Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Walter Benjamin on Empathy

Walter Benjamin posits in his description of the flâneur that 'Empathy is the nature of the intoxication to which the flâneur abandons himself in the crowd. He . . . enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else as he sees fit. Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes...."
(quoted from Heather Marcelle Crickenberger's online exploration of all things Flaneur.)

I think Benjamin's description of the flaneur is a perfect description of what a good writer does - he enters his characters to such a degree that their will is his - he doesn't let his agenda, his message, drive them. If it does, maybe the message is mistaken....? Characters acting at the service of an author's message become wooden, they lack an ingredient essential to good fiction: believability. But empathy is the key - strong empathy - and can that be learned if it hasn't been learned as a child? Just wondering.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Goodnight Bush

OK - I'm going to go ahead and post this link. Some of you will think it's funny, some not. But I love the art of parody, and this certainly qualifies:

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Commencement Address

I'm going to cut and paste my speech to the Summer 2008 graduating class, because a few people have asked to see it again and this seems like the best place to post it.

I’d like to thank all of you for coming today, for helping us celebrate at this particular residency not only the graduation of a stellar group of students but also the reality of our newly independent Vermont College of Fine Arts.

The occasion is an august one, a ceremony of shape-shifting for both these students and for the college itself, so I take my task seriously. I am a serious person. Seriosity is my strong suit. Ask any of the graduates up on this stage, they will tell you – Julie is very serious. That is because I am a poet. A poet is a master of deep thoughts, a master of clarifuscation.

So. Seriosity and clarifuscation. I am their advocate. They are the opposites of sillyosity and confusilation, which have NO place at this podium.

Of course, I’m being goofy, as is my tendency. But only because I’ve thought long and hard about why I am standing before you today. I am confused. This place at the podium is generally reserved for speakers who will send you out into the world with your engines roaring, your wheels spinning, your inner clocks ticking like time bombs. That’s what an inspirational speaker does.

In going back over my lectures, I see that the general thread running through most of them is this: take a stroll, sit on a bench, watch people, eavesdrop, let your work breathe, slow down, drift, marvel, find your angle of repose (which might very well be on your back looking at a crack in the ceiling.)

The difference between a motivational speaker and the speaker you have chosen to speak to you today is the difference between a Nascar driver and the character of The Dude in the movie, The Big Lebowski – one has his foot on the accelerator and maneuvers skillfully past the flying pieces of wreckage left by other less skillful drivers; the other wanders his local supermarket in a bathrobe and flip-flops. I will leave it to you to decide which one of those categories I fall into.

When I learned in January that I was going to be up at the podium this July, I got busy. I believe in fulfilling my obligations with panache. I would make this the Mother of All Speeches, I would quote every great thinker from Aristotle to Einstein, and you would soon be telling Cynthia Leitich Smith in an online interview not only about your new best-selling novel, but about the pivotal golden moment of inspiration that the poet Julie Larios provided in July 0-Eight that made all the difference.

To begin my work on the Mother of All Speeches, I made a file and titled it “Mother of All Speeches” and put the file on my computer so that I could fill it with wise quotations as they floated to me from January through June. Nicely polished with a few thoughts from me, these gems would set you on the road to success.

When I looked at my file about a month ago, it had the following single item in it: “Henry James thought the two most beautiful words in the English language were ‘summer afternoon.’”

That’s it. So – how do I craft a motivational speech from that? Maybe I don’t. Maybe I just let Hank’s words hover in this room: “summer afternoon.” Beachside docks, inner tubes, bandages, bare feet, tidepools, barnacles, sunburn, some of Kathi’s grandmother’s peach ice cream and all the people you love gathered together in one lovely spot – “summer afternoon” – I could leave you with those two wise words.

But I’d like to offer up some advice. Before I do that, I want to make a full disclosure about this advice I give you. Here it is: poets like to play. We make up words like seriosity and clarifuscation. We are the true row-boaters in the summer afternoons of the writing world, we chafe at the idea of speedboats. We are suspicious of the joy of forward momentum, because sideways momentum is SO bizarrely satisfying.

