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:


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.


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. 


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,


Roots and Seeds: Journaling to grow ideas

I've been asked this question many, many times, as I am sure so have countless other writers and artists: "Where do you get your ideas?" I have a standard response: "If I knew where my ideas came from I would go there."

Truth be told, I feel guilty when I say that. There is no "there" there. There is my imagination. There is the swirling mixture of all things tangible and intangible that combine in their own unique way to create a compelling surreality that will become the seed of a concept. I can't predict where, when, how or why it will happen, but I can feed the crazy monster- give it love and inspiration, and hopefully good food and plenty of sleep- exercise helps, too, but that is another story, and then maybe that seed will germinate and grow.

What I can say from experience is that keeping a journal, journaling, whatever you want to call it, works for me. I have been keeping journals steadily since I was in high school. One of my earliest, and I'll say "successful" journals was a Japanese accordion-fold given to me by long-lost friend, painter Carol Sun. She was a counselor at Buck's Rock, an artsy camp I attended as both a camper and then a counselor. Carol lived in Brooklyn and she became a mentor of sorts. She gave me this little journal on my birthday when I turned sixteen. She told me that the accordion-fold was the best type of journal because you could never tear the pages out. If you tried the whole thing would fall apart. I took those words as gospel and to this day I hold them dear, "never tear out the pages in your journal." Save everything.

That little journal is full of teen angst and it is hilarious to read now in middle age. However, there are some small glimmers of the woman I became. Here is a poem I wrote on June 28, 1979 when I was seventeen:

For Better or For Verse

If I see you in the present future
I know the past was not too perfect
You can correct me if I'm wrong
I'm feeling tense so I'll move along

Although there was a pause in our stanza
I think we left the line open
We can write more if you care
Or we can punctuate it there

We can have rhythm or flow smoothly
Or perhaps we can be spontaneous
It's hard for me to see
Just let me know if you want to be free.

I'm not sure which "boy" I was pining for at that time. It doesn't really matter, but the poem was better than whoever had broken my heart. The penultimate entry in that journal said, "College is like holding your breath for four years..."

Maybe I held my breath because I was hoping to "burst onto the scene" when I graduated from Syracuse University's College of Visual and Performing Arts, having majored in illustration. I was ready to become that famous children's book author and illustrator and win Caldecott awards and garner great reviews in the New York Times. Not! I was definitely undercooked at that point and my story writing skills had a long way to go, as did my illustration techniques. Even though I was not gifted with a whole lot of patience, one of my college prof's, Roger De Muth constantly chided me, "Nina, patience is a virtue," I was in too much of a hurry to listen.

What I did do, however, is journal. And journal. And journal. The photo at the top of this post is a testimony to the journals I've kept for the past thirty-two (ouch) years. I didn't tear the pages out. In fact I wrote, I drew, I collaged, I taped... I created a treasure trove of my life, my ideas, my stories, my thoughts, fortune cookie fortunes, newspaper articles that could inspire books, cartoons I wish I had submitted to the New Yorker... (Like this one from 2005.) What I have is a ever-growing encyclopedia of ideas in various forms from seed to full-blown picture book text and beyond.

At an early stage I discovered that one of the secrets to journaling, at least for me, was NOT to use those fancy bound journals. You know, those "black books" or those expensive leather jobs with the 100% rag fine Italian acid-free paper. Phooey on that! I found that by using the cheap spiral bound RECYCLED Strathmore sketch books I didn't worry about what I did, or spilled, or scribbled over. It was not a precious object. It was a working tool. And speaking of tools, no... I don't use a "special" pen- no outrageous Mont Blanc fountain pens that can cost hundreds of dollars and get clogged just the same as a cheaper Parker. Back when I was in art school, we naive students used to always ask the visiting professionals who spoke to us in symposiums, "what size pen, brush, pencil lead, paper weight, brand of medium do you use?" As if by using that, it will make your work immediately professional. Yes, I was a slave to "00" point rapidograph pens for years. Now I have a drawer of clogged Koh-i-Noors, Staedtler Mars, and who knows how many other ancient ink delivering hypodermic needle-ended things. Maybe someday I will glue them to the wall of my studio as an homage to past-proto art trends.

When I'm using my journal I truly don't care if I have a pencil or a pen in my hand. Although lately I've become rather attached to these puppies.

