Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Auntie Em, TA Barron, and the Family Von Trapp

We've all dispersed now and are facing reentry. It's always a shock after residency to realize that the rest of the world doesn't stop while you're at Hamline, not to mention being confronted with people who expect you to be able to converse with them, feed yourself with utensils, and wear your underwear inside your clothes.

It was an emotional last night on Sunday as the graduating class serenaded us with the final number from the Sound of Music--as emotional as anything can be that involves "Edelweiss" played by a chorus of kazoos. It's always so hard to go back into the real world, where no one gets the value of a good kazoo chorus.

The previous night our graduation speaker TA Barron gave a reading. He writes fantasy, so it was not a surprise to see the sky outside the window-lined room grow heavy with metaphor as the evening went on. It was a surprise when the tornado sirens went off and security ushered us all into the basement, Barron included. We like to give our guest speakers memorable experiences.

Barron was a generous and impassioned guest, an evangelist for the work of writing for kids. I got to sit in on his master class with the graduating students before their graduation--it was less meteorologically epic, but equally inspired. Barron has a fascinating way of mapping his characters before he begins: he starts by giving the ordinary details--appearance, speech, customs. But then he asks himself what their deepest fears are, and what are their highest hopes and truest longings. And finally, what is their secret. He does this for every single character, and then he goes back and does it for every place and every magical object. This is the sort of writing that hums with magic--when every person, place, and thing whispers secrets to you.

He said this process was about engaging both sides of the brain--the planning side letting the dreaming side do its work. But he was careful to say that this is his process, that our stories and our meanings are swirling around wanting us to find them, and our job is to "open the door to the magic dream" however we can. This was a theme of our theme residency--how we go from putting words on the paper to seeing these words for the dream they are making. What kept coming up, again and again, is "magic." This is storytelling, after all: words and sentences that, put together, make something vibrant, animate, and whole. We can search and search for the proper formula for this alchemy. Or we can just trust it. Barron urged the latter, that if you start down a path that gives you opportunity you will "open up the fullness of your creative capacity." Or, in the words of graduating student Dave Revere: "Magic--I'm content with that."


  1. "This is storytelling, after all: words and sentences that, put together, make something vibrant, animate, and whole. We can search and search for the proper formula for this alchemy. Or we can just trust it."


    I am really, really, really going to miss those kazoo-buzzing, zombie-loving, space-traveling geniuses of the Class of Summer 2010. They are awesome.

  2. Thanks Anne. It's great to hear about the masters class and I think I am going to try what T.A. Barron does with my MC


    There was definitely magic in Barron’s presence and enthusiasm for the craft, and—specifically—for his readers. It was energizing and affirming. Because I think magic too often is neglected, forgotten, or just generally scoffed at. Cynicism is magic’s greatest enemy.

    If I remember correctly, Barron called his process for mapping his characters, places, and magical objects “keeping track of the magic.” Which, as you say, is just what writers do. We take these abstract symbols, called letters, and arrange them in words. Then sentences. Then paragraphs. Then story (in many, many drafts).

    Until put to page, though, story is ethereal. Muses are intangible. Writers are conduits. To me, then, writing is “keeping track of the magic,” but it’s also making magic real, accessible. What was it that Ron said in his talk? Story is, or writers are, the door between the infinite and the finite? Or some other similarly Platonic idea?

    I remember the first time I read LeGuin’s A Wizard of EarthSea. The magic felt so real in that story, it haunted me. Still does.

    But magic isn’t just found in high fantasy. Because all writing is fantasy. Whether fiction (any genre) or non-fiction, all writing is a representation of what is, what isn’t, or what maybe could be. That’s fantasy. That’s magic.

    So WRITE ON, ANNE (and everyone). Make the magic real.

    P.S. Kazoos are pretty magical, too.