Jan Greenberg is a good friend and I’m happy that she agreed to be featured on my blog. You read something about Jan yesterday. Now I’m pleased to post her article.
As a child, I always was reading. My mother would say, “Jan, it’s too nice outside to stick your nose in a book all day.” My taste in literature was eclectic, although novels were my favorite. I did go through a stage where I read what we referred to as “those orange books,” biographies of notable Americans, one of the first non-fiction series in school libraries. My favorite was Sacagawea, Girl Indian Guide. But it never occurred to me when I made-up stories to entertain my little brother that I would become a writer. I was a curious kid and noticed everything about everybody. I could mimic the way people talked, their facial expressions, tone of voice, what they wore, what we talked about….the white rabbit fur coat that my friend Sherry wore to school in second grade, a nursery school aide who made me keep my eyes closed all through rest period, the smell of ink at my mother’s easel, the lump in my throat when she left every morning for work. Always outspoken, I had such a fine sense of the ridiculous that my Uncle Rudy called me “Miss Wiseguy.” All of this has helped shape me as a writer. I can reach back into my memories and use them for characters and situations in my books.
Whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction, I love to write. Sometimes I begin at dawn, wakened by my poodles Henri and Thiebaud, who whine to go out. Then in my sweat clothes, I hurry up to my study with a huge cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal and turn on the computer. I have trained myself not to check my e mails until after I’ve done some writing and taken a long walk. If I wait for an inspiring thought, I’ll never get started. So I go straight to the project I’ve been working on and plunge right in. I always end my day with an idea about what I want to write the next morning. But first I revise what I’ve already written. Aside from the clicks in my head when I read sentences that don’t work, revising puts me back into the rhythm of the language, takes me inside the skin of the main character. All around me in piles are personal interviews, research books, a bulletin board filled with photographs and drawings of my subject, and reproductions of their artworks, buildings, stage sets…whatever it is that the artist creates. Photos of Frank Gehry buildings, posters of Chuck Close paintings, a multiple by Louise Bourgeois, a print by Andy Warhol, Xeroxes of drawings of The Gates in Central Park by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. I surround myself, immerse myself in the world of the person whose story I am telling. My husband wanders in before he goes to his office. He looks around and shakes his head. “What a mess,” I can almost hear him say to himself. But he knows that eventually I will emerge from the rubble, the debris of someone else’s life, with a book.
Of-course the first draft is just the beginning of a long process. I enjoy all the stages from first inspiration to final product. One of my favorite stages is called “Feedback.” Visiting schools to read parts of my new manuscript and getting responses from students gets me out of my study and back into the real world, the world of my readers. It also helps me to know what works and what doesn’t, what’s interesting and what’s not. But my favorite part of the process takes place when I’m alone in the room, writing. When I’m finished, I seldom start a new project right away. I rarely read books other than research material when I’m working. One reason is that I really don’t have a strong urge to read. Another explanation might be that I don’t want someone else’s use of language to somehow slip into my own. So there’s always a stack of the latest mystery or biography waiting for me …on the couch, next to my bed, on the night stand, on the floor of my car. I look forward spending the day with The Lincolns or My mother’s repeated words come back to me. I know, Mom. It’s a nice day and here I am with my nose stuck in a book. Thanks for understanding all those years ago.
Here is a question that comes up every now and then in my writers workshops with adults. How does aging affect your writing, especially your ability to connect with kids? I usually answer jokingly. “ Who me? Age?” or something to that effect.
Recently, when I was invited to be on a panel, sponsored by Washington University Medical School, entitled “In the Words of the Artist: The Influence of Age on Creativity and Expression,” I was forced to give this subject more thought. I mentioned to my daughter that I actually had agreed to participate on such a panel, and she remarked, “Perhaps you’ve decided finally to act your age.” It occurs to me that our children expect us to age gracefully, to age with dignity. What popped into my head was a line from Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” “Rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Well, forget the rage. I prefer to age creatively.
In preparation for the panel, I began to consider how my writing had changed over the years. I began my first novel for young readers when I was thirty-five. It was motivated by the challenges of raising three daughters. I wrote every day, five days a week, while they were in school, and the books focused on domestic issues, having to do with peer pressure, illness in the family, or sibling rivalry. Editors called this genre “the problem novel.”
But when the girls grew up and went off to college, those teenage stories didn’t interest me as much anymore. I knew I had to stretch my brain in a new direction.
Letting go of that stage in my life was difficult for several reasons. I no longer had a prescribed schedule to my days. And I needed to find a new subject. My husband and I began to travel more, and through the places we went and the people we met, my world view changed, broadened. Working on a novel, I used to immerse myself in the characters, the voice, and the rhythm of language. I had to stay in the room. But when I started my first book on contemporary art, The Painter’s Eye,” with Sandra Jordan, I found myself visiting artists’ studios, museum exhibitions, and art educators all over the country. In other words, I definitely left the room!!
What I found as we wrote books about artists Chuck Close, Louise Bourgeois, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude was that their most ambitious artworks were done past the age of sixty. The architect Frank Gehry’s iconic museum in Bilbao, Spain opened just before his seventieth birthday. What drives them, I think, is the need to be remembered, to get it better, to do one more great work. Their art-making stimulates and challenges them. Problem solving energizes them. They’re not stepping aside.
Several weeks ago there was an intriguing article in the New York Times, entitled “The Artful Codger,” which talked about aging writers and the fact that improvements in health care allow us to work longer and more productively. “Shakespeare didn’t have Blue Cross,” the writer quipped. Writers, such as Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Philip Roth, have written novels full of ardor and energy way into their seventies. According to the article, “late style” tends to be provocative, energetic. Instead of rocking their way to old age, these authors write of “romantic yearnings” and “memories of the flesh.” As for me, I’m still in my “middle style.” I’ll wait until I’m much older to start writing my “late style” lusty novel. In answer to my students’ questions about relating to young readers as I grow older, I can say that my grandchildren supply me with endless material. In fact my next two books are geared toward younger children, inspired by Alexander, age 9, and Coco, age 6. And as I age, I’m celebrating my creativity, instead of worrying about losing it.
I am pleased to announce the publication of my new picture book Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring (with Sandra Jordan Illustrated by Brian Floca)). It tells the story of the collaboration between Martha Graham, Isamu Noguchi, and Aaron Copland on her celebrated dance Appalachian Spring.
Jan, thank you!