“The Creation of Oscar” a guest post by Mika (my son)

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“Mother’s Day was that weekend and the teacher told us to make something but she didn’t specify what. All she said was “make something your mother would like” (she wasn’t very helpful) so I thought for a while and then I thought my mother likes cute things. So I settled on this idea. I took such a long time to think that everyone took all the art supplies and all that was left was an acorn, a few beads, a pinecone and some felt. But that was all I needed to make Oscar.

Here is how you do it:
Step 1 take the cap off the acorn
Step 2 glue the acorn cap onto the bead
Step 3 draw a face
Step 4 glue the bottom of the head to the pinecone
Step 5 cut the felt into a rectangle
Step 5 wrap the felt around the pinecone
Step 6 glue the felt on
Step 7 enjoy!

To conclude my mother loved the gift. She said it was adorable.

THE END

(p.s. This is a true story.)”

Faltering

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Bill Viola once spoke of “falling” or faltering as the optimal state for making art. John Baldessari said, “Art comes out of failure.” Some artists take pride in striving where they risk failure. Samuel Beckett: “To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail.” Bas Jan Ader: “All is falling.”

In May, one night, while thinking about ‘falling’ I came across a funny and melancholy dance by Pina Bausch on YouTube. A short way into the performance (“1980—A Piece by Pina Bausch”), a woman begins to skip around the stage in a large circle, waving a white handkerchief. “I am tir-ed, I am tir-ed,” she chants in a lilting rhythm while Brahm’s Lullaby plays in the background. Round and round she continues, until she teeters on the edge of collapse. She exudes weariness as her chant grows halting, her steps clumsy. Her arm quakes with the effort of holding the handkerchief in the air…

Excerpted from a longer piece I wrote for Brick Magazine, which can be purchased here. Images from “Fig”. (Steidl, 2007), a book of photographs by the London-based artist team of Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. (With thanks to Martha Baillie.)

Who Will be Doing the Writing

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This morning I finished my second and final year as a Writer-in-Residence with the Toronto District School Board. It has been, without question, one of the highlights of my writing life. I want to thank the coordinator Ruth Hall and all the spectacular teachers, librarians and students who have made me feel so welcome.

I have always said that what makes my day is visiting a school group of racially diverse students who don’t think I look like an “author” when I arrive but who are quite sure that I do (and they do too) by the time I leave. I know that many of the children I meet are being steered away from the arts by first-generation immigrant families that want, and often need, their children to acquire social legitimacy and financial stability through their professions. I know that many of these children feel the roar of parental expectations and I hope that I (and others) can represent another path.

Today, nearly half of the 150 kids I met said they want to be writers one day. This makes me feel very hopeful (even if they were lying)! We need more diverse writers just as we need more diverse stories.

(Illustration by trailblazer Gyo Fujikawa, who I also mention here.)

This Miniature Form

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MOYERS: Is writing books like this something like guerilla warfare?

SENDAK: Yes. That’s well said. Because you’re really fighting yourself
all the way along the line. And I don’t know… I never set out to
write books for children. I don’t have a feeling that I’m gonna save
children or my life is devoted.

I’m not Hans Christian Anderson. Nobody’s gonna make a statue in the
park with a lot of scrambling kids climbing up me. I won’t have it,
okay? So, what is it… and I got a clue. I was watching a channel on
television.

And they had Christa Ludwig who was a great opera singer back… I saw
her in Europe. She’s now retiring.

And then, she had a surprising interview at the end of the concert
where the guy… she said, “It’s so good now.”

And then, he said, “But, why do you like Schubert? You always sing
Schubert.” And he sort of faintly condemned Schubert. “I mean, he’s so
simple. He’s just a Viennese waltzes.” And she smiled. And she said,
“Schubert is so big, so delicate, but what he did was pick a form that
looked so humble and quiet so that he could crawl into that form and
explode emotionally, find every way of expressing every emotion in
this miniature form.”

And I got very excited. And I wondered is it possible that’s why I do
children’s books? I picked a modest form which was very modest back in
the ’50s and ’40s. I mean, children’s books were the bottom end of the
totem pole. We didn’t even get invited to grownup book parties at
Harper’s.

MOYERS: And men didn’t do. I mean, it was a woman’s world, wasn’t it?

SENDAK: It was a woman’s world.

MOYERS: Yeah, men were not supposed to enter the child’s…

SENDAK: And you were suspect the minute you were at a party, “What do
you do?” “I do books with children.” “Ah, I’m sure my wife would like
to talk to you.” It was always that way. It was always. And then when
we succeeded, that’s when they dumped the women. Because once there’s
money, the guys can come down and screw the whole thing up which is
what they did. They ruined the whole business. I remember those days.
And they were absolutely so beautiful. But, my thought was… that’s
what I did. I didn’t have much confidence in myself… never. And so,
I hid inside, like Christa was saying, this modest form called the
children’s book and expressed myself entirely.

I wasn’t gonna paint. And I wasn’t gonna do ostentatious drawings. I
wasn’t gonna have gallery pictures. I was gonna hide somewhere where
nobody would find me and express myself entirely. I’m like a guerilla
warfare in my best books.

Bill Moyers PBS interview with Maurice Sendak.

When we were very young

Childhood Books

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When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne

When I was six and visiting family in England, my Grandpa Hugh gave this book to me and it has remained on my bookshelf ever since. Milne’s use of repetition and beat make it a perfect read aloud. Also perfect: Milne’s blend of melodrama and humor that manages to both respect and send-up childhood fears. When I was little I often felt an acute sense of responsibility for the wayward adults around me so I particularly loved James James Morrison Morrison who was all finger-wagging, laying down the law, and searching for control in an uncontrollable universe.

