Safe Spaces

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Space Series

As the mysterious “they” have said, all good things must come to an end. And that’s true of this series. I’ve been more than thrilled with the posts, and I hope you’ve enjoyed them as well. (The first post in the series can be found here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, and the sixth here.)

Last but not least is this post by another friend from VCFA, the wise and wonderful Laurie Morrison. If you know Laurie, you know her awesome blog. I’ve been thrilled by her visits to this blog as well. You can find them here and here. Laurie is represented by Sara Crowe and is working on a humorous contemporary young adult epistolary novel the working title of which is Dear Baby. Doesn’t that sound great?! Until that book debuts, you can enjoy this post from Laurie!

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I have a sign on my classroom door that is decorated with a rainbow and says Safe Space. The sign means that I want my classroom to be a comfortable, welcoming place for all students.

When I began to reflect on the idea of space for this guest post, I thought of that sign. Then I started to think about the spaces that felt safe and not-so-safe to me when I was my students’ age—in middle school—and then when I was a freshman in high school.

When I was in middle school, almost every place felt safe. I went to the same small, cozy school from kindergarten to eighth grade. My mom was a teacher there, my younger brothers went there, and I’d known most of my classmates for as long as I could remember. But when I started high school, I struggled to find spaces where I felt at home.

Nothing particularly traumatic happened to me. My freshman year would have made for very dull fiction. Nobody was overtly mean to me, and I later found out that one of the girls on my bus, who eventually became one of my best friends, was bending over backwards to try to befriend me, but I was so overwhelmed and out of sorts that I just didn’t notice. After feeling so at home in middle school, though, I didn’t feel comfortable or welcome at my bigger, louder, more competitive high school. Especially during some of my lunch periods, when I didn’t have anyone to eat with, and during a free block at the end of the day, when I didn’t know where to go.

i-love-french-class-131870186934Looking back, I realize that even though I felt out of place and disconnected, I found a couple of safe spaces during my freshman fall. One of those safe spaces was French class. A couple of my middle school classmates were in my French class, so I always had someone to sit with. Plus, the whole class routine was so much like it had been in middle school. We’d start each class by going over the workbook pages we’d done for homework; we’d listen to recordings and copy down what we heard; and we’d learn the vocabulary for an activity, like ordering food at a restaurant, and then have practice conversations together. My new teacher’s handwriting even looked the same as my middle school teacher’s handwriting, and she was always complimenting my accent or my memory. I loved going to French class.

princeton_university_house_flag_25798smaIn the book I’m working on now, the main character, Whitney, has just switched schools because her parents can no longer afford her private school tuition now that her brother has started college at Princeton and her mom is pregnant with a miracle baby. As I’m writing Whitney’s story, I’m drawing upon my own feelings of discomfort and alienation from freshman year in high school and magnifying them, because I’ve given Whitney a lot of obstacles to work against.

But in the past few days, as I’ve thought about the safe spaces that I found at the beginning of my freshman year, I’ve decided that Whitney should probably find her own safe spaces, too. I had already given her a couple without realizing it, actually, but until now I hadn’t stopped to think much about what her safe spaces look and feel like, and how she changes when she enters them. By thinking about the places where Whitney feels comfortable, I think I can enrich the setting of the book and make her a more endearing character.

17332968I read A.S. King’s new book Reality Boy last week and I noticed that her main character, Gerald, has safe spaces, too, even though he’s dealing with some pretty rough circumstances. He feels comfortable and welcome in his Special Ed classroom, and he creates his own imagined safe space—a place he calls “Gersday”—where he can go when he needs to escape. These safe spaces don’t detract from the story’s tension, but they help to develop Gerald’s character, and they give the reader some relief; I actually felt myself exhale when Gerald first walked into the “SPED” room, where people appreciate him.

I think safe spaces are important for everybody, real or fictional. So I invite you to consider: what safe spaces do you have now, and what safe spaces did you have when you were younger? What are the safe spaces for the characters you write or read about? What do those safe spaces reveal to you?

Space sign from GLSEN.org. Book cover from Goodreads. French class sign from ilovegenerator.com. Princeton flag from sportsflagsandpennants.com.

