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Last year I was lucky enough to be interviewed by a young filmmaker named Hannah Jayanti for a documentary about the book The Phantom Tollbooth, in celebration of it being published fifty years ago. After the interview, Hannah asked if I’d write a song for the film and I was even happier to do that. The film’s premier is October 6 at the New Yorker Festival. (Norton Juster, the author, and the illustrator, Jules Feiffer, will be there for the screening.  I’ll be there, too. ) For fans of the book (and even those unfamiliar with it) it’s a delightful and insightful look at the creative process and the story behind Milo and his tollbooth.

Here’s part of my interview:

And here’s a link to the song. My pal, whistler extraordinaire Andy Offut Irwin does the whistling:

Some of you know that The Phantom Tollbooth is a classic piece of children’s literature – and it’s a classic and timeless because of its very singular and quirky nature.  Milo is a boy thoroughly bored with life and not seeing the point in much of anything. Feiffer’s initial illustrations of Milo show someone not dissimilar to the character in Munch’s “The Scream”. Passing through a tollbooth that mysteriously shows up in his apartment one afternoon, Milo embarks on a quest into a different world, and discovers a reason for being, or perhaps finds that just being is reason enough. The story is filled with language play, strange characters, and philosophical observations that most adults can’t imagine children would enjoy.

Most adults.

Most adults think…

You could begin a lot of sentences with that phrase, and hardly any of them would be complimentary to people over twenty-one years of age. Somehow, adults forget how children think. Perhaps because children have no power, they have little responsibility, and adults equate consciousness and perception with responsibility, forgetting the years and years they themselves spent as children, observing and trying to make sense of things. By the time children get to nine or ten years of age, they have become philosophers of a feral sort. Children, at the mercy of their seniors, have a lot of time to muse and consider and try and understand, more than we do as adults.

Which is what The Phantom Toolbooth is about – trying to make sense of a world in which adults don’t seem to be listening or paying attention.

Most adults doubted that children would like the book. But they have. My friend Carmen Deedy says it’s easier to publish a good book than a great one, and time has proved detractors wrong. Rereading it last year, I was struck by the depth of what it had to say, and the playfulness with which it was said.

If you like the book, you can give it some support on the Facebook fan page here.

And if you’re in New York, I’ll see you there.

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On September 1, my new book, Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year, comes out on Peachtree Press. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting some thoughts about the book and my process.  Here’s a video trailer about it.

It’s the first in a series of six books that will be coming out every season (fall and spring) for the next three years. So far, so good, with a nice review in Publishers Weekly, and it’s a  Junior Library Guild selection.

Here are several  things I’ve learned. They might not be true for all authors, but I know they’re true for me.

1) Books take forever. They take forever to write. They take forever to edit. They take forever to get accepted. They take forever to edit again. They take forever to come out.

There is some author somewhere (Nora Roberts, I guess) who thinks of a book one week, writes it in the next three weeks, and has it published by the end of the year.

I do not know that person. I am not that person.

I wrote the first draft of Charlie seven or eight years ago. It was in the hands of a number of editors who politely demurred. It sat on one editor’s desk for two years. I rewrote it numerous times, on the advice of editors and friends and agents. It was accepted and then the publishing house that accepted it died. It found another publisher and editor. And then I got to edit it again.

I began to feel singled out. Why me? This is ridiculous! And then I started talking to other authors. They all nodded, “Yup. Happened to me.” Not so special, evidently.

I don’t really want things to take forever, but I will admit (when tied down and approached by someone brandishing terrifying implements of torture) that the finished product I hope you will hold in  your hands is much better than the one I started with. Believe me – I know who this kid is, and I like him a lot, and I wouldn’t like him as much if all those people weren’t involved. The book is better for the time it took – although I wouldn’t mind cutting the process by a couple of years. Which I guess I get to do, since the second book is due to my editor next week.

2) It takes a lot of people. My book is a child and requires a village. Or at least about thirty or forty people. Again, the smart writer does not need this, maybe – although if I look at any acknowledgement page in any published book, I see there are many idiot writers that require help just like me.

I need readers – a lot of them – people with different skills from mine. And I take all of these people’s names in vain because of the things they say or suggest or intimate. Behind their backs, I call them idiots and fools. I do not say these things to their faces, since I need them, and will need them again. My name is on the cover, but that is a shabby egotism which will not stand to scrutiny.

3) The book you’re working on is yourself. I won’t get too spiritual about this, but there’s a discipline required here, and this long arduous process has tested me about as much as anything else I’ve done. Failure is possible (Even after it comes out!). Success is never assured. Few things are under your control. Mostly, what you control is whether you sit down and write.

In the meantime, I have a book coming out that I’m proud of, and that I’ve read over so many times, I pretty much have memorized. And another one in process.

