Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Finding Your Voice: Reader Question on Part 1

A shy reader (hey, reader!) sent an email question about the Finding Your Voice series. She writes, "Can you give your own answers to the reflection exercises and explain how you would use them in your writing?"

Sure, glad to oblige. Keep in mind, though, that these exercises are meant to inspire your writing — you won't necessarily use your answers in a tangible way. But let's see if taking a look at my replies can help clarify the purpose of the exercises and give you some ideas.

Exercise 1: Last Children's Book I Read Just Because I Wanted To

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. I read this terrific Newbery winner back in January. A short synopsis I'd seen was enough to make me want to read it with no up-front intention of writing a review or lesson plan. I read it sooner than I normally would have because I wanted to support the work (by purchasing it) in the midst of its censorship controversy.

Why I think noting
your last "just because" kids' book is useful: In the context of finding your voice and identifying your niche (market, age of your audience, genre), I find that a writer typically will have read a title from within the category of books he or she wants to work with. Obviously, this is no scientific process. But when I'm using the exercise in class, I try to make sure each student answers with a book s/he chose to read for pleasure. Your toddler's current go-to story and the last book you picked up for your teenager do not count.

What if you've never read a children's book just for fun, or the last time you did you were still a child? That doesn't have to mean anything whatsoever. Start reading now, and you'll figure it out. But if you're having a particularly difficult time narrowing your focus or trying to write something, anything, for the younger set, low or no interest in reading children's literature could be an indicator that you need to examine your motivations for wanting to write for kids. It's not for everyone.

Exercise 2: All-Time Favorite Book from My Youth

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I loved it then as I love it now because it is perfectly suited for the intended age level (8–12; best, I think, for 9–10); it's hilarious, clever, and poignant all at once; and it stars a smart, capable girl.

Why I think this info can help: Often, the books that left lasting impressions are of the type you want to write.

Exercise 3: 1–10 Songs That Take Me Back in Time to My Youth

I went with 10. Some will list just 1 or 3 or 5. The point is to focus on songs that spring to mind in connection with vivid childhood memories. The point of that is for you to feel the feelings, see the colors, and milk all of it. You can use the essence of childhood — as you experienced it — to craft believable fiction and relatable nonfiction.

Why I think this exercise can help: Because music is a classic memory trigger. It serves as a backdrop to life's events, huge and minute. You can talk, think, read, play, eat, watch TV, celebrate, and grieve to it. When you were a child, music was playing in your house, your room, the car, the grocery store, your head . . . you heard it at the theme park, the swimming pool, your church. Your mom hummed it, and your dad whistled it. You learned it during chorus, piano lessons, band practice, and play rehearsals. Your basketball coach had you run drills to it, your teacher put it on for indoor recess, and a DJ filled the gym with it for the school dance. It went with you on vacation, picnics, and — if you came of age anytime from the transistor era on — walks, runs, and bike rides.

Below is my list. I've noted the memory I associate with each song and expanded a couple of them into full-blown anecdotes. I want to stress that I don't see using any of these moments as the basis for a story. But each trigger is so strong for me that I can practically touch the original scene. And when I pay attention, I can — and do — find ways to add elements of such experiences to my writing.
  1. “Rich Girl,” Hall & Oates. See anecdote here.
  2. “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves,” Cher. Oh. My. Gosh. This single is from the first album I ever bought with my own money. It may have been the first *anything* I ever bought. The LP cost $3 at Pamida. I was 6. I thought Cher was beyond spectacular. I loved her voice and look, and I lived for Sonny & Cher's variety show. First purchase, first album, first brush with fandom.
  3. “Cried Like a Baby,” Bobby Sherman. Reminds me of the few years I shared a room with my older sister and did my level best to not touch her stuff (which included that 45). My best didn't cut it.
  4. “Dancing Queen,” ABBA. At junior high dances. On the Midnight Special. In slumber party record stacks. Set to repeat while I chatted on the phone. Turned way up while I dusted the living room. This song was there.
  5. “Convoy,” C. W. McCall. Novelty song that evokes the CB craze and falling asleep to AM radio.
  6. “Last Time I Saw Him,” Diana Ross. One summer morning, my banker dad was at work and my older brother was out doing whatever older brothers did in the mid 70s. I begged to stay home by myself while my mom and sister ran an errand. Mom gave in, insisting that I stay in our music room with the dog, piano, stereo, and handy-in-an-emergency phone. I knew Dad's number, and the neighbor's. I would be FINE for half an hour. As the red Valiant pulled out of the driveway, I donned our clunky headphones and cranked that 45. I wanted to out–Diana Ross, Diana Ross. Less than a minute into my performance, I spun around to see my mom and sister in the doorway, jaws on the floor. (They'd forgotten something.) They laughed. At me. Really hard. It must have been a funny sight, and I'm sure they were laughing at the surprise and the fun of it all. They did not ridicule me. But oh boy, I felt deeply mortified in a way that I hadn't quite experienced. Why was it so traumatic? I was growing up and feeling more self-conscious. I did not want to look dumb. Yet there I was, caught in the act of being my goofy self. The horror! Every kid goes through this, no?
  7. "Angels We Have Heard On High." This hymn gave me chills during the Christmas season, and I looked forward to that every year.
  8. “Mockingbird,” Carly Simon & James Taylor. Such a joyful song, one that my best friend and I used as a mood lifter in high school.
  9. “Grease,” Frankie Valli. Grease was the word in the summer of 1978.
  10. "I Want to Hold Your Hand," Beatles. High school in the 80s. Guy Friend and I spent a Saturday together working on a project. As he drove me home that night (left hand on the steering wheel, right hand casually resting on the bench seat), we were laughing and having a great time. Until, that is, I spontaneously grabbed his wrist to punctuate some hilarious sentiment or another. It was a natural grab-and-release kinda thing. No biggie. Except that it was, apparently. Suddenly the sedan lost oxygen, a red-faced Guy clenched the wheel with a 10-and-2 death grip, and both of us were struck dumb. I dealt with the awkwardness by fiddling with the radio. Guy took over, punching buttons and loudly renouncing all the subpar musical options. He finally stopped on a rock station during an ad, and we relaxed a hair. I thought, "Wow, what just happened here?" The DJ said something like, "Here's that Beatles song I promised." Guy turned up the volume, but then hastily turned it back down a smidge as the "I Want to Hold Your Hand" theme registered. Again we sat in uncomfortable silence. The song's lyrics are lousy with references to, of course, hand-holding. I was convinced that Guy was on the verge of reaching for my hand. But he didn't. When he finally dropped me off at home, I was relieved . . . and a little peeved. On the one hand (representing my earnest, even-headed, exceedingly careful side), I was glad because I truly didn't want anything to mess up our easy friendship. But on the other hand (representing my emotionally reactive side that knew I could — or maybe already did — "like-him" like him), I was mad that he hadn't tried anything. I mean, what exactly was so horrible about me that some idiot teenage boy couldn't be bothered to at least feign an attraction under such exploitable circumstances? Ha! I did consider the possibility that — from his POV — nothing out of the ordinary had even transpired. And, that the tension was in my head and I was a complete dork. Luckily Guy and I survived, and things between us were back to normal by Monday. Tuesday at the latest. I still feel a bit of the silly, sweet, sharp, angst-y pain of that car ride whenever I hear the song. And it's fantastic.

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