Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bug Bites

I don't like mosquitoes... or any other bug that makes me itch. The worst bites are the ones you get on your toe...when your shoe is on...and you can't do a thing about it because you're in a meeting with people way above your pay grade. What do you do? You do the best you can until you can get back to the office or car or wherever and give it a really good scratch.

Writing is like that. Once you've been bitten, it's all over and woe unto you until you can give it a good scratch. Anything that gets in the way of that is in deep doo-doo. The fact that there is something, albeit a reasonable something, impeding your writing progress does nothing to comfort or lessen the itch. It's like finding an empty tube of Cortaid in the medicine cabinet. Frustrating.

It's one thing to have a case of writer's block and the idea-fish aren't biting. It's another to have a whole school of ideas swimming around in your head and no bait and tackle with which to reel them in. This begs the question, "How do other writers do it? How do they balance everything?" We sometimes tend to think of them as a type of superhero, able write to great stories in a single bound. But really, they're people just like anyone else...and it doesn't seem to matter when they were writers, either. The same issues that confront writers now did so "back in the day"...just perhaps in a different way.

Take Gertrude Chandler Warner, for example. Most kids want a secret tree house or a fort of some sort in which to escape. I wanted a boxcar. Warner made it sound so cool, so inviting. The perfect retreat. I had to settle for pretending a clump of bushes in the backyard was one. No matter. It was the idea Warner came up with that was fascinating. She could have gone the traditional route, but instead followed a different track. Boxcars...based on the trains that daily passed by her house. Genius. Growing up she was frequently sidelined by illness and as a result never finished high school. But that didn't dampen her imagination. She'd sit and watch the trains, tossing around in her mind what it might be like to set up house in a boxcar. Later, as a teacher, she discovered kids didn't have interesting, easy-to-read books...and from there the rest is history.

Here's the thing, that wasn't the days of smart phones that act like mini computers with wi-fi access readily available pretty much anywhere you go so you can keep your notes quickly at hand and type up whole passages while you wait in line for your double decaf caramel macchiato. The Boxcar Children was initially published in 1942, which means she had to be working on the story a few years before that at least. This was World War II, when everything was rationed. Everything. Paper. Ink. Food. Gasoline. Writing supplies, I would imagine, were tough to come by. She also taught. She had a job. She cared about her students as people, which meant she attended their sporting events, their plays, and other such activities. She remembered their birthdays and had celebrations for them during the school year...and if someone's birthday was during the summer, she picked a day during the school term to celebrate it.

All that took time. And yet she was able to carve it out and provide millions of future readers with this marvelous escape pod of a boxcar, deliberately rewriting it in such a way so that kids who normally struggled with reading would not have that problem with her book...and then might go on to read more of them. And read them kids still do some sixty years later. I'm a reader for the very reason she rewrote the story. Without that and Nancy Drew, who knows what track I might have chosen...if any. And just like I imagined escaping to a tricked out boxcar, I now find myself--as I type this--considering WWGD...What Would Gertrude Do? What might Henry, Jessie, Violet, Benny, and Watch the dog suggest through the voice of their creator?

I think I know. "No matter how crazy things may become, take time to watch the trains go by. And when an idea hits, make sure your boxcar is ready. If it isn't, fix it." And don't forget the Cortaid.

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