These past two months, writing has helped me grieve the recent loss of my father. I refrained from blogging to focus on my work. I even forced myself to rise earlier than the sun each morning, so that I could write in peace. Not a small feat if you know me well. Having to get out of bed early and assure that my two daughters were awake for school was torture to me.
Now I write before the sun first appears, for up to four hours, undisturbed–except for our yellow tabby that slyly inches across my writing couch and thinks I don’t notice his paw reaching over to my laptop until he plops halfway across my body and the keyboard.
I scoot Joey away and write whatever comes to mind. Or welcome new voices that have popped up in the recent days, or revisit an unfinished manuscript. (In the past month, I have written two picture books without thinking about them ahead of time. In a way, they wrote themselves, one morning between my first cup of coffee and lunch.)
In this same vein, my younger middle-grade protagonist, E. B. Louise, returned to my world one morning at 5:45 am. Still curled beneath my covers, I was not ready for fall mornings, when it is too cold to get out of bed because the heat has not yet kicked in, and the thought of having to race across a wood floor in bare feet to use the bathroom made me shiver. I decided to test the strength of my bladder and stay beneath the comforter.
E. B. Louise started to yak, yak, yak at me, and then it felt like a heavy encyclopedia had been dropped on my head.
“You know,” she said, while I rubbed the not-real swelling knot on my forehead, my covers pulled to my chin. “You are not paying attention to me and I need to finish my story.”
“I’m stuck,” I said and pulled the covers over my head.
“Can’t you see that I am sleeping?”
“Makes no difference to me,” said E. B. Louise.
As much as I love the darn kid, she does not give up. I think this makes me love her even more.
I slipped on a fuzzy bathrobe, poured myself a cup of coffee, and then planted my bum in my writing chair. While my computer warmed up, I watched a bird peck at the corner of my window. Peck. Peck. Peck. With the E. B. Louise document open, I stared at the words.
“You know,” began E. B. Louise, “when you start to shake, mostly in your belly, like you did right before you learned you got the part of Maria in West Side Story, it means something wonderful is about to happen. Do you remember that feeling, the same one you are having now?”
I nodded, feeling ever so crazy, and wondered if I needed to find a good therapist before lunch rolled around, possibly breakfast.
Instead, I sat there and listened to the kid, until a distraction was called for, because my head was spinning. Clearly, I was not fully awake. And I preferred—this early in my day—to not feel crazy. So I lay on the couch in my writing room and opened to the first page of Clementine and the Family Meeting, because I needed to worry about someone else, and exactly what was this family meeting about? (I admit to loving Clementine by Sara Pennypacker possibly a little too much.)
Then I heard my dad talking. “You need to rewrite the E. B. story in first person.”
Well, I thought, I already have a lot going on today, and who knows what Clementine will learn at this family meeting and I am not sure how I am going to react, and to be honest, I am exhausted from being awoken out of sleep by an encyclopedia (not literally) being dropped on my noggin.
I think, at this point, the Blue Fairy winked at me. But before I could dash for the phone book to look up Therapists For Those Who Are Mourning and Slightly Confused About The Lines of Reality, inspiration tugged at me. Hard enough, that I put a bookmark in the newest novel about Clementine and returned to the document at hand.
I began to rewrite in first person, and suddenly it all made sense. E. B. Louise bounced onto the page, and within the first paragraph, she had me.
Why hadn’t I seen this before?
Do you know the feeling of standing up to your ankles in the ocean and then a huge wave hits you and you are pulled under water, which scares you, because you can’t swim, but you find yourself laughing at the exhilaration of the unexpected moment?
This is how it felt when after weeks and weeks of missing my dad, I remembered what it was like to lose myself in writing for children.
The wave hit me hard, and the joy of dancing with words and images, knowing I was creating something wondrous, rushed back. Though it is hard to define, you feel it in your core; your belly quivers.
E. B. Louise struggles with her own loss: the loss of her beloved grandmother. Suddenly this child was showing me the world through her eyes, and how she was coping; her undying love for her too-small elephant slippers, and how truly funny and unique she is. (My dad saw the very beginning of this piece, when I only had a voice that had come to me while raking leaves outside.)
He said, “You know, the slippers are her story.” How right he was.
I have been trying to tell this story of hers, when all along, I should have handed E. B. Louise the reins, sat back, and let her speak, so I did exactly that.
E. B. Louise talked so fast, I could barely keep up. I typed and typed, remembering how much I love spending time with her, and more importantly, what it felt like to laugh.
I even heard my father’s laughter. Musical. Rich. Filled with playful delight and joy.
Two pages of revisions done, my fingers paused on the keyboard; I looked up at Pinocchio and Geppetto. The Blue Fairy and Jiminy Cricket.
I took Pinocchio off the top shelf and twisted the figure, as if to make him dance, remembering how much joy it gave my father. These beloved Pinocchio figures, including Mickey Mouse, once adorned his writing space, and now sit in mine. He gave them to me when I helped pack up his many manuscripts into boxes, that now remain undisturbed in my house. Until the time is right and I am strong enough to open them.
The figures remind me of my father’s spirit, his passion for writing.
They remind me of the promise I made before he died.
They remind me that characters need to feel real, as real as the boy Pinocchio becomes, because children, our readers, deserve no less than our very best.
In the early morning, I feel the most connected to my father’s wondrous spirit. Outside the world remains silent and dark, and the owls still call out to me. But inside my writing space, with Pinocchio cheering me on, I am creating, all the while surrounded by my father’s wisdom and guidance, his belief in my abilities as a writer.
Not only have I remembered what it feels like to laugh, I have remembered how writing makes me feel alive.
And I am grateful.
P. S. I’m okay, Dad. I can take it from here.