The other "secrets" I've discovered is that a small size journal- mine is 5.5"x 8.5"- is perfect for courier bags, backpacks, airplane seat backs, boat dry bags- but use a gallon zip lock bag to keep it mostly moisture free. Now I know there are writers with serious habits out there. I know they are religious about their writing time, their journaling time, they probably also exercise on a schedule, too. You scare me. Sorry. I'm just not a creature of habit. I'm more of an organic thing- a fungus perhaps, that grows huge ideas after the rain. Or something like that. I strike when the muse hits. I work in feverish subsections of time. And then I retreat, writing ideas down when they fall from my brainwaves and smack me in the face. I grow the ideas in my journals and they simmer on the back burner until they reach the boiling point and I have to transfer them to a document file.

Of course I'm always hoping for one of those moments of divine clarity when a fully-formed idea falls out of the sky and into my head. That was my experience with my first published book, "The Night I Followed the Dog." I was sitting in my studio, which was a bedroom in my home in Atlanta, Georgia, where I lived at that time. I was trying to think of what Christmas card to make for that year, 1989. I always make my own cards. It's a curse, really. I have to think of something clever and new every year and some years I'm just not really feeling clever and new. But this particular day, October 16, 1989, I drew Santa, and then out of nowhere, I started to write this story.

It was a strange stream of conscious thing. I wrote in one continuous paragraph as I channeled the story from my brain to the paper. I even drew a picture of the dog wearing a tuxedo, saying "That's okay Boys, he's with me." I was enchanted.

This was, of course, before personal computers were in my life. I was still a few years away from my first Mac Performa, that had a whopping 8MB of RAM! No, I had to type this on my IBM Selectric typewriter. Double-spaced, and with actual paragraphs.

I'll save the story of what happened after that, and how I eventually got the book published. But I will say that I have gone back to this particular journal over and over to try to analyze just what was it that created that moment, that opportunity for pure story to take over my consciousness and allow it to flow through me in such a slipstream of thought and inspiration. Alas I cannot reproduce the exact chemistry, and if you could find it, and bottle it, you'd be a lucky dog... or maybe J.K. Rowling.

No, I am just as imperfect as my journals. They are my constant companions, sounding boards, test rockets, and mental monitors. There are deep roots to all of my published books, and the unpublished ones as well, running through their thousands of pages. I don't think I could do what I do if I didn't have these pulpy pulpits. Some people, I know my father is one of them, carry around scraps of paper with ideas and brilliance scribbled in diners or on trains. Occasionally I have to succumb to that if my journal accidentally got left behind due to some event where I wanted to be fashionable and not carry a courier bag with me. In that instance, I just tape or glue my scribblings into my journal when we are reunited.

But mostly what I want to say, and I know I've taken up enough of your time, is that in this day and age with ones and ohs and pixels replacing good'ol paper and pen, I have two words: POWER FAILURE. We are so on the grid in so many ways for better or worse- or verse, as I said in high school. But when the proverbial doo-doo hits the fan, and it stops spinning, we will be left with our imagination, a pen and paper. It makes life so simple, and it makes your carry-on bags so light. I can't say enough how this will help those of you who want to write, or illustrate, or do both, or do none. I can say it helps me. I'd love to hear your thoughts on journaling.
With Love-


Jumping in the Deep End

I said I wouldn't do this. I said, "I have a website, okay?" Never mind that I haven't updated it in over a year. Never mind that my publisher, Chronicle Books has asked me to do this, and I always replied, "maybe. At some point." So here I am, navigating these strange and deep waters. Not only did I spend hours trying to sort through the myriad options that exist to create a page- one that in my previous history of being a graphic designer would have happened faster using an X-acto knife and rubber cement... but I also joined Facebook. I feel like I've hung myself, along with all of my dirty laundry, on a clothes line running across the expanse of the universe. 

Why am I doing this? Good question. I'm not really sure. Hopefully I'm going to shed some light on my life as an author, an illustrator, an artist, a teacher, a student, a wife, a step-mother, a woman, a human being. I hope I can do it with humor and with honesty. If it is possible, I hope I can be inspiring. 

That is a tall order, I know. But it will also help me to share my books- in actuality, and between the lines. My posts will encompass a broad range: books, writing, art and life. For me, what else is there? Someone will say, "what about love?" I'm going to try to bring love to all I do, because it falls under that last category: Life. 

This is my life. This will develop into my home. Right now there is no furniture. Just one picture hanging on the wall. Words will follow. So will art, photos, and videos if I get that creative. I hope you will follow, too. Welcome to "The Night I Followed the Blog." Thank you for stopping by.