And here we are at the third Tuesday of the month so it’s time for Sandy Asher and the third installment of our current WRITERS AT WORK topic. Debbie Dadey led off on the 7th, I added my thoughts on the 14th, and next week on the 28th we bring you the stories provided by a number of other creators of books for young people.
WRITERS AT WORK
Topic 14: What We Do for Love: Children’s Authors and Illustrators Risk All to Get it Right
Response 3 — Sandy Asher
April 21, 2015
Most of my research over the years has dealt with folklore or history and has involved the library, Internet, and vast store of knowledge preserved in my historian husband’s books and brain. Although the development of my play “I Will Sing Life: Voices from the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp” began with the book of the same name, it was in every other way an out-of-the-ordinary experience. And not just because I met Paul Newman.
It all began with a visit to a children’s theater in NYC, where the artistic director asked if I’d be interested in writing a play about children with cancer. Everything about that previous sentence is out-of-the-ordinary. I was living in Springfield, MO, at the time, did not get to NYC often, had never been to this theater, had not met this artistic director previously, and don’t receive these kinds of invitations often. Top that off with a visit to a NYC bookstore later that day and the discovery of the above mentioned book, propped up on a table as if intentionally placed there to attract my attention. Serendipity!
As you may know, The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp is a summer retreat founded by Paul Newman for children with life-threatening illnesses. For their book, I WILL SING LIFE: VOICES FROM THE HOLE IN THE WALL GANG CAMP, counselors Larry Berger and Dahlia Lithwick ran a summer-long creative writing program at the camp and also lived for a month with each of seven campers, observing their daily lives and interviewing each of them and family members. The book pulls together those observations and interviews, plus a wealth of poetry, stories, and plays written by the seven highlighted campers and others who participated in the creative writing program. It is so jam-packed with wisdom, humor, joy, and drama, I immediately wanted to share it with the world.
The artistic director, on the other hand, did not feel this was the basis for the play she needed. Too late, I was hooked. I had to write it. I’d find a theater to produce it later. (As it turned out, theaters were leery – a play about children with cancer? — until I produced it myself.) First step: I wrote to the camp office and received permission to adapt the book – and a warning that others had tried to make it stageworthy and failed.
I remained undaunted. Or maybe just driven. But no sooner did I start writing than I realized I needed to experience the camp for myself. I applied to be a volunteer for an 11-day session. A detailed written application, several references, and two long phone interviews later, I was accepted. Now, I was terrified. What did I imagine lay ahead for me that summer? A kind of sepia-toned movie ran in my head: gloomy, slow-motion images of desperately sick kids and their grim caretakers struggling to make the best of a tragic situation.
I could not have been more mistaken. Bright sunshine, brilliant colors, frenetic activity, funky music, endless chatter, and shrieks of laughter filled the Wild West-themed bunks and buildings and spilled out across the spacious green areas and deliciously heated pool. Sure, there were catheters, crutches, and wheelchairs here and there, and a few children who needed to be carried from activity to activity. But whatever each child needed, that is exactly what he or she got. And more. And every minute. The boundlessly loving staff never wavered or weakened in their dedication to giving those children a great camp experience. The overall mood was one of pure, unstoppable celebration. I took my place assisting the creative writing teacher and helping out with a bunk of pre-teen/early teen girls and received far more than I gave. I learned what it meant to “sing life.”
I wished that experience for everyone, so that’s what I tried to put into the script. I’m happy to say that it’s been produced and published and that a percentage of the royalties are returned to the camp – small payments on the huge debt I owe those counselors and children for their lessons on appreciating the gift of each and every day.
Oh, and I did meet Paul Newman, a small, quiet man in his early 70s riding a no-speed bike to and from his home on the premises, eating meals with the children, watching them rehearse a play, and mostly being ignored. I introduced myself as a volunteer and thanked him for the opportunity to participate in such an amazing program. “It is nice, isn’t it?” he replied, softly.