on writing . . .

Lately, I’ve been wanting to come up with an artist’s statement, the kind you see on artists’ websites and in the catalogues that accompany museum exhibits. They are no mere bio line; they are essays: thoughtful, insightful, philosophical, and sometimes rather amusing musings on their work and journey.

What I believe and love about writing— about poetry and story– is the same whether I am writing for children or adults. So often people make a distinction between the two.

I came to writing because I love rhythm. I love the swing, the music that words create when attention is paid to their sound. I’m not the first to say this,  but I often know the cadence of a sentence that I want to write before I know the words, so I’ll put in some variation of  da-da-da-DA, da-da-da-DA and come back to it later with the right words.

This idea of writing in form, paying attention to meter, is natural to poets and poetry, but I do the same thing when writing prose, whether fiction or non. The difference between a good book and an exquisite, stellar one, is the music flowing beneath the story. In the same way that an underpainter’s choices enhance, if not determine, the glow or mood of a painting, or how a poet’s choice of sonnet or triolet contributes to the poem’s overall meaning, the rhythm of the prose in which a writer tells her story is a necessary, if not crucial, element to the whole.

Writing, playing with language, is what I love. As Edith Wharton said:

I don’t believe that there is any greater blessing than that of being pierced through & through by the splendour or sweetness of words, & no one who is not transfixed by ‘Die Sonne tönt nach alter Weise,’ or ‘thick as Autumnal leaves that strew the brooks,’ has known half the joy of living. Don’t you agree with me?—I wouldn’t take a kingdom for it.

I came to writing because I love metaphor. Metaphor, imagery, often makes more sense to me than explanation. I don’t know why, and I can’t explain. Stories rich in imagery, those writers who are masters of metaphor, are the ones I read and return to. When at the bookstore or library, if I sense no imagery in the first page of a book, I put it down and keep looking. Or just as often, go home and re-read something I already have. I didn’t realize I was doing this until very recently when someone asked me, “What exactly are you looking for– this is a great book!”

I came to writing because I believe, as Brett Anthony Johnston has said, that stories aren’t about something, they are something.

One of the of the most common questions a child asks his librarian (or classmate or teacher) when presented with a book is, “What’s it about?” For decades I would cringe whenever that question was asked of me. The question stumped me.  You may think it is a perfectly reasonable, logical question. Everybody asks it. But I loathed it. “What is it about?”  diminishes. It limits the appeal, the joy, the power of a work.

A book, a great book, is so much more than what it is about. The subject, the narrative, is merely the vehicle for the artistry that lies within, that lies beneath.

I came to writing because I’m curious, but also reluctant, hesitant, a homebody.  I wasn’t always a devoted reader, but for the most part, I’d rather read about a shipwreck than take a cruise on a tall ship and risk the possibility of experiencing one.

And finally, I came to writing because I like to meet new words. Adding words to my repertoire means having more to play with. As Geraldine McCaughrean says in her Carnegie Medal acceptance speech this year:

Words are mastered, said McCaughrean, by meeting them, not by avoiding them, and young readers “should be bombarded with words like gamma rays, steeped in words like pot plants stood in water, pelted with them like confetti, fed on them like Alphabetti spaghetti, given Hamlet’s last resort: ‘Words. Words. Words.’”