The wonderful Danielle Davis of This Picture Book Life invited me to write about three books that I liked as a child that continue to shape me as a picture book writer. This is a new feature on her blog and I can’t wait to read what other writer’s say. You can see my full list here. (With thanks to Sara O’Leary)

Love Bomb Your Indie Bookshop

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So happy and heartened to be one of 600 authors taking part in the inaugural “Canadian Authors for Indies Day” this coming Saturday. I’ll be at TYPE Books from 12-2PM and Another Story from 4-5PM. Please support your locals!

As TYPE puts it: “The goal is to simultaneously promote independent bookstores across the country. This day is about revelling in our national devotion to bookstores, and the people who shop in them.”

Thinking about Mentors

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One of the lovely students I mentor sent me this article yesterday, which felt especially timely because I have been thinking lately about the mentor-protégé relationship and the question of how older artists care for the more emergent. How important is mentorship to an art practice? To thinking? To life?

I’ve had/have many mentors. (GH. MNP. BM. EK. RS …) I have enjoyed being a mentor. I think there is value in this sort of relationship for some people. My own work certainly seems to benefit from a push-pull between assistance and independence, inspiration and defiance. At the same time, the traditional model of mentorship as a hierarchical bestowal of insight makes me uneasy. I tend to agree with scholar-poet-essayist Maggie Nelson that the “transmission of (knowledge, experience, wisdom, power)” is—at its productive best—more horizontal. I know in my own experience that professional and personal friendships—i.e. relationships less-marred by a conventional posture of deference—have been my most sustaining, fruitfully frustrating, emboldening (offering, in this sense, everything one might want from a mentorship.)

Of course, sometimes a mentor-protégé relationship will morph as was the case with Russian-born writer, intellectual, and psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé and Rainer Maria Rilke who eventually became lovers and literary comrades in what Maria Popova calls “a kaleidoscope of love” that irradiated “across the romantic, the platonic, the creative, the spiritual, the intellectual, and just about everything in between.”

But the reigning idea of mentorship has tended to elevate the authority of The One over The Other. While this picture might be institutionally practical, it’s really a skewed portrait and does not even begin to capture the criss-cross movement of ideas, hopes, affection and dreams incited whenever two creative/thoughtful people get together.

As an alternative, Maggie Nelson has taken to referring to her writing workshops as a space for making “casual affidamentos.” She claims to have borrowed the term affidamentos from poet Eileen Myles who claims to have borrowed it from “Italian feminists” who use it to describe “a relationship of trust between two women, in which the younger asks the elder to help her obtain something she desires.” In this essay, the word affidamento is translated as “entrustment” and implies something more mutual and radical than traditional mentorship.

A relationship of affidamento, in other words, is less about waiting to soak up the timeless wisdom of an elder, less about finding a master explainer or fixed navigation device, and more about finding an assistant dream weaver.

Our affidamentos are there to pull for us and put our struggles in perspective, there to encourage us to continue, offer a beneficent but not uncritical presence. I believe one can find affidamentos across time and geography, even beyond the grave. The books I keep close at hand, the ones by writers I have adored and admired are also affidamentos—forever radiating magic, urging me onwards.

New Year’s Resolutions

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Go forward.
“Every day, you have the feeling you are on the wrong track. This creates a
strong urge to go back and follow a different path. It is important not
to give in to this urge, but to keep going. It is a little like driving a car
at night, in winter, on ice, with zero visibility.”
—Patrick Modiano (Nobel Lecture)

Have confidence.
“Tell your own story, and you will be interesting. Don’t get the green disease of envy. Don’t be fooled by success and money. Don’t let anything come between you and your work.”
—Louise Bourgeois

Be forgiving.
“Let us forgive ourselves for writing poems that aren’t better than every other poem that has ever been written.”
—Dean Young

Proceed lightly.
“Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply… There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair. That’s why you must walk so lightly. Lightly my darling…”
—Aldous Huxley

Read more poetry etc.
“Blockbusters are only / blockbusters if we / go see them, so let’s / go, let’s make them / what they are…”
—Maggie Nelson

Do write in the world.
“The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.”
—Ursula Le Guin

Happy New Year. Akemashite omedetou.

(Image sources: Gerda Kay, Louise Bourgeois’s “Ode à l’oubli,” Cy Twombly’s “Poems to the Sea,” Jen Gotch, Weegee, Can U Not.)

Through Failure, Art

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Dear everyone ever: Take heart, if you are toiling, if you have been derailed, if you are feeling crushed by defeat. Here is what Agnes Martin has to say about failure…

“It’s through discipline and tremendous disappointment and failure that you arrive at what it is you must paint.” —Agnes Martin

Mimi (1997-2014)

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I miss the reading. Or rather I miss the way she used to lie on the pages I were reading. I miss the way she used to lie on things—old records, folded newspapers, coats, manuscripts. (If there was a rectangle in the room, she would come and lie on it.) I miss her being near me and nudging me to work. I miss the way she would sit facing the wall, staring at it in great contemplation. I miss her gentle bossiness. I miss her nightly need for warmth and reassurance and how this need filled and taught me. I miss her sensing my own need.

Mimi shared our story for seventeen years: the changing homes and furniture, the people who wandered in and out, the babies that arrived, the brother cat that died…

I wrote about “Mimi, My Muse” here.

It has taken me a week to stop seeing and hearing her everywhere. Now the silence is the hardest part. It’s as if a vital track suddenly went missing in the mix. Our familiar house song has lost it’s percussive (pitter-patter) heart.

It made me happy this week when my friend Brenda dropped off these photos. This is where our story with Mimi and Harpo began. In Brenda’s garden. On a warm spring day in 1997.

(Top: Mimi far left. Bottom: Mimi in the middle, fending off Harpo.)