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January 2011

A Love Letter to a Book

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“Terrible Yellow Eyes” is a truly wild collection of illustrations curated by Cory Godbey and inspired by Maurice Sendak’s cherished classic, Where the Wild Things Are.

The project ran from May 1, 2009 – January 1, 2010, and attracted a range of international artists, some quietly lyrical in their approach, others boldly graphic . (French illustrator Sebastien Mesnard did this drawing.)

I was amazed by the sheer imagination and emotion that went into the tributes. The love resounds… As Cory writes on the website: “I have been taken in by Maurice Sendak’s terrible and wonderful monsters. I love the anger, and the frightfulness, and the joy I find there.”

A Boy With Socks

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There is something about little boys and socks. The way the socks always tend to slouch or get holes in the heels or come unravelled at the top or find themselves balled up and wedged in odd places (inside the vent, behind the faucet, on my bookshelf).

There is something about drawing. The way an eloquent line can make me swoon and render me speechless or make me want to write (badly) so I can capture even a fraction of a drawing’s feeling.

I love books and good writing and sometimes I fool myself into thinking that writing when done well can actually be described as a kind of visual art. But then I see a sketch like this one by Isabelle Arsenault (my wonderful collaborator) and I just feel awe.

A boy with socks and a book.

Modern Masters for Children

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Following my recent post about Twentieth Century adult authors who wrote for kids, I found this old book on our shelf. It’s by Shirley Jackson (best known for her brutally creepy short story, “The Lottery”) and is one of series published in the 1960s under the imprint “Modern Masters for Children”. I really love her sentences. They combine fancifulness with matter-of-factness in a way that feels true. Here is the opening: “Today was a very funny day. The sky was green and the sun was blue and all the trees were flying balloons. A magician came walking down my street. His coat was long and black and there were stars on his hat.”

Lorraine Fox apparently worked as a successful illustrator for all the major women’s magazines in the mid-1950s. Her style—a combination of naive painting and idealized realism—is very robust and often seems to flow off the edge of the page.

Among the other titles in the Modern Masters series: “Jane’s Blanket” by Arthur Miller, “The Best New Thing” by Isaac Asimov, and “The Big Green Book” by Robert Graves (illustrated by Maurice Sendak!) I’ve tracked down a second-hand copy of the latter and hope to show it to you in the near future.

Mimi, My Muse

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Every morning my cat, Mimi, nudges me downstairs to my ground floor study. She is a gentle task-master and lets me know when I haven’t been writing enough by nipping at my heels. Sometimes I’ll start the day with a short meditation and she’ll be right in front of me, snoozing or sighing her content satori sighs. Last September, Mimi’s brother died suddenly at the age of fourteen and I swear Mimi wandered the corridor plaintively, every night for months, meowing his name—Har-po. When it wasn’t driving me nuts, it was enough to break my heart.

Then one morning in December, she stopped meowing Harpo’s name. She started eating as soon as the food was put out for her (instead of waiting for Harpo to eat first). She started sleeping in his coveted spots. It seemed her mourning period was over.

I don’t know what it would be like to write without her soft snoring in the background. We have a deep bond based on a mutual sympathy: we share odd schedules, periodic social aloofness, a need to graze between bouts of work (sleep).

I recently read an article about writers and their cats in which Robertson Davies described the attraction like this: “Authors like cats because they are such quiet, loveable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons.”

A good writing day for me is one in which I’ve been cat-like: neither too focused, nor too slack. The Japanese word for this is “zanshin” and it basically means a state of relaxed attentiveness. Watch a cat sitting near a window in a beam of sun and you’ll see it expressed perfectly.

Sylvia Plath’s Children’s Stories

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My intrepid editor, Tara, introduced me to Sylvia Plath’s story “Mrs Cherry’s Kitchen” shortly after I submitted Spork for publication. (We were likely on the topic of anthropomorphized utensils…Crazy. Imagine!)

Here are a few lines to give you a taste: ‘It’s not that I don’t like whipping eggs,’ explained Egg-Beater. ‘It’s just that Iron turns out such frilly white ruffled blouses for Mrs Cherry. I’m sure I could make lovely white ruffles on Mrs Cherry’s blouses too, if I were given the chance.’

“Mrs Cherry’s Kitchen” is one of three short pieces compiled by Faber Children’s Classics—a collection I highly recommend if you like the pleasure of smartly surreal read aloud books… There’s a funny poem titled “The Bed Book” (written for Plath’s own children, Frieda and Nicholas), in which she uses a simple rhyming structure to conjure a jet-propelled bed, bird-watching bed, pocket-size bed, and elephant bed. (“You go where you please. You pick bananas/ Right out of the trees.”)

I’m slowly discovering that there are a number of famous writers of adult fiction and poetry who are considerably less known for their children’s books. Some of them are quite unexpected (i.e. Graham Greene, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin). I think 2011 may be the year to start scouting them out…

Drawing to Music

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I think drawing to music is a wonderful way of de-automatizing the creative process. We all develop habits and tics as writers and artists and sometimes a simple exercise can generate new ways of seeing the world.

Check out this wonderful Guardian video featuring London-based artist Dale Berning:

A few soundtrack suggestions: Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Puccini’s La Boheme, and John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano.

Regional Writing

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We’ve all heard of Prairie writers, Maritime writers, Southern writers…Yet the term “regional writing” had always caused me a degree of puzzlement and distance.

The benefit of my peripatetic upbringing was an encounter with many cultures, religions and attitudes. From a young age, I experienced a constantly shifting geographical centre. Toronto, Tokyo, London. I knew the restlessness of being one place while communing (through letters and dreams) with another. I wonder what it would be like to be rooted for generations to a particular place?

I’m all for specificity in writing, but as many around me begin to embrace “the local” as an antidote to the conveyor belt of global McCulture, I’ve been thinking about other forms of “regional writing,” namely writing that comes from the region of the heart and brain, that remembers to open itself to the noise of the outside and chaos of the unknown, that forms (in the words of Alphonso Lingis) a “community of those who have nothing in common”.

(Akari Light Sculpture by Isamu Noguchi)

Ezra Jack Keat’s Masterpiece

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The street is soooo quiet after this morning’s big snowfall. A smooth draped blanket has softened all the hard edges. Watching my son Mika is his red snowsuit took me back to The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.

We’ve put off all the plans we made for the day so we can have our own adventures in the deep snow.