illustrate that I really thought my plate was too full to go get an MFA right now. 


But what I did do is send out an email to my closest friends to tell them about the rejection and to let them know that I appreciated their support throughout the process, and that I was okay. What I got back was a beautiful out-pouring of thought and emotion:


Some of the replies:

I'm sorry to hear it didn't work out, but you are after all doing 
very well with your writing and your art, and I'm not sure you need them...

And I love your sane, balanced response to this news. You are that 
rare thing, growing more rare by the moment in this country -- a grownup.


Wow, so cool of you to handle this rejection with such aplomb, I am proud of you.

You sure handle disappointment with poise and grace! It was very competitive and you did all you could. I am impressed by your candor in sharing your rejection, but not surprised. You are a class act. BTW, with all your extra time, I think you should write an intermediate grade poetry collection. I think you are a wonderful poet and such a collection would be a big hit. Just fit that in sometime, okay?

These gifts from my friends were better than getting an acceptance letter. It made me realize that we don't share enough of our failures and we place too much emphasis on success. My favorite saying came from a sign I saw at a rug cleaning business, it said, "If you don't make mistakes, you won't make anything." It's true. We have to honor the attempts, and we have to pick ourselves up and keep going.

So don't stew. Don't seek revenge. Just keep putting it out there. Mistakes and all. You must first accept yourself in order to have the confidence to get others to join in your quest. 

And some days you get letters like this in the mail instead:


Embrace all the aspects of this life- rejection, acceptance, and everything in between, and learn to love the process. It's all part of the journey.
I hope you will honor whatever you try to do...
Love,
Nina

9.13.2010

The Secret to Writing (or illustrating)- A Photo Essay

People will always invariably ask: "How do you do it?" Meaning: How did you write all those books? How did you do all those illustrations? Is it talent? Is it some secret? Is it genes? It is some of those things, but it's mostly what I'm going to show you- and I'm not the only person who believes this. Incredibly prolific author Jane Yolen preaches this all the time. (And she's published over 300 books.)

Here we go:



This is your butt. (Okay, it's MY butt.)


This is your chair. 
It doesn't matter what kind it is. This is a very cheap one, but it's pretty comfortable.



Your head can be here.
(Those are clouds from a sunset shot I took from my deck about two weeks ago.)
(The clouds symbolize "imagination," in case I'm being vague.)


As long as your hands are here...
(I really need to put on some moisturizer, dang my skin is dry!)



Or here...



Someday this could happen.

That is the last line of Tobias Wolff's short story, "Bullet in the Brain" tattooed on the back of a young man who is a student at Western Washington University. Tobias Wolff was my English Lit professor way back when I was a student at Syracuse University. I can't imagine how mind-blowing it must be to see a fan permanently etch your very words on his flesh. 

Needless to say, it won't happen unless you put that butt in that chair and write or draw. 
Happy Sitting!
Love, 
Nina

9.08.2010

Reading the Signs




I have an obsession with signs. Maybe it is because I just plain like to read and I will read anything that has words in it. (Okay, how many of you have read the ingredients on the shampoo or toothpaste because you were stuck in the bathroom and you were bored and you needed to read something?) Maybe I am always looking for meaning. Or hidden meaning. Wherever I go. I think I drive Booth, my husband, crazy when he is driving. I read every sign I see out loud. On the side of the road. On buildings. On trucks. I saw a truck bearing the sign for "The Wetter Water." Wetter water? Whoa. I had no idea water can be wetter. Apparently it is so. I learn things from signs.

Otherwise I'd be Beyond Lost. Not that being lost is a bad thing.

This past July I did what I call my "July-Brary Tour." I drove 1200 miles and spoke in fourteen libraries in the North Central Washington Library District. It was an amazing trip. It is amazingly beautiful country. Warm, welcoming people and abundant fresh fruit greeted me every step of the way. And of course I saw signs. Fortunately I had my camera with me.

I saw this sign in Mazama, Washington. It is much better than the usual: "Slow Children." That sign has always bothered me. Why are the children slow? Of course that makes them targets on the road. Sometimes the sign says: "Slow Children Playing." Well I hope they are playing. They are still children after all.

This sign is truthful. There are pets, children and wildlife and NONE are to spare. I especially hate it when snakes and turtles are hit by cars. They need signs, too.

Signs seem to be everywhere, though...

Here is a bumper sticker that I saw on the July-Brary tour in the library parking lot, which was also the town hall parking lot, and the police headquarters parking lot in Tonasket, Washington:


I was especially thrilled to see the two young women who got back into that car just as I was leaving to head to the next town, Omak. Signs say a lot about the people who post them.


Guess who posted that sign? A librarian! This hilarious sign was next to the check-out desk at the lovely Moses Lake Library. I love a librarian with a sense of humor. Lord knows, they need it dealing with the general public and unattended children all day.

