Archive for the writing process

Checking In with Ralph Fletcher: On Writing & Photography

Ralph Fletcher needs no introduction.

[Pause.]

[Whistles softly, drums fingers on desktop.]

[Really, people?]

Okay, fine: Ralph Fletcher has not only published 20 books for young readers, he’s also established himself as one of the foremost mentors to classroom teachers, helping to exhort, instruct and inspire effective methods of teaching writing. 

Simply put, Ralph is one of the most respected voices in children’s literature today, and it’s an honor to have him as my guest.

But that’s not why, humble readers, we’re gathered here today.

I wanted to ask Ralph about his photography, and how that practice might be connected to writing.

Here he comes now.

Greetings, Ralph. Thanks for stopping by.
   
You’re welcome. Funny that we have so much in common—both write books for young readers, and both have worked with the same editor—but we have never met. It makes me wonder….are you perchance avoiding me? ☺
   
I don’t think we get invited to the same parties. We have another connection: I believe we also both come from large families. I’m the youngest of seven.
   
I am the oldest of nine. A big family can be a cauldron for great stories.
            
It’s a cauldron all right. I’m a longtime admirer of your writing, and your work as a teacher of writing. Through Facebook, I’ve learned that you are an avid and accomplished photographer. Is this a longtime hobby or something relatively new for you?


   
Mostly, I’d say it’s a passion that has taken hold in the last 5-6 years. I don’t quite call it a hobby, but I’m certainly not Richard Avedon, either. I’m not sure what it is.
   
A photo buff — or a buff photographer? I’m confused. What were we saying?
       
I choose “buff photographer.” Seriously, there’s this prevalent idea in our culture that unless you’re making money doing something you can’t be serious about it. That’s flawed thinking.
          
Excellent point. It occurred to me that there are similarities between photography and writing. 
   
Yes. And I have been thinking a great deal about this subject. I’m writing a book for teachers about the links between photography and writing. Focus Lessons will be published by Heinemann this fall.
   
That’s great news –- and proof that I’m on the right track. Certainly, some links between writing and photography are fairly apparent. Both begin with noticing things, an appreciation and an awareness of the world around you.
          
That’s true. Like  many people I spend a lot of time in my head. Taking pictures certainly pulls me out of myself. It has given me a door into the tangible, visual world. That’s not a bad place to live.


   
I mess around with haiku for the very same reason. Do you think that taking photos has helped you as a writer?
   
I think so. For most of my career I’ve been a language guy.  The items in my tool box are words. I write books (for kids and for teachers), and I speak at educational conferences. Photography draws on a different part of my brain (the non-language part) that I’ve rarely used. It’s fun flexing these new muscles! But to get back to your question….I do believe that photography has helped hone my powers of observation. When you’re trying to get a really good photo of wild creature you find yourself paying close attention to your subject. You can’t help it.  And aren’t writers (like photographers) involved in the business of creating engaging images?


   
Patience is important, too. You can’t blast through it. And all the while, your antenna is up. Waiting and ready.
   
To borrow a sports metaphor: photography has taught me that you have to let the game come to you. You’re right: there is a lot of sitting and waiting. But suddenly it happens: a merganser followed by a string of swimming chicks. And I’m there, sometimes so close we’re practically breathing the same air. That’s special.   

You’ve shared some incredible photographs of birds in flight. But recently you made a comment about practicing your “street photography.” In what way do they require something different from you?


   
I do think there’s a lot of overlap. Whether you’re photographing a heron or a couple of people chatting on a park bench, certain principles apply. You try to make yourself invisible so “they” (your subjects) are not aware of you. It’s not because you’re trying to spy or stalk but you want them to act naturally, to be themselves. If you do that you might be able to enter their world  and see them as they truly are.
   
I often think of writing as the art of getting out of the way. That is, not intruding as the writer, “look at me!” — and instead letting the characters step forward.

Well said. You try to make yourself disappear so the focus of the reader/viewer is on the story you’re trying to tell.


       
Technical question: What kind of equipment do you use?
   
Can you picture me smiling? Because this question fingers a running joke amongst my group of friends. Many people have seen my photos and said: “Your camera takes great pictures!” And I’m thinking, well, ah, no, actually I take the pictures. I think there’s a mistaken notion that all you need to do is get an expensive camera. There’s a lot of craft involved, no matter what camera you used.
       
