Not perfect scans, but still having fun learning to illustrate and designing greeting cards (and writing, of course)…
In August of 2015, thanks to Doris McCarthy and Ontario Heritage Trust, I got to be the first writer-in-residence for the entire month at Fool’s Paradise, former home of iconic Canadian artist, Doris McCarthy. During that month, living in the space she’d so lovingly crafted over her lifetime, I became fascinated with all things Doris, and set about writing her story for young readers. She was a woman ahead of her time in so many ways, determined to succeed in what was largely a man’s world in the 1930s and 1940s. For Doris, nothing was impossible, and anything was possible. Alongside a 40-year teaching career, she spent her life creating 6,000 works of art, telling Canada’s story, sharing her joy and love for life and the wild.
This past November, I was asked to present at a McCarthy Symposium hosted by the McCarthy Gallery, University of Toronto, Scarborough. I worked for weeks putting together a PowerPoint presentation to go along with my lyrical version of Doris’s life story. Along with the other eleven presenters, I was happy to meet some of the significant people in Doris’s life, including her long-time agent, Lynn Wynick, and two daughters of Doris’s dearest friend, Marjorie Beer Woods. At the end of the symposium, the five of us who had been artists-in-residence at Fool’s Paradise had a panel discussion about living in that magical space, which was super interesting; all of us felt Doris’s spirit which is still strongly present in her home.
There are painfully few books for young readers on the subject of Canadian artists, especially female Canadian artists. So far, I haven’t found a publisher willing to take on the project, but, like Doris, I’m determined, and will continue reworking the manuscript, and revisiting her life, until somebody says yes. Wish me luck!
I’ve been doing a few school author visits this month, as well as mentoring some young writers, and I’ve been musing…
- Small rural schools are a lovely thing; with fewer than 200 students, every adult in the building knows the kids, and that makes it an easier environment in which to be a kid, I’m pretty sure. Class sizes are typically smaller, and it just feels more like family than the bigger schools. It’s sad that as a cost-saving thing, school boards are amalgamating such small schools, leading to longer bus rides for kids and what must be overwhelming crowds for a lot of kids who value their personal space.
- Kids are aware of the scary, addictive nature of the internet. While visiting one middle school, a girl approached me after my presentation, seeking my advice on how to avoid being sucked into the Google vortex while trying to write a story. On the spot, the only advice I could give was to use Google as a reward – say, after you’ve written a couple of pages, allow yourself a few minutes of internet time. Amazing that she’s so self-aware at age 12.
- Kids want to be good and want to learn. At that same school, three students approached me as they were leaving (on their own initiative) and apologized for their misbehavior (which I hadn’t even noticed since it was a large group), explaining that they’ve been diagnosed with ADHD.
- Calling out students who are inattentive, by mentioning they’ve made themselves outstanding by being the only one in the room without a “listening face” as I call it, is effective. Probably makes me some enemies, but maybe they’ll learn something about being polite, rather than trying to drag others off-task with them. I’m always happy to put on my teacher hat when required:)
- The absence of school librarians is noticeable. The middle school above (500 students) does have a librarian, and the library is so well-used, especially at lunchtime, partially as a quieter refuge from the noisy cafeteria. One school I visited has a parent volunteer to supplement the few allotted librarian hours, which is awesome. The good thing is, most kids do have a public library card (and hopefully have somebody to take them to the library occasionally…)
- Couldn’t resist adding this gem from today: A student told me about a friend of hers who keeps a list of lines for picking up girls (they’re 12). The one that made me laugh out loud: Getting out a pocket mirror, showing the to-be-wooed girl her face in it, and asking: “Does your father know you stole the stars from the sky and put them in your eyes?” You can’t make that stuff up!
- Kids are the best, and I’m so happy I get to write books for young readers. Sharing in their enthusiasm and energy for life is a real treat.
- Shout-out to Linda Hudson of the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia who makes these school visits possible through their Writers in the Schools (WITS) program, and to all the adults who make the time to arrange for authors to visit. But mostly, thank you to the students who show up (for the most part) with their “listening faces.”
And I couldn’t resist putting in a few wedding pics from Shannon and Peter’s October 20th country wedding at Peter’s home. Such a wonderful day; my heart was/is full!
Thanks for reading – other than a near-death experience involving me having to slam our rental car into reverse on a twisty mountain road as we came upon an 18-wheeler fully in our lane (to navigate the hairpin turn), we had a great trip!