But I have a confession to make: Sometimes my brain misreads signs. I don't know why it does this. Could be a "sign" I'm becoming dyslexic? For example: There is a sign near my post office that says, "Ballard Dental Arts." I don't read it that way. I see "Ballard Denial Arts." I've always wondered just what kind of art that would be, the art of denial. Maybe they need to choose a different font so that the "t" is more pronounced.

Today, to top it all off, I was driving to the gas station, and I saw a sandwich board sign on the corner of the street. I thought it said, "Singles Vacations." I thought to myself, "what an odd place to promote that sort of thing," due to the fact that the sign was sitting in front of a Rite Aid Drugstore. Then I looked again. The sign actually said, "Shingles Vaccinations." That made much more sense.  But truth be told, I prefer to read signs my own way. Sometimes they even lead to ideas for stories, books, poems... or they just make me want to take a picture so I can smile and remember a few words that broke the monotony and seriousness of life...

What signs do you like to read?
Love,
Nina

8.31.2010

Catching My Breath: Point of View

I collect typewriters. Kids nowadays may not even know what a typewriter is. It's a keyboard. They "keyboard or text." They don't type. Okay, maybe some of them call it typing. I hated that I was forced to take typing in eighth grade. It was like they were saying, "you're going to be a secretary when you grow up." Taking "Home Ec" said, "and you'll cook his food and iron and mend his clothes."

Even though I never entertained the idea of being a secretary, I'm actually thrilled that I learned how to touch type and not hunt and peck. However my fingers are no longer strong enough to pound away on my collection of Underwoods, Royals, the L.C. Smith pictured here, or my Swiss Hermes Baby. I used to have an Olivetti portable that got me through high school and college. It typed in a script font. I wish it hadn't disappeared in some move from one part of the country or another. I miss that celadon green machine. I typed many a book report on it.

But just as that Olivetti went missing, so has part of my memory. I can't, for the life of me, remember reading "The Catcher in the Rye" in school. I'm sure we must have. I had some great English teachers, like Mr. Longobardi and Mrs. Sherman. I took Honors and Advanced Placement classes. I know my mother loved J.D. Salinger and his books, "Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters" and "Franny and Zooey" were definitely on our shelves near "Catcher."

I knew when my mother had a crush on an author because his books were shelved together. My mom grew up with Philip Roth, and his books all lived together on the shelves. She knew Norman Mailer and his books also got prime placement. D.H. Lawrence was a little scattered, and so was James Joyce. "Ulysses" was over here, and "Portrait of the Artist" was somewhere else. Sometimes I used to read the titles on the spines in the order my mother had placed them, wondering if there was a secret message to be decoded there. My mom died of cancer six days after I turned twenty-four. I inherited her book collection. I didn't keep the paperbacks, alas they were yellowed and reverting to a powdered form of what they had been, pulp. I also regrettably didn't keep her Remington typewriter. I don't have a Remington now. I wish I did.

But thankfully the Seattle Public Library has a much better organized shelving system than mom. I was also thankful that I got there before they closed this week due to budget cuts. This is nuts. They should close the military bases for a week, not the library. Okay, I know I can't really compare books to well... okay, I'm not going there. I did go to the library and I did get a copy of "The Catcher in the Rye" and I read it last weekend. I don't think I re-read it though. I'm now wondering if my school district was one of the crazy ones that banned "Catcher" back then. (late 70's) Book censorship is a nasty virus. I dealt with it firsthand back in 1995 when my book, "Private I. Guana" came out and I was accused of writing a children's book on cross-dressing. I also know that author Ellen Hopkins is presently fighting the battle against censorship, and I stand beside her in solidarity.

However I didn't set out to write about that...

I wanted to talk about point of view, also known as narrative mode. You know, first person, third person, etc... "Catcher" is quite a taut piece of work. It is 214 pages of first person virtually stream-of-conscious narrative inside the head of Holden Caulfield, which can be mighty claustrophobic. Considering he is mostly mentally unstable, and drinking himself into a stupor for the majority of the book, this makes for a tense and edgy read. Holden speaks to the reader as if the reader is sitting next to him in the dorm, the train, the bar, wherever he is... he digresses and digresses, and is even accused of digression by one of his teachers during a speech he has to give, the story of set digression is a digression itself.

"Catcher" was originally considered an adult book, but somehow, it crossed over and became YA. Holden is sixteen, and even though he does very adult things, like frequenting bars and trying to be with a prostitute, he is still in school, albeit freshly expelled. Rules in writing have baffled and amused me for a long time now, and especially since I started working on a novel.

For years I have written children's books and illustrated them. Some of them are written in first person, like "The Night I Followed the Dog," and "Private I. Guana." Some are in third person like "When Pigasso Met Mootisse," and "Roberto the Insect Architect." And then there is "Peek-A Who?" It doesn't really have a voice and yet it has sold the most of any of my books. (Okay, it is a board book...) I was told when I first started writing children's books that you shouldn't use first person. Huh? The reason given was because the child may be confused if the book is read to them, or if they are reading it themselves as to who "I" is. "I" wasn't confused when I was a child. If I didn't get something I always asked for an explanation. I also didn't listen to those people who said there were those rules.