But hasn’t that been the issue with photography as an art form all along? Because it is so accessible, where even Uncle Bill can take a “decent” snap, people tend to think anyone can do it. 
   
Yes, we’ve definitely seen a remarkable democratization of photography in the last few decades. It used to be a rarified skill practiced by few. Now almost every middle school kid gets a smart phone with a powerful camera in it. Here comes everybody.


   
I will acknowledge that having decent equipment does help. I shoot with a Canon 7D Mark II. I use various lens. It’s great to use a telephoto lens when shooting birds, but a telephoto is impractical when you’re walking around the street. Plus those lens can be heavy.
   
Ah, that explains your buffness. Thank you, Ralph. I respect and enjoy your work -– in any medium. And I look forward to your upcoming book, Focus Lessons, that brings photos and writing together. Do you have a cover we can share? A publication date?

 


        

     


September 2019 (I think). No cover yet. The book will feature about 60-70 of my photos, and explore connections between photography and writing, especially in regards to teaching writing.


Good luck with it, Ralph. I wish you the best. 

Bad Decisions Make Good Stories

Detail from self-published book, age 5-6, by yours truly, assisted by my brother Neal.

 

Bad decisions make good stories.

It’s something I know now, as a published author long in the tooth, but I understood it even when I was a kid, drawing my first books, telling the words to any sibling who’d transcribe them for me. I could draw, just didn’t yet have the ability to write the words.

The art is taken from a book I made as a young boy, miraculously stored safely away in the attic by my mother. You see, long before I got my current gig, I used to make books and sell them to my friends and neighbors.

Anyway, here’s another detail to that same page. We’ll call it, “Tarzan’s Bad Idea.”

If you can’t read my brother Neal’s handwriting: “I had better go down and fight the lion.”

When I show this story to kindergartners, I’ll sometimes mention that if I were Tarzan, I’d be like, “Okay, gee. I’m going to stay up in this tree until that lion goes away.”

We all agree that would make a crummy book!

Jigsaw Jones: The Grocery List Clue

I came across a meme the other day that made me smile, because it reminded of a clue I employed in Jigsaw Jones: The Case from Outer Space.

In my book, published last year, I wrote the clue slightly differently. Here’s the scene, when Mila discovers the note tucked into a book in a Little Free Library:

A few minutes later, Mila said, “Bingo!” She had found another piece of paper. It was the same size as the other clue.

Mila held it out for us to see.

Danika read the message aloud. “‘LET TOM PICK ON MAY.’ That’s weird. What does it mean?”

I looked at Mila. “It might be a secret code.”

“Perhaps,” Mila said. “Maybe it means exactly what it says. Some guy named Tom is picking on May.”

We didn’t know anyone by either name.

“I’m hungry,” Joey complained.

“Not now, Joey. We’re hunting for clues.”

And so on and so forth. I like how Joey, who is always thinking about food, on every page in every book, accidentally almost leads our detectives in the right direction. I’m hungry. But Jigsaw snaps back, “Not not, Joey.” This is no time to be thinking about food.

Or is it?

Alert readers might instantly recognize this as a grocery list, something you’d bring to the deli when ordering a sandwich for a friend. The trick for a mystery writer is to quickly distract attention, the magician’s misdirection. My characters instantly travel down the wrong train of thought. Hopefully young readers will take that ride with Jigsaw and Mila — or, hey, maybe it’s perfectly okay if the reader is a step ahead of our favorite gumshoes, rewarded by careful reading and critical thinking.

Another favorite moment comes when Jigsaw, zeroing in on his primary suspect, confronts Ms. Gleason. I love the way illustrator R.W. Alley (you can call him Bob) depicts Jigsaw in the drawing, leaning forward in absolute seriousness, while Ms. Gleason leans back, a little stunned by his intensity.

Mila, Joey, Danika and I stayed after class to have a little talk with our teacher. 

“Tell me, Ms. Gleason,” I said. “What do you think about . . . MAYONNAISE?”

“Excuse me?”

“Some people like eating it,” I said. “What about you?”

“I, um . . .” She blinked a few times. “It’s fine. I like it.”

