Monday, March 28, 2011

Inspiration: Creating Our Own Canons

This last Saturday I spent with members of the Brazos Valley SCBWI giving a talk on Creating Your Own Canon. We talked about turning to the books we love to study the craft of writing. We talked about the obstacles in our way--our weaknesses--in an effort to study and craft and shape our weaknesses into strengths. But no writer is perfect. No book is perfect either. We have flaws as people and it is okay for our writing to have flaws. Just like our strengths, our flaws should be uniquely our own.

During the workshop we read from and analyzed the opening passages of several books in my personal canon. Ramona and Her Mother by Beverly Cleary, What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman, The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak, and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Each Little Bird that Sings by Deborah Wiles.

Here are two of the passages we analyzed.

              I come from a family with a lot of dead people.
              Great-uncle Edisto keeled over with a stroke on a Saturday morning after breakfast last March. Six months later, Great-great aunt Florentine died—just like that in the vegetable garden. And, of course, there are all the dead people who rest temporarily downstairs, until they go off to Snapfinger Cemetery. I’m related to them, too. Uncle Edisto always said, “Everybody’s kin, Comfort."
              Downstairs at Snowberger’s, my daddy deals with death by misadventure, illness and natural causes galore. Sometimes I ask him how somebody died. He tells me, then he says, “It’s not how you die that makes the important impression, Comfort; it’s how you live. Now go live awhile, honey, and let me go back to work.” But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up. I’ll start with Great-uncle Edisto and last March, since that death involves me—I witnessed it.

Opening of Each Little Bird that Sings by Deborah Wiles.

--Of course, an introduction.
A beginning.
Where are my manners?
I could introduce myself properly, but it’s really not necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.
At that moment you will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up). You will be caked in your own body. There might be a discovery; a scream will dribble down the air. The only sound I’ll hear after that will be my own breathing, and the sound of the smell, my footsteps.
The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?
Personally, I like a chocolate-colored sky. Dark, dark chocolate. People say it suits me. I do, however, try to enjoy every other color I see—the whole spectrum. A billion or so flavors, none of them quite the same, and a sky to slowly suck on. It takes the edge off stress. It helps me relax.

From The Book Thief by Markus Zusack

Ah, both about death and both so very different. The personal stamps of who Markus Zusak is and who Deborah Wiles is are on these passages. They also contain the very personal stamps of these individual books, as separate from Wiles other work and Zusak's other work.

Creating Our Own Canons and studying them--the masters that have made the greatest impact on our reading hearts can teach us many things. When I sat down to add new books to this talk, I scanned my shelves and the books above are the ones that called to me. I didn't realize it at the time but I choose two books (the ones cited above) that handle life and death, love and loss, making sense out of the suddenness of an unexpected loss and the other showcasing the humanity amid the brutality of the Holocaust. Books speak to us differently at different times and in my hands finding these books again, in opening my heart to the stories I have previously read and loved, I may have been trying to make sense of my own recent loss. Creating Our Own Canons, whether it be for study, or to build our personal collection of books that we can turn to to make sense of whatever life has thrown us is a gift.

Which leads me here, back to embracing our strengths and having compassion for our weaknesses. John Jakes said, "Be yourself. Above all, let who you are, what you believe, shine through ever sentence you write, every piece you finish." That's what all the books in my personal canon achieve and what I strive to do in my own writing. I take inspiration from that--from boldly being myself--flaws, foibles and all.

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