Friday, May 27, 2011

both sides now

one of my favorite songs is joni mitchell's 'both sides now', her artful description of all those feathered canyons just waiting to be explored. on a lot of days lately, i spend my drive home from work, my head in the middle of cloud canyons.

i was always one of those kids, immersed in the moment of something so that i often forgot i was in the middle of class when i should have been paying attention — the snow falling outside was much more beautiful — or sitting in a chair reading a book, when my sister told me where she was going before she walked out the door. (in my memory, the fact that i couldn't remember where she was earned me admonishment and punishment by my father, who rarely yelled at all.)

as an adult, so caught i was in a room full of readers of my own work — or in the presence of other writers — that i admit to (almost) forgetting that back home, i had a couple of kids, a husband, a dog and loads of laundry waiting for me to come back. that can be a bad thing, but for writers, it is almost a necessity, the ability to escape your own kitchen table and into the clouds from time to time.

i used to be better at it, the whole immersion thing, but in the past few years i've found myself way too distracted, by technology — and that fact that every day, it seems, i have to learn something new about it to do my job. by facebook — though how i love connecting with folks. by the weather. by food network and yesterday's to do list. by reading. by failure. and by all that napping i so like to do.

but somehow, in the last month or two i have found that old ability again and have put my head right back into the clouds.

years ago, before i even had children, my sister had her first. my sweet little niece, who looked a little bit like Tweety Bird, found herself looking at clouds one day and said: mama, where do clouds sleep? back then my sister and i talked every day, and she called me to tell me what cute thing little susan hooks had said. cute indeed, enough to nudge this dreamy-headed girl out there under the vast blue georgia sky and see for myself what the clouds were doing. 

and i wrote myself a little book, for my niece and for my brother's daughter — both about two at the time — carefully cutting and gluing construction paper shapes of windows and moons — my father's nose was the moon, his skinny legs jogging giant's knees, don't you know? — fastening cotton balls to the pages for the clouds.

when my daughter was born i made one for her — i still have it. (true to my nature, there is an actual typo in the handwritten manuscript.) at the time i was taking a children's book survey class at a local college. the final exam was to write a book (YEAH!), and  i wrote another book about bats in the attic with a similar construction paper cover. that book won the class award, though garnered a scathing critique from a woman who actually published such books. it's in my home office, collecting dust.

through the years my 'cloud book' as I came to call it, took on as many shapes as clouds themselves, amoebic in rhythm and rhyme to the point that no matter how much i loved the verses individually, they never seemed to work together. so eventually it hit the drawer.

a few weeks ago, though, i dug it out again. inspired by reverb11's prompts of what's blossoming in you?, i spent what seemed like hours looking at just what it is clouds do. and i revised. i asked my dear poetic mentor, sally buckner, if she would take a shrewd pen to it, and with her help, the problems with the rhythm and rhyme so stuck in my brain shifted like a stormy sky clearing itself to blue.  i wrote new verses, felt the lullaby take root in my head where it stayed, gently rocking my days.

And magically — after changing a word here, a line there, it is done.

it's been a long time since i could say 'done' to any of my creative work. years. i have a lot of 'almosts' and a few false starts, but to have something complete and wholly its own feels good.

and this time, i am hopeful that when i ever have grandchildren of my own, i won't have to give them to construction paper cutout version made from leftover cardboard — i can give them the book.

so hopeful i am, that over the past weeks, in addition to finishing, i reached this crazy head of mine higher in the clouds. and today i sent my manuscript to an agent. 

only once have i queried an agent, and it didn't turn out well. turns out i wasn't ready, hadn't done my homework — about the agent or her clients — and i am pretty sure there was a typo in the letter. (why do i always do that?)

but this time, i studied what to do, printing my manuscript as if it might be a book (these days, though it doesn't involve actual scissors and glue, it does require an understanding of how to print on both sides of the paper on a desktop printer, so each page is right side up... no easy task, let me tell you.) i looked at the pacing, the placing of the words on the page, studying other picture books i love for understanding of just how that works. 

and in the end, i liked what i created. a lot. (is this bragging? i hope not.)

i haven't always been so intentional. when i was just out of college, i sent my resume to the Atlanta Journal and the Washington Post — having never read either paper or been to Atlanta (i'd only driven around DC), not even bothering to check that my clips — and probably my resume — were riddled with typos. thank heaven, literally, that my next resume went to a much smaller paper and to someone who could see beyond my errors and my naivete.

i've sent essays i've written to magazines but never told anyone. didn't want to have to admit that i failed. but today it feels less like a failure than a leap of faith. somebody gets published, and those who do don't keep their manuscripts in the drawer.  (Some of the worst books i've read i've actually bought in book stores, so what is that about?)

it's a long shot, to be sure. and if i don't hear by the end of July, I am supposed to submit elsewhere. which i will do. right now, as summer begins, i'll move on to the novel i've been writing for too many years to count, knowing now that recent history proves i can finish something. after that, there are others in the drawer, so there is still much yet to do.

wish me luck. i'll keep you posted. having read an article posted by Lyn Fairchild Hawks, a great writer who a few years ago shared one of those rooms where i lost myself, i know it might take awhile. lyn is at 100 rejections for her young adult novel. but she has not lost hope. for katherine stockett, it took 60 agents before one said yes. and having let the cloud book sit in the drawer for so many years, i think i can be patient.

in the time being, i'll keep my head in those clouds. somehow i still keep looking up.

and if you feel like it, poke your head up there with me, into the feathered canyons and above them, where the sky is always the most brilliant blue.