THERE IS NOTHING MORE SOLITARY THAN THE ACT OF WRITING.
YET, NO WORK MAKES IT TO PUBLICATION IN SOLITUDE.
MY LATE MOTHER’S LAST BIRTHDAY BROUGHT THIS HOME TO ME.
THRIVING IN THIS SOLITARY PROFESSION TURNS OUT TO REQUIRE AN ECOSYSTEM. HERE’S HOW TO GROW YOURS.
We celebrated my mother’s 97th birthday, her next-to-last, on the front porch of the home she’d lived in for nearly 60 years.
Goodness, how Charlotte Zolotow, a writer and editor, had loved that porch.
Decade after decade, she’d had drinks on it when the weather was warm. If someone was visiting, she’d bring out cheese (a runny brie, usually), crackers, and a crystal bowl of fruit, too.
When people admire the look of the food I make, I credit Charlotte. That fruit she’d put out for friends was not fussy, but natural-looking. Yet I watched her arrange it, and each composed bowl looked like a Dutch Masters still-life. The green grapes dripping just-so over the edge of the bowl; you would have thought they just landed there. (But next to them, a small gold scissors added a bit of elegance. Shaped like a bird, the beak of which was the scissor blades, it was a “grape scissors,” she said, with which to cut grapes from the stem. It pleased her. And one of her authors gave it to her.)
“Her” authors, because she always used the possessive describing writers she had worked with editorially. Paul Zindel, Francesca Lia Bloch, Paul Fleischman, John Donovan, Jean George , and many, many others.
For most of the years of her married life, there were martinis on the porch in the late afternoon with her husband, the writer Maurice Zolotow, throughout the summer and fall. As a child, I understood my parents were to more or less be left alone at this time, though this was not an absolute prohibition. Still, I could hear them from almost any room in the house, especially my boisterous father: laughing, talking.
But long after they were divorced Charlotte enjoyed that porch.
She sat there with friends countless times. But she also gloried in it solo, sometimes bringing a manuscript outside to work on, a glass of iced coffee beside her.
For while Charlotte revered solitude, and prided herself on being a quiet and (she thought) impeccable observer, she also craved relationship.
The porch, a liminal place, offered her both. It was part of her creative ecosystem. It turns out that all writers have one, whether or not they know it.
In the view the porch gave onto the street, she could watch, half-hidden behind some trellised roses and a large forsythia. But if she so chose, she could also interact with neighbors: call out to Laura Macy, walking her dog, or listen quietly as Susan and Rick Whalen’s children rode a skateboard over the improvised jump that a sycamore’s roots had created by bumping up a slab of sidewalk.
Year after year, the porch was one of her favorite things about the house on 29 Elm.
Charlotte titled an early and not-very-good memoir (never published, written in her 30’s) The Shaded Porch. And the porch was featured in many of her children’s books. For example, in This Quiet Lady, illustrated by Anita Lobel, a young girl looks at an album of photographs taken of her mother before she was born.
As the protagonist regards the next-to-last photograph in the album (just before the book ends with her saying “And here is where I begin,”) the daughter looks wonderingly at the image of her pregnant mother and reflects:
This quiet lady
lovely and large,
standing on our front porch
is my mother.
That birthday party we held for her there, on June 26, 2012, her 97th?
It turned out that this was Charlotte’s last visit to the porch.
I think about that party each June. I think about it personally, remembering, missing her and those days.
But now, years later, I also think about all it encapsulated in terms of understanding what makes a writer’s ecosystem, over a life.
CREATIVE ECOSYSTEM NOTE #1: Find your porch — the place or places, physical and otherwise, that balance your individual need for the inward-going and outward-going components of writing. Such places often rest at the public-private border.
Many writers, these days, write at a neighborhood coffee shop, or go to the library.
YOUR LIFE, YOUR MATERIAL
The “we” of the party were me, my then-living partner, David, most of our team of Jamaican and African caregivers and some of their partners and/or adult children, plus maybe 10 or 15 neighbors of various ages from the block on which she lived, in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. A couple of her old friends from the publishing world came in from Manhattan, too.
All of us were, in different ways, also part of Charlotte’s creative ecosystem.
Her neighbors as well as her neighborhood (including its cats and dogs, birds and gardens, even sounds and smells), as well as her observations of her own young children, became, in transmogrified form, her books.
They, conjoined with her own childhood, were her original source material.
You can trace these elements through Charlotte’s books; the walks she took with her then-little-girl, me (One Step, Two), the longings and frustrations of that girl grown slightly older, also me (Someday), the family fights (The Quarreling Book), the family dog (The Poodle Who Barked at the Wind), the old woman who once lived around the corner (I Know a Lady), Halloween on the block (A Tiger Called Tomas).
If a person notices, observes, and writes what she has taken in, truly nothing is wasted on her.
CREATIVE ECOSYSTEM NOTE #2: Don’t say “My life is so boring.” Your material is rich, and it is where you are. Fall in love with it by paying deep attention, to the people, places and things around you, and your feelings about them. Then articulate what you discover. Sure, imagination has a part — but the best work is always grounded in layers of emotional and sensual observed truth.
YOUR COLLEAGUES, YOUR TRIBE
If some of us at the party were been part of Charlotte’s ecosystem as “material”, the New York publishing contingent represented another part.
Take her her long-ago secretary-turned-editor-turned-writer, but always loyal friend, Fran Manushkin, who was there the day of the party.
Fran was a colleague. She was part of the institution and the particular kind of give-and-take relationships which turn “writing” and “manuscript” into book.