Space to Breathe

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Space Series

Today, we return to the Space Series with a post by the always amazing Laura Sibson. (The first post in the series can be found here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, and the fifth here.) Laura has her own blog, and is no stranger to this blogShe also is working on a fab young adult novel you will want to read. And now . . . heeeeeeeere’s Laura!

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Years ago my two closest friends, along with about a billion other people, started touting the benefits of yoga to me. But it’s so . . . quiet, I protested. So . . . slow. Where’s the cardio rush? At that time, I was not a human being so much as a human doing, running all the time—literally running miles around my neighborhood, running late to appointments and running the preschool parents association. Stillness was not an option; silence freaked me out.

In my mind, yoga was for old ladies and I planned to try it when I became one. But a bit later, when I was having trouble rehabbing a running injury, those two friends (one of them a runner like me) finally dragged my sorry butt to yoga.

“Breathe,” my teacher would say. “Breathe.”

She was reminding me to breathe? I breathed frequently, I thought. Several times a day at least.

“Stop holding your breath,” she’d say. “In through your nose. Feel your belly expand. Breathe space into your heart.”

Into my heart?

“Again,” she’d say, pulling in an impossibly long breath. “And out.” She’d whoosh the air out.

My inner-rebel wanted to hold my breath for spite, but I was stuck there so I tried it.
Guess what? It felt sort of . . . good.

“The breath itself is the real practice,” my teacher would say as she moved us through the series. “The poses are simply strung along the breath like lights on a tree.”

I turned myself over to her guidance, moving my body and breathing in concert with her spoken words. I pulled breath in deeply, held it and then let it flow back out of my body. I closed my eyes. I found space.

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You know what they say about the power of the converted, right? After my introduction to yoga, I was hooked. Here I was, the same woman who’d criticized it for years and suddenly, I was an acolyte. It seemed that I had been hungry for something that I hadn’t even identified. My yoga sessions became an opportunity to discover the peace that had been cowering in a corner of my soul while I’d been busy, busy, busy—pursuing endeavors that would prove that I was smart enough, strong enough, (fill in the blank) enough.

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Sure, the newfound peace came at a price. I had to feel feelings, but by laying the uncomfortable stuff in the sunlight, I found that it wasn’t so dark and twisted as I’d imagined. And then there was space for a version of myself that wasn’t defined by how well she balanced the world on one shoulder.

By slowing down to consider what I truly wanted as opposed to what I thought others wanted of me, by giving myself space to reflect rather than act, I was able to give myself permission to pursue what I’d always wanted: to write fiction.

Some people might still describe me as a human doing and to many, I’m sure my life appears full to packed. The crucial difference is that I choose to give my time to what I love, rather than packing my schedule full of obligations. I’ll admit that I’m not fully evolved yet. Stillness remains difficult for me. But I’ve come to relish the possibilities that arrive with silence.

Warrior pose from trainwithjess.wordpress.com. Sun salutation from theactivefamily.blogspot.com. Triangle pose from yoganika.com.

Silence and Space

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Space Series

The incomparable (and extremely gracious) Sandra Nickel, another friend from VCFA, returns to the blog with the fifth installment of the Space Series. (The first post in the series can be found here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.) Feel free to check out her awesome blog. Sandra is currently researching her next novel and in her spare time attempting to unlock her inner poet with Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled.

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I was in Morocco’s Draa Valley, approaching the Sahara, when I received L. Marie’s invitation to write on the theme of space. Thinking of her, I opened my mind to ideas and watched as our guide drove us past the last village and into the world’s largest desert. Scrub turned to rocks, rocks to rubble. And then, sand—fine and bleached. And sky—flawlessly azure, with not even a wisp of white intruding.

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Photo of the Sahara by Olivia Schlaepfer

This was expanse as we rarely see it. The world without interruption. The sort of openness that brings on thoughts of creativity at its most fundamental. After all, the genesis of all creation, no matter who tells the story, is the void. The thing that comes before and in between. Space, in other words.

I watched this expanse from my window and was soon thinking of a smaller kind of creation. Mine.

When I was just starting to write, a good friend, who is also a creative being—a singer and songwriter—took my agenda and marked out an entire month’s worth of mornings and afternoons. She said: Even if you don’t look like you are working, even if you don’t think you are working, you are. You need to be bored before you can create. By bored, I believe she meant quiet, without interruption, in the void.