Call me lucky.

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With Barbara Robinson in 2011

With Barbara Robinson in 2011

It’s been a rough week. We lost Robert Greygrass, a great Native teller, and Toshi Seeger.

And Barbara Robinson. It’s her I’m thinking about this morning. She was a writer of very distinct voice for children, and I feel lucky I got to know her and spend time with her.

Barbara is best known for “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”, which millions have either read or seen – especially as some elementary school play production.

Her writing was pithy and honest and real. And very funny. The first line in “Best Christmas Pageant” is really one of the great openings in any book –

“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.” 

That line would worry adults afraid of anarchy, but it has the ring of truth. And lets you know you’re in for a good story.

I think my favorite book of hers was “My Brother Louis Measures Worms.” It’s about a quirky but functional family, and its genius is in showing children trying to make sense of an adult world that doesn’t make much sense. When the parents are too busy to take him somewhere, Louis, the eight year old drives himself. Then keeps on doing it. Strange and inappropriate relatives come to visit. Reading about the Lawsons is like a visit to the house down the street that your parents weren’t sure you should visit. But you did.

When I had decided to to write books for kids, I was looking for my voice, and coming across Barbara’s books was a godsend. She wrote the way I wanted to write about things that seemed real and immediate. Like Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume and Roald Dahl (okay – he’s a little more fantastical, but…), she didn’t speak down to children, and didn’t pull punches about how confusing life could be for kids, but still wrote with tremendous heart. Maybe her Ohio upbringing (born about 100 miles from where I was) made me feel some kinship. I’ve reread her books a number of times when I want to remind myself of how I want to write.

It could be argued by some, I suppose, that Barbara’s books are at least as much about kids as they are for them. There’s an irony and sophistication in her writing that is pretty subtle, and the stories take place in a setting that would be hard to find today – just as would Cleary’s Klickitat Street. In today’s world, the books might be viewed as nostalgic, but I know Barbara wasn’t interested in nostalgia. In Robinson’s world,  the kids roamed freely through the streets, and things seemed a little gentler, but her books deal honestly with the emotional lives of children. It’s what I try to do.

I met Barbara two years ago at the Plum Creek Literacy Festival at Concordia University in Nebraska. We had a blast together and her personality and view of the world were what I had always imagined. We traded some e-mails and letters afterwards and it made me feel like I was some part of a literary tradition reaching back to Twain.

I was glad to have known her, and very sorry I won’t see her again.

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I spent this past weekend at the Festival of Lights in Midland, Texas with a lot of storytelling friends and enjoyed hearing all their stories. On Saturday night, I heard Donald Davis honor the creator of the festival, Patty  Smith, by  telling  an old story of his about his typing teacher in high school. In the story, the ancient teacher insisted that nothing could stop the timed typing test given every Friday. Her insistence leads to some pretty hilarious consequences.

Afterwards I was talking with other tellers about how Donald structured the story, and suggested that the  story worked because it asked a question at the beginning of the story that had to be answered (Would anything stop the test?). My pal Willy Claflin suggested that Donald’s story was a good example of the scientific method – when confronted with a problem the protagonist  suggests a solution and then tests his theory. What happens if we do this? As soon as the audience hears the question, we know where the story is headed, though not the outcome.

A good story asks a question and then answers it. It needs to ask the question early on – after the stage is set and the main character’s world is established. And the question that is asked is the result of a problem that presents itself. And really, the  asking of questions may be the reason stories exist in the first place – they explain to people what happens when they take certain courses of actions – they’re about being predictive. Just like Einstein imagining traveling at the speed of light. The scientific method. What happens if you do this? Our ability to imagine what might happen is what makes us storytelling animals – we put events in a context to make sense of them.

I don’t think it’s necessary that the question always be directly stated, as it was in Donald’s story. (“We got to thinking, could anything stop the timed test?”) If you make it clear that the hero of the story really wants something, then the unstated question is “Will she get what she wants?” and “How is she going to get it?” Which is enough to hook the audience so they want to know the most important question in narrative – “What happens next?”

While some narrative artists can get away from this simple structure because of other skills they have, it’s dangerous to do so. How many times have you read a book, or gone to a movie or a play and after a while get this confused feeling that makes you ask, “Where is this going?” If that feeling lasts too long, the audience checks out. If the artist hasn’t asked that questions of herself, it can lead to a really flabby, confusing story. Not every narrative artist is so direct – some folks are more elliptical in their presentation. But by and large, I think storytellers are better off practicing the scientific method.

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I just finished performing at the Forest Storytelling Festival in Port Angeles, WA, and had a great time. The other tellers were all very good (Lyn Ford, Robert Greygrass, Will Hornyak, and Alison Cox) and we complemented each other very well and had a great time. And while I was busy, I got out before the festival started and took a nice hike up Hurricane Ridge where I only got a little wet. The Northwest, you know. Picture above – it was really raining when I took the picture.