Then I started working on a novel, and I found out there were more rules. Not really rules, but guidelines. The first gray area I stumbled into was the YA versus adult arena. I try not to "write for grade level." I just write the story as it wants to be told, and the story finds its level, that has always seemed to work for me before. It turns out that your main character in a YA novel can't be older than eighteen or nineteen. Holden is doing just fine being sixteen. My character ranges from early childhood up to twenty-two. Apparently in YA books you can't be a college student. That's good for my character because he really doesn't go to college. Unfortunately those generalities don't really make gray areas turn into black and white.

Truth be told, I've never been good at following rules. Oh I learn them, and I try them out, and then I try to break them. Not to be an outcast on purpose, but just to, as Holden would say, "not be a phony." I want to be different. I want to be who I am, which is just not really normal. My mom always told me that when they made her, they broke the mold. Maybe I'm trying to make my own mold. Maybe it will break me. Maybe it won't. I did another silly thing. Besides making my character too old for YA, I wrote the darn thing in second person.

Second person? I might as well have written it in Esperanto. (My grandfather actually came from the town where that language was created.) Nobody writes in second person. Except maybe Jay McInerney. Come on, don't you remember "Bright Lights Big City?"


You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already. The night has already turned on that imperceptible pivot where two A.M. changes to six A.M. You know this moment has come and gone, but you are not yet willing to concede that you have crossed the line beyond which all is gratuitous damage and the palsy of unraveled nerve endings. Somewhere back there you could have cut your losses, but you rode past that moment on a comet trail of white powder and now you are trying to hang on to the rush. Your brain at this moment is composed of brigades of tiny Bolivian soldiers. They are tired and muddy from their long march through the night. There are holes in their boots and they are hungry. They need to be fed. They need the Bolivian Marching Powder.


That is second person courtesy of Jay.

I didn't do second person just to be difficult though. I studied it from every angle, and I didn't re-read "Bright Lights Big City." (All I can really remember about it now is that there was a ferret that was loose in the apartment.) I did a lot of prep before I started writing. One of the things I did was to take what I thought was the opening paragraph - and I wrote it in first, second and third person and I read it over and over and over. What I came away with was:

First person was too limiting.
Third person was too distancing.
Second person was just right.
Just like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Here. I'll share my experiment with you:


THIRD PERSON


She’s staring at the door to the guest room in what used to be Jack’s home.  The door is closed. She’s howling like she’s caught in a trap.  “Jack, let Cleo in,” Hannah calls. The door opens a crack, and the cat slips in. The ceiling seems higher.  The walls seem closer.  It’s like that scene in “Star Wars” in the intergalactic trash compactor; the walls are moving inwards.  It’s a good thing the bathroom is right there, one door away.  That would be called a “master suite” in a fancy home, but not in this case.  In this case it is one step away from prison.  Meet Jack Banks, the inmate. Under ordinary circumstances Jack would get up to greet you, which would be a low mumbled, “hey,” but these aren’t ordinary circumstances.


SECOND PERSON


You are locked in the guest room, in what used to be your home. The ceiling seems higher, inescapable. The walls seem closer. It’s like that scene in “Star Wars” in the intergalactic trash compactor; the walls are moving inwards.  It’s a good thing the bathroom is right there, one door away. That would be called a “master suite” in a fancy home, but not in this case.  In this case it is one step away from prison.  You, Jack Banks are the inmate. Under ordinary circumstances you would get up to say “hey” in your sort of mumbled, barely audible way, but you know these aren’t ordinary circumstances. The cat, Cleo, is outside the door, howling like she’s caught in a trap.  Your stepmother, Hannah,  starts howling, too. “Jack, let that cat in your room, she’s driving us crazy.”  Cleo paces around in circles, convinced that the world is coming to an end, and in some ways it is. 


FIRST PERSON


I am in the guest room in what used to be my home. The door is locked. The ceiling seems higher, inescapable. The walls seem closer. It’s like that scene in “Star Wars” in the intergalactic trash compactor, the walls are moving inwards. It’s a good thing the bathroom is right there, one door away. That would be called a “master suite” in a fancy home, but not in this case. In this case it is one step away from prison.  I, Jack Banks, am the inmate.  I would get up to greet you, to say “hey” under ordinary circumstances.  But these aren’t ordinary circumstances.

This is of course not finished text. Just a sample. But it compelled me to keep traveling down that second person road, rules be damned. Now I'm standing at the edge of the precipice, wondering if it is okay to believe in what I did and keep this as an adult novel in second person. Or? I'm not sure. I'm trying to listen to my inner voice, which is the most important one. I'm also looking for threads that will take this novel in perhaps a deeper direction. What I learned from J.D. Salinger and Holden is to be who you are, like it or not. We all have a unique point of view and we have to trust where it comes from, and hopefully where it takes us. 

All that we write may or may not lead to publication, but it may lead to enlightenment. May your search prove thoughtful, provocative, and ultimately fruitful. And may you find your voice. 
With Love,
Nina