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Writers often talk about feeding the muse, creative dates, setting aside an entire month to speed write a novel. But equally important is the inspiration of space and silence. How would we solve our problems without the quiet of a walk or the solitude of a run? Without the pause between first draft and revision? Silence and space are often keys to creativity.

After I arrived in the Sahara, and my family and I trekked on camels and struggled to the top of the highest dune, I awoke in the night. As the others slept in their tents, I padded through the cold, dry sand, away from the camp, to take in the immense firmament that was above. I stood, ready to be awed, but it wasn’t the magnificence of the night sky that struck me, although the sky was magnificent. What awed me was the quiet. No stir of the camels, no airplane far in the sky, no wind. Silence.

Silence as I have never heard it.

483px-Emily_Dickinson_daguerreotypeI listened, and this time I thought of Emily Dickinson and her “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”—and how the quiet of space is needed for slant. To form the gorgeous metaphor, to set up the objective correlative, to deepen and curl meaning around itself. I gazed again at the sky; I listened again to the Sahara.

When I arrived in Marrakech and visited its souk, I stepped into the opposite of silence and space. Every inch is crowded and full of potential missteps. Wanting to buy something only makes it worse. Intense negotiations begin. Taunts and happy insults are thrown fast furious, until—and this is the important part—the owner, at least the person you thought was the owner, turns to a man in the corner. It is this man, the one who has silently watched everything, who is judged to have enough distance (read: space) to make the final decision.

As an analogy to writing, I love this. The writer spies an attractive idea and haggles with the muse. The exchange is heated and intense, and not always a lot of fun, although the writer may pretend to the outside world that it is. When the negotiations draw to a close, the muse turns to a person in the corner. It takes a bit of time to recognize just who that person is—perhaps two weeks, perhaps a month—but, then, it all becomes clear. It is the writer herself, now with enough distance, to make the decision of whether the creative exchange can come to an end, or another round is needed.

And so, you see, Morocco repeatedly told of the importance of silence and space. Absolutely join in the chaos of the souk and the rush to write a novel in 30 days. But remember: whether beginning, or searching out the slant, or revising to the end, the quiet and void will always be essential to creativity.

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Emily Dickinson and Marrakech photos from Wikipedia. Book cover from Goodreads. Calendar from theemailadmin.com.

Running Out of Space

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Space Series

The awesome Lyn Miller-Lachmann is no stranger to this blog, to the blogosphere, or the publishing world. Her latest novel, Rogue (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin), has been released to critical acclaim. Now Lyn is working not just on another novel but a graphic novel as well. And she’s here today with part 4 of the Space Series. (The first post in the series can be found here, the second here, and the third here.)

I have a dilemma. I am running out of space.

The table that has housed my Lego community, Little Brick Township, is already full. Everything fits perfectly in a tight circle around Town Hall, the seat of power that embodies conflict in my stories.

photo of town with no spaceThat’s right. Not an inch to spare for a new building.

Now, Lego has announced the release of an adorable Parisian Restaurant that reminds me less of restaurants in Paris than those in Lisbon, with the narrow exterior staircase that leads to surprising new spaces as one climbs uphill.

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In addition, I want to put in a canal along my main street to evoke Amsterdam, one of my other favorite cities. And once the canal is in, I need a houseboat. Lego doesn’t make Amsterdam-style houseboats, so I plan to use Jabba’s Sail Barge as the basis for a MOC (My Own Creation).

LEGO-Star-Wars-Summer-2013-75020-Jabbas-Sail-BargeWhile I need to expand my space, my husband wants to move from our house in Albany to an apartment in New York City, where space is at a premium. I could rent artist studio space for my “installation,” but I have so far earned $20 as a visual artist, and the stratospheric payouts that some YA authors enjoy have so far eluded me.

Right now, the future of Little Brick Township is all about making choices. The same goes for writing.

When I begin a novel, the possibilities seem endless. I have dozens of characters in my head and a lot of things to say. One of my biggest weaknesses is focus—having too many characters and trying to address too many themes at once. It hurts me to have to give up a character, but readers have trouble keeping too many characters in mind, and the truth is, characters have to do more than one thing to earn their keep. So I combine characters and save the one I gave up for the next book.