The stories were good, but I am thinking a lot about what happened in the workshop I gave before the festival started. I did a 2 ½ hour workshop on personal stories (anathema to all the European tellers, and those who are sick of hearing people talk about themselves). I talked a lot about trying to place a personal story in the context of myth so it would have resonance. That’s all good, but I also talked a lot about imaging – seeing the story in the mind’s eye – which I have considered essential to good storytelling. It’s how I work, and how I teach. But that’s where I ran into trouble.

One of the workshop participants, who has been telling stories for a long time, told me that he doesn’t see stories – he doesn’t have pictures in his head. I have run into this before, and usually have found a way around it. I have ways of tricking people into admitting they have pictures in their heads when they tell stories. It’s how I operate, and I suspect how most tellers, or writers (and certainly filmmakers) operate. I usually can get them to admit that they do.

But this one wasn’t budging. No, he insisted, he didn’t see anything, he just told the story.

I was confronted with a problem. I didn’t get it. As a workshop leader, I am supposed to know everything. He was messing up my workshop. And he wasn’t going along with my tricks. I was trying to get on to the next point, but here I was, with an embarrassing moment.

So I said (essentially), “Wow, I don’t get this. I believe you but I don’t get this. You see, or do things differently from me, and I don’t get it, and I don’t know what to say.”

I was confronted with a way of being that I did not understand, and I gave up and admitted it. “Seeing” the story is essential to my work, and I considered it universal, but here was someone saying there was another way to do it.

Rather than tell him he was wrong, I just said, “Okay with me – I need to understand it.”

After the workshop, he thanked me for affirming that his way of doing things was valid – he said it was the first time a workshop leader had done so. All I had said was “I don’t get it. I don’t understand it, but what do I know?” Who knows everything?  Another workshop participant, a psychologist, came up to me and said that there’s a number of ways to experience things – it could be visual, but it could also be auditory, or it could be affectively –  the emotions in the experience might give you the path towards finding the words. And afterwards, I thought about how smell or touch could do it, too. Diane Ackerman’s sensational (ha ha ha) book A Natural History of the Senses talks about this and suggests that smell is the strongest sense when it comes to dwelling in memory.  Could you tell a story about your grandmother baking bread without having any images in your head?Well, evidently, even though I don’t know how.

Over the weekend, I had several conversations with my non-visual storyteller. At one point, he said he tried to feel what was going on in the story, and operated from that perspective. I understood that. My stories often start with a feeling that I would like to elicit – one I’ve had and want to evoke. And then, a day later, he told me that he was working on a new story and that morning he had tried to picture it and for a few fleeting seconds, he could see it happening in a way he hadn’t before. It was a small breakthrough. I think if I had just told him he was wrong, he would not have done that.

It got me thinking about what a visual culture we are – we are addicted to images, often at the expense of the other senses, which might provide a deeper experience.

This process is all very interesting to me. I take away at least two things from the experience.

First – I’m a better teacher when I admit that I don’t know everything. Teachers spend so much time trying to have all the answers, it’s very difficult to admit when they don’t. But when they do (or in my case, are forced to), something else happens. We can go deeper into the experience of learning – it’s a wide open space with no easy answers, and kind of uncomfortable. But it’s also very liberating.

Second, I was forced to recognize that there are ways of being that I do not really understand. This is a very humbling experience, especially for someone who professes to be an expert. I am a moderately synaesthetic person – music has colors to me, words evoke feelings, visual things may evoke smells – but there is still a lot that I just don’t get. It’s a big world, and I only understand a little part of it. I should shut up and pay more attention.

I said to my non-seeing workshop participant that I suspected the more we could draw on all of our senses, the better off we would be in our work. He may, in the long run, gain from his attempts to “see” stories in a way he never has before. It will probably make him a better storyteller. And I should probably be more willing to admit that someone understands the world differently than I. It will make me a better workshop leader, and maybe more than that.

What drives your creativity?  Something else than image?

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The writer, happy at his work...


I have been working on a book over the past nine months. Well, really three years, but more intently for the last nine months. My schedule being what it is, and my brain chemistry preventing me from sitting still for eight hours at a time, I rarely write for more than an hour or two. But I kept working. As I got into the process, the story became more and more complex. More characters appeared.

And the end seemed to get further and further away.

But I have learned this about writing a longer piece – you stop looking at the end. You just write a certain number of words a day, or for a certain amount of time, then you walk away from it until the next day. The process is Sisyphean – just keep pushing the rock. It’s there waiting for you. Getting impatient does no good. You can’t just get it over with– it’s too long a climb. All you can do is show up.

