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Monday, October 28, 2013

Are You Reading Poetry? 4 Reasons You Should Be

I know what you're thinking. "If you think I am going to pick up the 'Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry' -- or the Norton anything for that matter -- you are crazy." We all know I'm a little crazy, but there's a method in the madness. Here's why reading poetry really matters, especially for writers.

1. It's Concise.

Well, duh. With the exception of of certain long-winded poets who just had to keep going (I'm looking at you, T.S. Eliot), poets are incredibly adept at saying a lot with a little. Hmmm, does that sound a lot like picture-book writers?

Consider this from Pablo Neruda in "Ode to a Couple":

If snow falls
upon two heads,
the heart is sweet,
the house is warm.

Can brevity get any better? Sure, it's a poem, but couldn't you see this illustrated in a quiet picture book, a la "Snowy Day?" In poetry every word counts. How many times have you heard that advice for picture book writers?

2. It's Beautiful.

Without coming off as a little bombastic here, there is simply merit, as a writer, in surrounding yourself with beautiful words. They are everywhere: children's books, popular books, music, etc. But if you're not turning to poetry as well, you are missing out.

A volume of poetry sits on my bedside, and I read one or two poems every night before I go to bed. As if my brain can suck in the beauty of the words via osmosis while I sleep. Right now I'm reading Neruda, but I just finished Elizabeth Bishops' complete poems, and my next will be my very favorite: e.e. cummings. To become better at their craft, architects must visit inspiring buildings, musicians must listen to inspiring songs, and it goes without saying: Writers must surround themselves with inspiring words.

3. It's Hysterical.

You don't have to be a children's book writer to pick up Shel Silverstein. It's actually bizarrely morbid and I think I get a lot more out of it reading it as an adult. A poem about your finger being bit off by a monster the further you stick it up your nose is a cautionary tale of sanitation to a kid. To an adult, it's a metaphor for the consequences of pushing the limits too far. But it's all said from a child-like POV, and it's funny and fascinating, and, as often in his poetry, completely heartbreaking.

So for aspiring children's book authors, I say, don't forget your Shel, your Lewis Carroll, your traditional nursery rhymes. (I will do a post on nursery rhymes in the future, which are completely morbid and amazing in their own right.) Inspiration abounds in children's poetry.

4. It Captures the Human Condition.

Isn't that what we are trying to do, really, when we write? Some writers spend 500 words trying to capture a slice of humanity. (See: practically every title on the Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list. "Ulysses at No. 1?" Really?) Poets can do that in one page. I love this from W.B. Yeats's "All Things Can Tempt Me":

All things can tempt me from this craft of verse:
One time it was a woman's face, or worse --

Sounds like a 400-page D.H. Lawrence saga full of unnecessary, flowery description to me. Or, in the case of Yeats, you get it all in two lines.

You get my drift.

"BUT JILL, POETRY JUST ISN'T FOR ME."

Fine, I get it. I love words but not everybody else does. But there's something you probably do like:  music. The best songwriters are actually just the most multi-talented people on the planet. They are writers who can sing. I have a ridiculously varied musical taste (a post for a later time), but take a look into your iTunes library and find the truly talented singer/songwriters in there. Listen to John Mayer in "Clarity":

I worry, I weigh three times my body
I worry, I throw my fear around
But this morning, there's a calm I can't explain
The rock candy's melted, only diamonds now remain.

Or my favorite, brilliant, Dave Matthews in "Why I Am":

I grew drunk on water turned into wine
Till I was slave and master at the same damn time.

In summary, after this loooong post (thank you for sticking with me): Listen to the words. Get inspired. There are masters out there; you just have to know where to look.



Saturday, October 26, 2013

My Name Is Jill, and I'm an OCD Reader

It's true. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a ... problem. I cannot, CANNOT, read just anything that crosses my path. I have a schedule, darn it! I believe there are just too many fabulous books in too many fabulous genres. If left to my own devices, I might **gasp** read chick lit after chick lit with nary a classic in sight! And then I would be missing out on someone like, say Carson McCullers. Blasphemy.

So here it is. I read in "cycles," and read one book from each genre before beginning again. I have methods for choosing which book to read, but that is a trade secret. Plus, if I let you know that, Corey will be so mortified that it is painfully apparent he married a major, total geek.

Cycles go like this: Literary Fiction, Nonfiction, Popular Fiction, Classic Fiction, Chick Lit, Children's Fiction.

Lit fiction is the category for my Mark Helprins and John Irvings, T.C. Boyles and Margaret Atwoods. This is when I read the heavy fiction, the Pulitzer winners, etc. That doesn't always mean I like what I choose to read, but most of the time I do.

I generally read in different nonfiction areas, such as memoir, religion, parenting, women's studies, business and writing. I try to mix it up between, say, a book on Buddhism followed by a Malcolm Gladwell.

Popular fiction is for the current thrillers, the "fluffier" stuff, the Dan Browns, etc. Hey, don't I get a break after slogging through the Buddhism book?

Oh, classic fiction, be still my heart. You are my bread and butter, my John Hardy and my Harper Lee. There was a reason I was an English major.

Chick lit: Come on, I just finished a D.H. Lawrence! I deserve it!

Children's: Every children's writer needs to be familiar with the best of their craft, period.

In practice, here is what a recent book cycle looked like:

Lit fiction: Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese
Nonfiction: The Parents We Mean to Be, Richard Weissbound
Popular: The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
Classic: The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
Chick: Twenties Girl, Sophie Kinsella
Children's: The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Just because I am OCD doesn't mean I don't break my own rules, because I do. Every so often I will drop everything for a must-read (Gone Girl -- totally worth it), and all bets are off on vacation. But all in all, this is why I don't join book clubs. It doesn't fit with the schedule.

So there you have it. Now, I have to juggle this with my obsession with magazines. And that is a different story.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Here We Are

Welcome to my newest venture -- a blog to share my thoughts on reading and writing, a place to discuss children's literature and a chronicle of my road to children's book author. (You see how I did that? I'm pretending that the endgame is in the bag -- that I will, indeed, one day be published. I figure confidence is key in this business. It will keep me going in the darker days.)

What I've got are characters. And stories. They follow me around, they peek out from grocery store aisles, they nest in my head at night. They beg for release on the page. Sometimes, I end up with something I am really proud of. Other times, I know it's a load of crap. Regardless, I keep going.

To keep going at this stage of my life means so many things. I am a freelance magazine editor for Disclosures, the bimonthly member publication of the Virginia Society of CPAs. Writing and editing articles on taxation, accounting and auditing is a far cry from writing children's stories, but it has some similarities. Good writing, no matter what the genre or medium, is good writing. The same rules of grammar and communication apply.

Couple juggling that gig with the facts of daily life and, well, sometimes creative writing is a crapshoot. I will get on a roll, write a book in my head at the grocery store and race home to pound out a draft in 20 minutes, ice cream melting in the trunk. Or I will spend hours laboring over one page of my middle-grade book manuscript. I have peace for exactly five hours each week (that's when all of my three children are out of the house and at school and/or preschool), so I sometimes find solace then. Other times, I will write with all three of them crowded in my office, playing legos and hide-and-seek, with my two-year-old climbing up my chair and peeing down my back. Yes, that actually happened.

Somewhere in this zoo I am looking for magic. So here's my blog and my journey.