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Uh-oh. A traffic jam.

The same goes for theme. It’s tempting to address all the issues people are talking about nowadays. After all, they’re on the characters’ minds too, and complex characters have complex lives. But these, too, have to be pared down so that the reader can concentrate on what’s most important about the story. In the course of revising Rogue over eighteen months, I had to take out multiple plot threads and themes, all of them related to the secondary characters, so that the reader’s focus would remain on my protagonist, Kiara, and her search for a friend (her external desire) and her own special power (her internal desire).

NaNoWriMo begins in about a week. This is our chance to write away, dreaming of all the possible places our characters can take us. However, there comes a time when we have to make choices for what works in our story, what the central themes and conflicts are, and who is most important to be around for the particular journey of our main character. The rest needs to be chopped out in the revision stage, perhaps to appear in the next story. In writing as in Lego towns, there’s simply no space to have it all.

Parisian Restaurant from legogenre.com; Jabba’s Sail Barge from brickextra.com.

That (Not So) Imaginary Space in My Head

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Space Series

Another awesome friend from VCFA, Ellar Cooper, is in the house with part 3 in the Space Series. (The first post in the series can be found here and the second here.) Her blog, Ellar Out Loud, is here, in case you want to visit. (You should!) Ellar currently is working on a young adult novel with a touch of fantasy. Intriguing! And now, I give you, Ellar Cooper.

When I think of “space,” my mind (true to form) tends to ramble through a few different meanings and images before settling.

Captain_Picard_ChairFirst, there’s always outer space, and the comforting throwbacks to a childhood that included Jean-Luc Picard’s ever steady intonations about the final frontier. Not to mention my own early fascination with astronomy, and learning to find and trace favorite constellations. Then, too, there are the more tangible spaces that surround me in daily life. The dips and curves and crests of the mountains and valleys where I have lived for so long, which I love so dearly. Or the sturdy wooden desk in the soothing blue room that has seen hours upon hours of my work. And my procrastination.

brain1But if I am thinking about a space that is truly integral to me, especially as a writer, I must acknowledge one that could easily fall into metaphor. And yet it is, to me, a vivid, vital, and very actual part of my writing. It is my creative brain space.

I have likely seen as many images of the brain as the next non-neuroscientist, and I know enough to know that there are cortexes and lobes and a bunch of other weird looking noodle stuff highly scientific and important parts. I mean—damn it, Jim, I’m an artist, not a doctor. But I am, at the very least, fully aware of the right-brain/left-brain split and the fact that I (as just such an artist) supposedly have a penchant for the right.

Leonard_McCoy_(alternate_reality)A doctor (Dr. McCoy), not an artist

I say “supposedly” for two reasons. The first being that I’m generally wary of boxes and labels and oh-so-defined categories. And the second being that I simply don’t conceive of my brain that way at all.

Granted, I’m not saying that my conception is necessarily better than those colorful diagrams of thalami (which is, admittedly, a fun word to say). And my version certainly isn’t biologically accurate. Because you see, in my vision of my creative brain space—which, honestly, is what I consider my entire brain, not just a particular section of it—there are no highly scientific divides or squishy noodle parts. It is, rather, truly one wide open space.

blue_sky_and_green_grass-wideMore specifically, it’s a field. A field of tall, green, green grass, spread out wide and calm and waiting under a perfectly Carolina blue sky. And within that field is a town. A small city, really. It’s picturesquely medieval, with thatched-roof houses and a gray stone castle rising up benignly along one border. Characters wander the streets of the town. Some of them would fit in quite nicely in a story with just such a setting, and others would be completely anomalous except for the fact that they are all mine, just as this city, this vision—this space—is mine.

DSC05188There are many doors in this city-space. Some of them are labeled; most of them aren’t. They open to other medieval towns or enchanted forests or modern cityscapes or unexplored planets or decks of pirate ships or desolate dystopian landscapes. And more. When I watch a character walk through a door, if I am not caught up in another’s story, I try to follow. Sometimes I have to let them go on ahead without me, knowing that eventually—be it hours or days or years—I will catch up. And sometimes I open doors on my own, just to see what’s behind them. On occasion there is a void, but that’s usually because there is another door calling more insistently.