Needless to say, asking graduates to consider the joy of moving sideways is not the typical theme of commencement speakers. But I believe writing is a way of being in the world. You start with intellectual curiosity, and you proceed like a thief in the night, spying on everything and making mental notes. Stealth, yes, writing requires stealth – the direction of it is horizontal, you see what you get closest to. Speed, on the other hand, is vertical, speed is a race. Speed is a trickster, one that asks you to honor quantity over quality and the quick fix over the hard work. Speed, pointed in the direction of what we call, for lack of a better term, “success,” can be dangerous - to be involved with the rush of it, the hunger and gluttony of it, the competitive nature of it, the exclusive nature or it – who it leaves out, who it leaves behind. We think of who is above, we think of who is below, we think NOW NOW NOW. There is a danger to both our souls and to fine craftsmanship that speed and a focus on the traditional definition of success can present. Because success is not about status. Success is internal and personal and doesn’t belong in the world of measured time.

Clearly, hurtling forward at an intoxicating speed is what one longs to do after being held in check by the requirements of a masters degree program. We hear a demonic little voice telling us, “Enough with the getting ready, enough with the stacks of books to read and the line by line revisions. LET SUCCESS COME FAST NOW, FAST AND EASY.

But the hard fact is this: as a writer, you are never unfettered from the demands that careful craftsmanship and a kinship with your fellow writers make upon your forward thrust. Note that I’m not saying be lazy. You should never stop asking the very best of yourself, you should always work hard. But also, be generous. Generosity is the polar opposite of status anxiety. Generosity is fluid – you couldn’t keep it vertical if you wanted to. If you are generous spirited, there is no who’s on top, who’s on the bottom. I urge you to keep your priorities straight, don’t measure success vertically. Enjoy the parallel successes of your friends, and let the pleasure you take in writing be the measure of your success.

I admit to being very big on pleasure and happiness. What makes life as a writer happy isn’t fame and isn’t a list of dozens of published books, good reviews, big awards, nice sales, an invitation to speak, it isn’t even a lovely teaching position. I honestly believe that what makes the life of any artist good is simply pleasure in the act of creating art.

I’ve been an advisor to quite a few of you that are on this stage today. You began your graduate work at the same time I joined the faculty. No one told me I would feel the way I feel today, watching you graduate. You know I can be a cynic, I can rave and rant and foam at the mouth about sentimentality in your work, I crack wise about Big Poetry Moments. But today while I look at you, I’m feeling sentimental. Someone get me a doctor.

I will avoid sentimentality the way I usually avoid questionable things, by renaming it. I’ll call it Burning Feelingfulness. It is something which takes control of me only one or two days a year. Today, I think, is an appropriate day. I know how hard you’ve worked. I’ve seen bright bursts of perfection. And I think I’ve done my job, added my voice to many other voices you listened to in the last two years.

Often, with your stories, I’ve asked you to take it easy, to slow down, to open things out, give us the details, not to be in such a rush, to let the story unfold in a less anxious way. It doesn’t need to be a dizzy dive over Niagara Falls from the first sentence on. At certain points in a story, the simple act of keeping your main character upstream, knee-deep in the clear water of the river, is what the story needs.

That’s what I wrote in the margins of your creative work if I thought it was heading somewhere too fast. Today, instead of applying that metaphor to your stories, I’m applying it to your lives as writers. But what I’m saying is the same: Slow down, open out, don’t be in a rush, let things unfold in a less nervous way, trust the story not only of your book but of your life. Eventually, all will be revealed. Meanwhile, don’t forget to stand still from time to time in the clear water of the river.

Invite your friends to join you. Yes, you’re moving out on your now, and part of your job will be to learn how to trust the idiosyncrasies of your own voice – not only to trust them, but to move them front and center. As Rilke said in his Letters to a Young Poet, “something of your own is trying to become word and melody.” So keep your friends close at hand. They will encourage you to keep singing. They are kindred spirits, and the intimacy forged here in our program should not be lost.

I want to give you one last nudge, as an advisor: that you leave Vermont College as a master of two fine arts, the fine art of writing and the fine art of taking joy in writing. Remember to go deep, trust what you find there, don’t be afraid of the dark. Sing it out, sing – as Kathi would say - as if your vocal chords were on fire. But remember this: writing is not just product. If it were, I don’t think I would want to teach it. What I want to teach is that writing is a way of engaging with the world. Hopefully, you will never not be artists now. You’ve changed – the way you see the world has changed. So ignore the demon Speed, erect a temple to curiosity, support and celebrate your friends, give the art of moving sideways a chance. Slow down and yes, of couse, write. And please - here’s the bottom line – take deep pleasure in doing so. That’s where real success lies.