“Aha!” I said. I made a note in my detective journal: LIKES MAYO.

“How about pickles? Do they tickle your fancy?” I asked.

“Jigsaw, what’s this all about?” she asked. 

FIVE MORE JIGSAW JONES BOOKS WILL BE AVAILABLE FROM MACMILLAN — REVISED AND UPDATED — THIS SUMMER. THAT INCLUDES THE ALL-NEW TITLE: The Case of the Hat Burglar

On Practicing Haiku

I am trying something new: come this March, I’ll be teaching a Haiku Workshop for continuing ed in my local community.

Here’s the write up:

Haiku Workshop *NEW!* Location High School – Room D120 Instructor Preller Length: 6 weeks Starting Date: March 11 Day & Time: Mondays, 6:30-8:00p Fee: $50 An exploration of the haiku, from traditional to modern, that includes reading a wide range of haiku, writing and sharing our own, and analysis in a workshop setting. One guiding principle for this class comes from the quote, “The smartest person in the room, is the room.” The teacher will serve more as guide than expert. Hopefully we all learn (and teach) together. Participants will be expected to read haiku, write your own, and discuss in class. James Preller is the author of many books for children and he’s eager to share his enthusiasm for the art of the haiku, and to learn more about the craft in a group setting. Limit of 15 students.

Rather than “teaching” per say, my vision for the workshop is that we’re making stone soup. Everybody brings their own ingredients. My role will be to help stir the pot, at least in the beginning.

I started writing haiku in earnest early in the Trump era. I found myself spiraling into darkness. Jumping on Facebook, reading the news, and hovering over the “angry” icon. Every day, upset and disillusioned and angry. And I eventually realized that I couldn’t continue to live like this.

Not sure how I arrived at it, but I decided to try to write at least one haiku first thing in the morning. Spend ten minutes, get something down . . . and then proceed with my regular program of getting upset, disillusioned, and angry.

People ask, “What are you going to do with them?” And my answer is nothing, hopefully. I’m not looking at it that way. Oh, maybe someday I’ll read them again, self-publish a selection, but that’s about as far as I can imagine.

It’s not about the results.

It’s about the process.

The act of stepping out of myself. Of seeing. Of being actively engaged in the natural world. Looking at that cat lying in a slant of sunlight. The way the fog lingers in the treetops. Those seven crows out on the front lawn.

However you feel about haiku — and it’s perfectly okay to not love it — I read so many that leave me flat, bored, restless — hell, I write so many that miss by a mile — I’ve come to believe there is value in the act of attempting one.

For starters, as a writer, haiku speaks to the essence of good writing. Clarity. Conciseness. A focus on the particular thing. Back to William Carlos Williams, “No ideas but in things.” Back to Ezra Pound and the Imagist movement. Get the ego out of the way. Deal with the thing itself. Or the magical juxtaposition of two things in close proximity. This is good practice for any writer of any genre.

Secondly, the haiku is about the present moment. About presence and attention. It is, at its ideal, a moment of heightened perception. Of truly being in the world, however fleetingly. In a time of social media, a time when we seem to be more and more detached from the natural world, haiku can bring us closer to the elements, reconnect us to be being human creatures on this earth.

So, yes, I do currently favor the values of traditional haiku in its focus on nature and the present moment. There are strong proponents and powerful arguments against the 3 line, 17 syllable approach. Many modern American haiku poets prefer a 12 syllable count, for example, and see that as closer to its Japanese origins. Some are experimenting with the one line haiku. Shrug, whatever. It’s all good, and yet inconsequential to me. For now, I like the even playing field of the 5-7-5 format, the strict demands of that specific structure. But people should write whatever they want, I have no axe to grind.

Anyway, I’m teaching this class — guiding this class — stirring this class — in the hope of interacting with other people. Reading and writing and thinking about the natural world, about language, about poetry.

That’s my haiku journey.

One other thing that I’ve discovered. By trying to write haiku, I’ve been confronted time and again with how little I know. Or, in a positive way, how much there is to learn. Today I spent time reading about recent experiments with evening primroses and how they might “experience” and respond to the vibration of honey bee wings by producing more nectar. A survival strategy underscoring the interconnectedness of things.

As a result of that, I made these two attempts . . .