Sometimes I see characters walking down a street and I stop them to see if I can go with them. Sometimes they say no—but I have learned that this really just means not yet, that they are not quite ready to let me in. And so I have also learned not to argue, and to keep walking. Sometimes I am within one house, one world, day after day, and sometimes I will crisscross the town and the castle multiple times in the space of a few hours, stepping in and out of doors, leaving them cracked open to make it easier to slip through again later without disturbing the story.

That is my creative brain space, which may fade when I am not there, but which never disappears. No PET scan could map it, but I can see it. It is as real and non-metaphorical to me as searching the sky for Orion or driving the winding roads through my mountains. It is certainly as real as sitting down at my writing desk.

White-Rail-FenceBut there is one last thing, perhaps the most important thing: There is also a fence. A white rail fence beyond the town, cutting through the grass.

It is not to keep anything in, of course; quite the contrary. Rather, it is to remind me that it is my job to protect this space, to preserve all that lives within it so that one day these stories will not just exist within a door in a town in a field in my mind, but also on the page before me in this world. It is to keep that Carolina blue sky clear and those doors unlocked.

And really, whatever you see when you picture your own creative space, that is the point. Know it. Protect it. And create so that you can free it.

Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard photo from Wikipedia. Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy photo from en.memory-alpha.org/wiki. Sky and grass photo from hdwallpapers.in. Fence from informedfarmers.com. Town photo from 2.bp.blogspot.com. Brain from christianoey.com.

The Space Between

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Space Series

My good friend and former classmate, Nancy Hatch, provides the next installment in the Space Series. (The first can be found here if you’re new to this blog.) Nancy writes awesome young adult fantasy books. She’s currently working on a YA Gothic romance. Take it away, Nancy!

A friend of mine is the fastest writer I know. She can draft a middle grade novel in a few weeks and return an editorial revision in ten days, all while coming up with a new proposal. She writes like a jet plane, a ridiculously fast, mostly straight shot from takeoff to landing. I can’t do it.

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For me, writing is more like a hot air balloon ride. It takes work to get an idea off the ground—a lot of fanning (thinking) to start the inflation and a lot of hot air (the excitement of brainstorming) to fill the envelope. And then it requires space—a lot of space—and freedom. (Weren’t sure I’d fit that in, were you?) It is in that space between earth and sky, that space between my ears, the space between my dreams and the words on the screen that the story starts to develop. For me, this is the journey. And it is messy and unpredictable and hard to set a timetable to. I’ll land when I reach a place that looks like a good landing; when my flight has been long enough and exciting enough to complete my journey. And that may or may not be where I intended to go.

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I have read many a craft book and writing life book that embraces outlining, shuffling 3 × 5 cards, elaborate character interviews and worksheets, and intricate world building—all to be done before putting fingers to keys. Know the story and your characters and then the book will write itself, they proclaim. It makes sense. It works for authors A, B, and C. It doesn’t work for me. It tethers me to the ground and never lets the story journey happen.

I read somewhere that you have to embrace your own process. I wish I’d known that a long time ago. Maybe I’d have had more balloons take flight. But, here’s the deal. Every writer has a process. No two of us do this the same way. I start with the idea of a scene and maybe a hint of a character, and then I write. It isn’t until I write that I start to get to know that character and figure out where my plot is going. I’m completely open for a subconscious surprise to appear beneath my fingertips. It’s exciting. It’s scary. But that’s what works for me.

Do I ever employ these other methods? Some of them, but not until my balloon is already in the air and sometimes not until I’ve already landed. Then I usually need to go back and analyze and make the adjustments in revision. Like I said, it’s messy. But that’s what works for me. It won’t be the same for you.

If you’re just starting out, my great tidbit of advice is to try some suggestions, read some books, talk to other writers, but when it comes to your writing and your stories, you do what works for you.

And never apologize for it.

I am not a jet plane. Yes, it has taken me forever to get where I am right now. I launch balloons and float them between the earth and the sky until I find a good place to land. In the process—my process—I enjoy the space and the view and the journey. You should too.

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Balloon photos by Nancy Hatch. Jet from listofimages.com. Space image from wallsave.com. White space from dessign.net.