You can trust this advice from me, because I only metaphorically (thank goodness) wander the grocery store in my bathrobe and flip flops.

Rilke tells the young poet, All my good wishes are ready to accompany you, and my faith is with you.” I feel the same way. All of us here today feel this way. Our faith is with you, absolutely.

Residency - The Report from VCFA


- Shelley Tanaka's charming, self-deprecating, intelligent lecture about the ups and downs of writing non-fiction.

- Laughter with the Picture Book workshop members.

- Randall Brown's study of kennings - and his humor.

- Tobin Anderson and Tim Wynne-Jones raising over $9000 in scholarship money at the auction.

- Tami Brown outbidding Michael Stearnes for the Maurice Sendak lithograph (thank you for the donation, Lynda) and then presenting it to dog-lover extraordinaire, Leda Schubert, one of my favorite people on the planet.

- Gary Moore (the new dean) - I love the way he listens, thinks, speaks. And his centered gracefulness is wonderful to watch.

- Tom Greene (VCFA's president) - is it just me, or do other people think Tom looks like he's about seven years old and straight out of a Mark Twain novel?

- Seeing all my old students during the Alumni Weekend. Seeing people's families at graduation - suddenly, everyone is in context - which is sobering and pleasing, both at once.

- Meeting new and returning faculty Alan Cumyn and Louise Hawes. Fine minds, sharp wit. Lovely late nights with all the faculty in the Faculty Lounge.

- Finally highlight: a chilly fog one morning. Hooray for cool temperatures.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Vermont College of Fine Arts Summer Residency '08

College Hall at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier

I'm off for the Summer Residency (July 8-18th) at Vermont College of Fine Arts - this time around I'll be teaching students in the Picture Book Certificate program, and I'll post to The Drift Record from there. Meanwhile, just look at the fascinating lectures my colleagues on the faculty are delivering (I'm not lecturing this semester - I'm giving the commencement speech!):


Marion Dane Bauer

I'll be examining the different points of view a writer can use and the impact each choice has on the psychic distance between author, character and, ultimately, the reader.


Sharon Darrow

An exploration of how place, family, memory and all that makes up the “Self” influence what you write, who your characters are, what situations they find themselves in, and how plot and character interact. Lecture & exercise. Related reading: One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty; In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, Alice Walker; Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer, Nancy Mairs; Diving Deep and Surfacing, Carol P. Christ; Writing a Woman’s Life, Carolyn G. Heilbrun. *Note: Although several of these titles indicate study of a woman’s approach to writing, the lecture will be gender neutral.


Sarah Ellis

What happens when we take a more or less naturalistic piece of fiction and invite the fairies to join in? Energetic, cheeky, attractive, sturdy and amoral, fairies add a distinctive flavor to stories of family, growing up, fitting in, finding a friend, feeling at odds with the world, and dealing with change. I'll look at a handful of novels that include fairy characters, none of whom have wings or wands. Books will include: Eloise McGraw, The Moorchild; Susan Cooper, The Boggart; William Mayne, Hob and the Goblins; Sylvia Waugh, The Mennyms; Franny Billingsley, The Folk Keeper;

Geraldine McCaughrean, The Stones are Hatching; and Nancy Farmer, The Ear, the Eye and the Arm.

I hope to inspire the realists among us to take a chance on Puck.



Louise Hawes


Ellen Howard

Where, in today's world, is there silence? Where, in our busy lives, is there time to listen to the stories that arise from the deepest places in our hearts and minds? Do we have the power to choose silence, and listening, and stories?

For the time period of this lecture, Noble Lounge will be a technology-free area. If you can't turn off your cell phone, leave your laptop in your room, put away your iPod or Blackberry, etc., this lecture is not for you.



Shelley Tanaka

How “creative” can you be with creative non-fiction? Using examples from the I Was There and A Day That Changed America series (On Board the Titanic, Discovering the Iceman, In the Time of Knights, Gettysburg, D-Day, etc.), I'll explore some of the issues facing the writer who wants to bring history “to life” for young readers. False starts and lessons learned (often the hard way), unexpected gifts, compromises made, and why non-fiction is one of the most exciting and demanding genres in children's publishing.