Primrose hears the buzz

Of honey bee, makes herself

Sweeter than ever.

She hears him draw near,

Sweetens her nectar, beckons:

Evening primrose.

 

Writing haiku calls upon me to learn more about the natural world. This realization fed directly into a middle grade novel I just finished, Blood Mountain (Macmillan, Fall, 2019), about two siblings lost in the wilderness. It won’t be a recognizable connection to any other reader, but I know it’s in there, feeding the surface.

I think by writing the haiku, I’ve become a better observer, a better writer. Or maybe just a little happier.

By the way, I posted about this experience recently — and even dared to share a few random poems — and you can check that out by stomping on this link right here.

Carry on!

 

The Beauty of Bare Winter Trees: Haiku & Bill McKibben

Admittedly, I am contrarian by nature. I’ve always bristled at the idea of “peak season” when it comes to fall foliage. This idea that there’s a perfect weekend when the deciduous trees of the Northeast look their best. Sure, the colors are spectacular, no doubt. But I like the trees all the time, any day of the week.

Especially in the winter.

That’s when I can most admire their scaffolding, the structure and shape and enduring strength of the creature itself. They drop their leaves and apply their resources to more pressing matters, hunkering down to survive another long, cold winter.

These days, I frequently find myself driving from Delmar to Saratoga, up and back, about three times a week. My daughter, Maggie, rows for the Saratoga Rowing Association — and the water’s up there. So in the car we go. It’s more travel time than I’ve ever had in my life. I’m one of those people who gets excited every single time I see a hawk — or maybe it’s an eagle, it’s hard to tell. On a travel day, I spend about 90 minutes cruising on 87, listening to music and admiring the trees. And in winter, I can really see the random hawks perched on the limbs, feathers puffed up against the cold, giving them the appearance of jolly, fat assassins.

On most days, I’ll compose a few lines of haiku as I drive, hoping to jot them down later. I realize it’s a form derided by some literati, but I enjoy writing most of my haiku in the traditional 5-7-5 form, even though it’s somewhat out of style nowadays. I like the wordplay and rigor of it. Often my focus is on those trees, the winter weather. Here’s a few, like a fistful of almonds:

 

In the winter trees

her bony grip, long fingers

twisted and wind-whipped.

 

The wolf’s moon hangs low

beckons through bare branches, come:

a headlight drives past.

 

Where a branch broke off

the grandfatherly red oak

a barred owl now nests.

 

The plump winter wren

moves through the understory,

trills and whirls, tail down.

 

The tall trees lie down

in shadow across sunlit

snow, ever patient.

 

Amidst the white field

a stand of resolute oaks,

but not forever.

 

The sparse silhouette

against a gray winter sky

declares: hickory.

 

The beech holds its leaves

shimmering like winter moons

papery and light.

 

Steel-gray buckets tapped

into maples; the crows watch

from snow-covered limbs.

 

Crows seem skeptical

of melting snow in cold rain,

perched on bare branches.

 

The bare winter elms

reveal the assassin’s shape:

hawk perched on a limb.

 

Anyway, whatever. I don’t worry too much about ideas of quality — whether they are “good” or not — more interested in the process of attending to things, getting out of myself, and seeing. Basho’s “the journey itself is home.”

It made me happy to read the following passage in Bill McKibben’s most recent novel, Radio Tree Vermont.  I’ve been a huge fan of his work since reading his landmark book, The End of Nature, when it came out nearly 30 years ago. In this scene, Vern Barclay muses on Vermont’s trees after the giddy explosion of autumn colors has passed:

And when it was over, it was even better. The leaves were down by mid-October, and you could see the shape of the land again, see the late sun silhouetting the trees along the ridgetops as it set. You could sense the architecture of the hills, every hollow and creekrun and knoll visible from the road. When people thought of trees, they thought of leaves — that’s how a child would draw them. But the natural inclination of trees at this latitude was bareness — seven months of the year, at least upslope, they stood there stoic. Leaves were the fever-dream exception to the barren rule, and Vern felt calmer once they were down. 

 

AN ASIDE: My first book of haiku, written for children, comes out in the Fall of 2019, illustrated by the great Mary GrandPre (of Harry Potter fame). It is titled All Welcome Here and celebrates the community of the classroom on the first day of school.