I had three book launches last month and a few bookstore signings; they were lots of fun, and I so appreciate people coming out to show their support when I have a new book (or two this year). As you’ll see in the short video clip, Tom Chapin really made my Lunenburg Launch (hosted by the Lunenburg Library now located in the old Academy) special, and I got to sing along on the line from his tune “Family Tree” that I included in TALKING TO THE MOON – “You’re probably my cousin, and the whole world is our kin.” We started September with Don’s 60th birthday party/house concert. And that about sums up my summer!
40th high school reunion (Truro, Nova Scotia) – over 200 people!
Two new books and three launches in August – too busy! (Tom Chapin (who provided the soundtrack to my kids’ growing-up years and is the late Harry’s brother) is going to sing his song, “Family Tree” (which appears in Talking to the Moon) at one of them!)
Hope you’re all surviving the humidity and enjoying summer!
I don’t often blog about what I’m reading, but I was really affected by THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS, the true story of Christopher Knight, the Maine man who walked into the woods in 1986, remaining there in isolation until 2013, when he was caught breaking into a cottage to steal food (as he had done 1000 times previously). A bright student, Knight had a fairly stable upbringing in rural Maine before moving to the Boston area to train as an electrician. His self-analysis in the book is fascinating; “I did examine myself. Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there… There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”
Knight was unable to articulate why, at the age of 20, he made the decision to drive his Subaru deep into the woods until it ran out of gas, continuing on foot, finally making his new home on a piece of land surrounded by boulders, with an almost invisible entrance between them. His only regret, it seems, was that he had to resort to stealing (over 1000 times) from neighboring cottages and a camp in order to survive. Amazingly, through those long, cold Maine winters, he never once started a wood fire, fearful the smoke would give him away.
I suppose we all feel the need to escape from the world sometimes, but to do so in such a drastic manner? In the book, Knight describes his family as being obsessed with privacy. Author Michael Finkel writes: “One’s desire to be alone, biologists have found, is partially genetic and to some degree measurable. If you have low levels of the pituitary peptide oxytocin – sometimes called the master chemical of sociability – and high quantities of the hormone vasopressin, which may suppress your need for affection, you tend to require fewer interpersonal relationships.” And: “Each of us inherits from our parents a certain level of need for social inclusion…” (John Cacioppo, LONELINESS)
Interesting. I’d never heard that before, and I’ve spent some time reflecting on my own parents and myself as social beings.
Did Michael Finkel share his royalties with Knight? I hope so since Penguin Random House describes it as a National Bestseller, and at best, Knight seemed to be a reluctant participant. I tried to get an update on Christopher Knight, hoping to find he’d managed to retreat into the solitude and stillness of the woods once again, but the internet has little current information. I’m sure that’s just as he would want it.
Here in sunny Georgia, I’ve been putting the final polish on my middle grade novel, Talking to the Moon, due out in May from Red Deer Press, and thinking about how much work is involved in creating a book, for so many people. The list of contributors in movie credits is extremely long – everybody gets a mention; not sure why that doesn’t happen with books.
I began doing the research for this one back in 2013 – so almost five years from initial idea to publication. Because structure is not my friend, I figure I’ve written the entire novel 6 or 8 times by now, with constructive and key bits of advice from more than a few people along the way. I’ve read the manuscript approximately 1,000 times, and probably there will still be at least one typo, despite the sharp eyes of my editor, Peter Carver, and the keen attention to detail of the copy editor, Penny Hosey.
We don’t have a final cover, yet. Hopefully soon …
So ultimately, I ask myself – why do I do it? For me, I had to tell this story, in part, because it includes a bit of my family history, but mainly because once a character becomes real to me, I need to stick with them, and help them tell their story, right to the end. They need to be heard!
I don’t think any writer has ever said to themselves, ‘This book is perfect,’ but I’m satisfied that I’ve done my best with Katie’s story; I’ll miss her …
Now, on to the next project …
I got to visit Cuba for the fourth time last week; it is a beautiful country, its people so warm, friendly and hardworking, and it’s so very different from our life here in North America. I took some mental notes on the bus ride back to the airport:
Sketches of Cuba 2018
University-educated bus guide,
fluent in four languages,
entertaining with his dry sense of humour;
is he happy?
horse and buggy carrying uniformed girls to school;
boy pumping water using an ancient hand pump;
powdery sand stretching to infinity,
outlining the turquoise ocean;
bright splotches of yellow popping out of the green;
signs of Irma,
uprooted trees, missing roof tiles;
windows shuttered up, blocking the heat – no glass?
men, the same vintage as their bicycles,
pedalling down dirt lanes – s-l-o-w-l-y,
sniffing dogs trailing along behind;
and neat rows of green
meandering up hillsides toward distant mountains;
people chatting in corner cafés – not Tim Horton’s,
waiting, for what?
Time stands still.
Jan L. Coates