Tim Wynne-Jones

Motivation is what makes a story tick. After all, a lot of what we call conflict is just someone who wants something and has to find a way to get it. In theater, the word holds a lot of credence, because an actor needs to know or find his motivation in order to play his part, and every move and gesture grow out of that central defining need. I will look at motivation with regards to writing fiction. But beyond generalized motivation, there must be the motivation of the moment. What I call the tipping point. Why is my character doing this now?

ALSO: The amazing M.T. Anderson will be delivering a guest lecture about plot devices, and leading a master class for alumni. M.T. Anderson is, flat out, a genius, and very funny, and he plays a mean game of Scrabble. I am deep into the Advance Reader Copy of Volume II/Octavian Nothing that I got at the ALA Conference. It's going to be my plane book from Seattle to Vermont.

ALSO: Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel will be delivering a special address about their writing and illustrating strategies during our special Picture Book Weekend, and the very lovely Jeannette Larson of Harcourt will offer up the editor's perspective.

It should be quite a residency! More soon.

Friday, July 4, 2008

ALA Poetry Blast

Sylvia Vardell has a wonderful round-up of ALA's Poetry Blast, which was, as the title implies, a BLAST! And the dinner afterward got as crazy as you want a dinner to get - good conversation about life and writing and food and poetry and pets and New York City and politics. Firm opinions, fine cuisine, and lots of laughter - what more can you ask for? Here is the link to Sylvia's blog, Poetry for Children:
[see the July 3, 2008 post for the Poetry Blast description.]

And here is my poem about paint chips, which Sylvia mentions. This poem is the result of an experiment my friends and I carried out - we drew random paint chips from a collection of over 100 of them, then had to write a poem including as many of the color names as possible. I drew 28 colors and managed to get them all into the following poem. Paint names follow the poem. Give this experiment a try!:


She was a Shy Violet in a Plum Swirl.
He was a Baritone, solid as Rockwood Jade.
She was a White Egret kind of girl.
He was a Goal Post, Mainstreet U.S.A..
The first season of their Cucumber Crush
he Soft-Heathered her, called her his little Lemon Sorbet,
Sunflowered her. By summer it was all Chocolate Froth,
he overpowered her the way a Florida Mango
overpowers Fresco Cream. By autumn, her dreams
of a life of Quiet Waterfalls had fallen by the wayside.
Love was large as a Wine Barrel, it clanged like a Trolley Car,
burned the Maple Leaves right off her branches.
She turned Foxen, heated up, began to Caramelize,
began to fill with the scent of Toasted Nutmeg, he dizzied,
he fell like a downed Sequoia Grove, yes, her Sugared Peach
unmade him, she teased and Truffled him, polished him off
like a Bermuda Shell. That winter they made love over
and over again, as if a China Rain were flooding them.
They were brilliant as Beryl, oh, they Blazed.

[28 colors used: Baritone, Bermuda Shell, Beryl, Blaze, Caramel, China Rain, Chocolate Froth, Cucumber Crush, Florida Mango, Foxen, Fresco Cream, Goal Post, Lemon Sorbet, Mainstreet U.S.A, Maple Leaves, Plum Swirl, Quiet Waterfall, Rockwood Jade, Sequoia Grove, Shy Violet, Soft-Heather, Sugar Peach, Sunflower, Toasted Nutmeg, Trolley Car, Truffle, White Egret, Wine Barrel.]

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


The Drift Record is my way of letting you know what projects I'm working on, what books have recently been released, where I'll be traveling, and what I've been thinking about when it comes to children's books. It's also a way to let you post comments in response, and to contribute to the conversation in general about good kids books. So, welcome!!

The term "drift record" came to me sideways via the wonderful work of Walter Benjamin about the flaneur in the city, specifically, the wanderer in Paris. After reading Benjamin's Arcades Project, I found the term "drift," used by the Situationists to describe an attentive form of wandering, playing with the idea of landscape and objects and our interaction with them. For this blog, it means a regular record of meanderings and observations. I'll link to other sites I find exciting, too.

The world of children's books is filled with wonderful people - writers, editors, teachers, librarians, parents, kids. I hope you enjoy my "drifting about" among them.