Friday, May 24, 2013

Bittersweet Transformations: A Post About A Tree, But Not Really

 
For the past eight years I've parked beside this same giant, beautiful old tree every afternoon as I've waited to pick my kids up from school. Eight times now I've watched this tree undergo remarkable transformations.

I've watched black birds flocking in and around it in the fall; cardinals huddled in its stark branches in winter; finches flitting in and out in the spring.

I've seen dark green leaves turn yellow and drop. Frozen branches dusted with snow. Listened to the soothing whisper of the warm wind rustling through fresh May leaves.

Eight times this cycle has unfolded before my eyes. And in that same passing span my children have undergone mind-boggling transformations of their own. From fresh-out-of-preschool kindergartener to full-fledged first grader, to second grader, and so on; until one and now the other has developed into independent middle-graders.

Eight cycles. Eight years. How fast it has flown.

The joy and the agony of their first days of kindergarten will forever be fresh in my mind.

Field trips, spelling bees, assemblies. Lunches together on the playground. Eight years. And it all ends next week when my son, my youngest, walks out of elementary school for the last time.

I'm going to miss that old tree.   

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Story Writing & Paper Mache: Two Crafts with More in Common Than You Might Think


 A deflated balloon. It doesn't amount to much; just a small piece of latex with a semblance of a shape and maybe a little color. But it has potential. The balloon is there, and it's real, and it's just waiting for someone to come along and breathe life into it. This isn't so different from the little glimmers of story ideas that often pop into the minds of writers, usually at the strangest and most unexpected moments. This particular balloon in the photo was destined to become an Acromantula egg to be "hatched" during the Care of Magical Creatures portion of my son's Harry Potter themed birthday party; it just didn't know it yet.
 




Once you've given that glimmer of an idea some attention, some breath, it begins to take shape. It becomes more three-dimensional. It looks a little more like what you want it to be. In the case of this paper mache project, it took on the basic appearance of an egg. In the case of writing it might come in the form of a vague outline on paper, or maybe even just a more solid idea in your mind with the occasional note jotted down here and there.





Now that the general idea has taken shape, it's time to gather your building blocks.  Water, flour, salt; they don't seem like all that much individually, but when you combine them together they can become the glue that binds. The same can be said for the elements of writing. Location, character, tone, actions, voice. You can write about a location all day long, but if that location doesn't mean something to one of your characters, it won't mean anything to the reader either. And you can shape a character-- a fabulous, intriguing, unique character--but if that character has no motivation, no place to go either physically or emotionally, and no really good reason for going there, then all you have is a character sketch, not a story. Once you have that character with motivation and a location you still need to throw in a little tone, and some action, and a lot of voice, too, to give it the strength it's going to need to stand on it's own.

Even with all the glue that binds, you still need the paper. And that is where the hard work comes in. You can glob paste onto a balloon until your hands falls off, but without paper all you'll end up with is a globby balloon. You have to gather your papers together (or your thoughts in the case of writing) and then organize them. You have to cut the paper up into strips that are just the right length and width. You have to dip those strips into the paste and then find just the right place to position them on the balloon, sometimes wiggling and shifting then until they fit just right. You must cover the entire balloon without leaving any gaping holes.

When finished with this, you have what can be considered a first draft. It not "done" yet. It's kind of weak, and it isn't pretty, but it is whole and it is tangible.




Once you've got a good solid layer, your first draft in hand, it's essential that you give it a little time to dry. And once it's dry, you absolutely must come back to it and begin the whole layering process all over again. That's right. It's hard and it's tedious, but you have to do it ALL OVER AGAIN. Sometimes repeating the layering/drying process three, four, or five times. Possibly even more. You can't get around it. And you can't rush it either, because the layering and the drying is where the real strength comes in. 




After the layering is done, you'll have a good, solid foundation. In writing, this is the point at which you'll have character, plot, tone, and voice all woven together into a story that is whole and believable. 

Now all you have to do is make it pretty. Paint it with nice broad strokes of color. Give it characteristics that make it unique, that allow it to appear exactly as you imagined it to be.



 


Don't forget about the details, either! Give all those tiny little touches the attention they deserve. Choose just the right words that'll sound right to the readers "ear", that'll have precisely the impact you want them to have. You've come this far with your project; don't hold back now. Polish it up and make it SHINE!

When you've gone through all of the steps without cutting any corners, your tiny balloon will have transformed into a giant Acromantula egg, ready for your child and his friends to crack open in a moment of glee. Your glimmer of an idea will have become a whole new world waiting to be discovered.

I knew as I went through this process with the paper mache (x's 7) that I was putting in those many long hours over the course of several long days all so the eggs would be crushed flat in about ten seconds. But I also knew how much fun the guys would have with the activity and story leading up to it, not to mention the actual busting of the eggs. They wouldn't soon forget it. It would become a cherished memory, a small part of their life experiences.

When I saw the looks on the boy's faces when they found the spider plushies hidden inside... I knew in an instant that I'd put in all the hard work, take the sore shoulders and dry hands, to do it all again. Just the same as I know that if my writing can ever touch the heart of even one reader, then all of these years, all of this blood, sweat, and tears, will have been worth it.