I’m reminded of a friend of mine who, as a mid-life-crisis kind of experience, decided to ride her bike across the country. She was hoping it would be some kind of transforming experience, and she would have a revelation about who she was and what she should do.

“Was it a catharsis?” I asked.

“Not really” she said. “It wasn’t a big thing. It was just a whole bunch of little things. It wasn’t one 3000 mile ride, it was 75 forty mile rides, one after another.”

Which is like life, I guess. Or at least writing this damn book. In the past month I have been writing pretty regularly, and am now up to about eighty thousand words (many which will have to die later on – I don’t edit much as I go along the first time). One thing about writing on a computer – you can always check exactly how many words you’ve written in the past five minutes. Which is good and bad. Actually, mostly bad.

One scene after another. Just plugging away. Not looking at the ending, but filled with the vague sense of dread that it would never end and I would just be hanging out with Tantalus and Cerberus for the rest of my time on this mortal coil.(Mixed metaphor there, I think…)

Annie Dillard said that writing a book is like sitting up with a sick friend and hoping he doesn’t die.

Then on Monday I had a weird thing happen. I went out in the morning to stare at the computer, then checked the story line I had written months before, including possible scenes

Wow. There wasn’t much more to write. I’d taken care of all the scenes leading up to the climax of the story, and it was time to spring the trap. Suddenly, I could see the end. I knew where it was going! How did that happen? I still have another thirty or forty pages, but I know what’s going to happen. And I’m going to get there in the next week or two.

And I’ll tell you what – it’s easier to write when you can see the end.

The secret – there is none. Like Jane Yolen says – “The secret to writing – butt in chair.”

Of course, then there’s the next dumb step. Trying to sell it. Another rock waiting for me.

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I’m back from the National Storytelling Festival. For all the confusing issues surrounding the festival and the International Storytelling Center (more on that in some future post), it was an amazing experience for a performer. Those of us who get to tell stories there end up feeling a great gratitude.

In the last session, I recited a poem I had just written. The response was really positive and people asked me how to find it. I just wrote it. But here it is:

Nothing for granted

Let us take nothing for granted
Not the water coming out of the faucet
Nor the smell of bread
Nor the call of the lone crow overhead
Late in the afternoon

Do not take for granted the shoestring that does its job every day without complaint
Nor the way the fingernail clipper responds when asked by squeezing thumb and forefinger
Do not take dark roast for granted
nor the smell of its brewing
Nor chocolate
(Especially chocolate)
Nor the rain predicted with certainty by Eyewitness news
Do not take for granted the leaf, pasted upon the windshield
Its puckered body yellow
Its spidery veins green
Which even the wipers cannot remove

Especially, do not take the venality of those in power for granted
Nor the callousness of those intent upon teaching a lesson to someone else
while not learning it themselves
Instead, be taken aback
And don’t take your indignity for granted either
Indignant at the insensitivity of the privileged
Mistaking their position for their worth
Do not take the hunger of the poor for granted
Nor the drum’s tattoo that summons the dogs of war
Do not assume inevitability
For at this moment things are still evitable
And we do not know what there will be an outbreak of

So, embrace surprise

For it is in our surprise and what comes of it that we embody the possibility of something else
In our surprise we remind the world of what it might be

The trick is to take the moment
Out of the cardboard box
Or picture frame
Or digital byte
Or philosophical system
Or the story we have put it in
The equating of this for that
The alchemy of life into metaphor
When in fact nothing equates with anything exactly
For it is this space between where we think something fits
And what the fitting leaves out
That life breathes

Refuse boredom

Do not let the continuing
Recombination of genetic material
Blind you to the beauty of its expression

In not taking things for granted
We will appear a little daft
Apparently obtuse and dull-witted
As if we are only realizing something
Everyone else has known since the day before the first day of middle school
(The last day to learn something before you were pilloried for your ignorance)

When we do not take things for granted
People will be embarrassed for us
And for themselves

Let us be masters of the obvious
Of what everyone knows but seems to have forgotten
Because they do not name it
And in not naming it, lose it

Let us be known for saying
“The sun came up this morning”
“The stars are coming out”
“The leaves are turning colors”
“The firetruck is red”
“Someone emptied the dishwasher”
“This food tastes good”
“This system is unjust”
“Things will change”
“You are my friend”

Let us be masters of the repeated appreciation
Let us be the masters of the redundancy of affection
Giving more gifts than necessary
Over and over
In the knowledge that the slippage in the universe requires
Us to give more than we think we should have to give
Let us be masters of appearing foolish
Masters of the obvious insight
Masters of the wisdom everyone already holds
Masters of what is known
Only to be found again and again
And delighted in each time at its discovery

copyright 2011 by Bill Harley and Round River Productions

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