In complete darkness, I creep like a burglar up an unlighted stairway from the basement apartment in my son Rob’s house. I’m trying desperately to avoid the loudest creaking steps because five people, including two small children, are asleep nearby, but no such luck. I get a few sleepy kisses before starting my 90-minute drive to the Children’s Literature Festival in Keene, New Hampshire.
With the requisite cup of coffee beside me, I head north on Route 2. A thin layer of fog lingers on fields I pass in this rural part of mid-Massachusetts, but morning sunlight is working its golden magic on the treetops. As miles pass I notice the rising grade of the road, a meaningful change to someone who lives on a coastal peninsula at an altitude of twelve feet. The hills are becoming higher, the valleys deeper, and the views across them showcase fall’s finest colors: vivid reds, yellows, browns and golds that set off classic white church steeples and houses in the small towns I’m driving past. Is there a more beautiful month than October to be in New England?
With only a minor glitch (or three), I arrive at Keene State College on time, get my information packet, more coffee, and settle into a seat at the back of the auditorium to listen to the speakers discuss their work as children’s book writers and illustrators. Since I have a children’s book manuscript in the hands of a literary agent, as well as a published biography of a children’s writer to sell, I’m here to learn what I can.
The speakers described their paths to successful careers with humor and insight, but one young woman electrified me, an illustrator whose words echoed the deepest truths I know as a writer. Pamela Zagarenski of Mystic, Connecticut is a small-framed, dark-haired woman with dark eyes who referenced the “Lithuanian gypsy” in her during the talk. She has illustrated such award-winning books as Sleep Like a Tiger and Red Sings from the Treetops, also paints large murals, and has a card line.
As a presenter she had me at her opening sentence: “I didn’t become an illustrator to be a public speaker,” she said, nervously admitting her nervousness. SO true! I thought. You don’t imagine the pressure of giving radio and television interviews (see www.christielowrance.com) and hour-long talks when you’re wearing a sweatshirt and no makeup in the comfy confines of your office. I realized she was talking less about being the illustrator of successful books and more about her relationship to her work, her love and joy in the artist’s path. I started furiously making notes to capture her words and wished I had my tape recorder or a smart phone.
“I have drawn every day of my life,” Pamela said. “I have always wanted to illustrate. When people ask what do you want to do with your life, I’ve never had a different answer. And I’ve never questioned my answer: I would be an illustrator of children’s books. I’m an illustrator through and through. And my choices were made, conscious or not, for art.”
I understand. Words have always made sense to me, it has always felt right to be writing.
I started keeping a journal when I was ten, and my home today has countless drawers and shelves that contain a stash of diaries, journals and notebooks, some pictured in the heading of this blog, including that first cherished Girl Scout diary, second from the right.
To settle into my desk chair with hours and hours of writing ahead of me is THE best. To talk about writing with other writers is THE best. To un-garble the garbled, to wrestle with an unruly paragraph and win another victory for Clarity and Concision, to create life in an inert sentence, these are THE best. To be writing just feels good.
I’ve known many creative people: sculptors, screen writers, watercolorists, oil painters, musicians, jewelers, actors, as well as writers. We create for money, oh yes, and would that we all earned much, much more than we do, but as Pamela said, there is a deeper truth, which we can choose to accept, ignore or reject, which is that creativity is part of who we are, part of our identity. To give time and a place in daily life to our creativity, in whatever form or level of proficiency it takes, is to accept and honor ourselves.
And in that acceptance is real contentment. When I write, I feel peaceful, I feel whole. Some express their creativity with acrylic paint or charcoal, with clay or stone, with a spray paint can, with paper cuts, with needle and thread, with a forge, with a cello or flute. Some people see visions called poems, others conjure up non-existent characters to come alive on stage, screen, television or the printed page. Creative people know or at least sense it is possible that they will express some thing the entire world has never seen or heard or felt before. That’s a wildly heady and exciting thought.
“I’m an illustrator through and through,” Pamela Zagarenski said. I SO love that. Yes. I’m a writer through and through.
Note: The relationship between writers/artists/creative people and their work will be the subject of future posts.