CREATIVE ECOSYSTEM NOTE #3: Most of us write in solitude, but we need colleagues. For solitude without collegiality is a vacuum. Eventually, to get better at at your craft, you need others: people who care about writing in general and yours specifically. To speed and lubricate the process, classes and courses, writers’ groups, critique groups, editors, publishers, organizations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators or (for culinary writers) the International Association of Culinary Professionals, even the reading of books and magazines about writing… all these make you a better writer.
If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll find a mentor. Fran’s mentor was Charlotte. Charlotte’s mentor was Ursula Nordstrom.
ONE PLACE WHERE YOUR COLLEAGUES ARE ALWAYS AWAITING YOU
A related CREATIVE ECOSYSTEM NOTE #4: While we need colleagues to get become better writers, to pursue the reading of books and magazines (Poets and Writers! Horn Book! Publisher’s Weekly!) as noted above, and to eventually find our own readers, we need to develop, participate and revel in a whole ‘nother part of the relational ecosystem.
Libraries and librarians, bookstores and reading groups, educators, sites that celebrate reading (such as GoodReads, and yes, — I say this reluctantly – amazon) and literacy.
The Hastings-on-Hudson library was an eight-minute walk from Charlotte’s front porch. When I was a little girl, Charlotte and I took that walk every single Saturday morning, returning books from the previous week, and returning with a whole new stack. I do mean stack: I remember lacing my hands together at my waist, and Charlotte helping me pile the books I had selected, one on top of each other, until I topped the stack with my chin, thus holding it in place.
And when I returned to Elm Place, in my 60’s, to travel with Charlotte through the last years of her life, the library — in a magnificent new building, now overlooking the Hudson River — again became my frequent refuge.
GIVE AND TAKE: IT RECHARGES YOU
And as for Charlotte’s caregivers, also present at the party and in her late life every day, how were they part of this?
Well, obviously, they cared for Charlotte in her old age; they eased her passage. One by one, and as a team, Hawa, Sharon, Corinne, and Carlene made it possible for her to be at that party, to stay in her own home. They each SAW her, over time, as the individual she was, not a generic geriatric person as tragically often happens in institutional facilities. And I, and to some extent Charlotte, came to know each of them individually… to help with green cards, and troublesome boyfriends or unruly children, and to celebrate the small and large victories: the returns to school, the particularly delicious rice and peas.
But that, the give-and-take of care, especially for a fee, surely that is more human transaction than creative ecosystem. Isn’t it?
And yet… over the four or five years our team worked together, though they were not writers or publishers, the relationships they and Charlotte developed also echoed the elements of collegial give-and-take.
Charlotte, even old and bed-bound, was involved with everyone’s life to the extent she could be. And she loved giving advice.
When Carlene Butts was angsting about learning to drive, Charlotte (who did have her non-nonsense side) decided she’d had enough of it and one day snapped at her, “Oh, just get it over with.” And Carlene, who found this hilarious, actually did.
And Charlotte downright replicated her explicit editorial role, that of talent-encouraging, with Hawa Diallo, who began to paint while working at 29 Elm. Every night, she and Charlotte would discuss whatever painting Hawa was at work on. One night Hawa — well, here is the story she reprised when her extraordinary art was written up years later, after Charlotte’s death, in O, the Oprah Magazine.
I know these exchanges were as much a gift, if not more, to Charlotte as than they were to our team. Even at that advanced age, in that body which could barely move, my mother was still able to do the work that, one might say, she was put here to do. She felt needed, and useful. And she was. Even to those on whom she was so dependent, and who took such good care of her.
CREATIVE ECOSYSTEM NOTE #5: You’ve got two hands. Use one to receive: from other people, from experience, from the lovely, generous, difficult world. Use the other to give: to pass on, to help and assist, to advise. Give-receive, receive-give. Encourage; let others encourage you. The more you equalize these, like the positive-negative charges that are part of every electrical system, the more juice your own creative battery has.
Put another way: ask for help. And give it.
Accept help. Accept helping. Accept the need and rightness of both. You don’t believe me? Try it and see.
BREAKING BREAD… AND JERK TOFU
It was a warm afternoon; the birthday party was a relaxed, come-and-go affair. There was quite a spread of food, too, served family style. I made jerk tofu, the hands-down favorite, in honor of the Jamaican contingent.
And, by way of birthday cake, I made a mixed berry upside-down cake, which, if memory serves, I did that day with a combination of blueberries and nectarines.
CREATIVE ECOSYSTEM NOTE #6: Nourish yourself, and others. It’s a tangible, sensual expression of the intangible. If you do it wisely, it steadies you through the emotional ups and downs of writing.
And, like much I have mentioned and which that birthday underlined, food and eating are inherently relational, a counterweight to solitariness. Even when you eat by yourself, you never eat alone: someone, somewhere, grew or baked or cooked or raised something you are eating.
I think, in this context, of the words of essayist Bonnie Friedman, describing a simple meal she ate with a number of other writing students, when she was in college. “… lentil soup was simmering on the wood stove, and there was buttery cornbread and a green salad with tahini dressing, and red wine… We scarfed up great hunks of bread, and plate after plate of soup, and evening shrank the room into a little glowing bowl… I knew that I was one of the privileged of the earth.”
Good food provides not only sustenance, but soul-nutrition. It is the stuff of connection, communion, showing us with each bite how connected we are to each other and the earth on which we share joint tenancy.
I have mentioned Charlotte and her green grapes and brie. I will also mention that she always, always took her authors out for a good lunch (on the HarperCollins expense account, but still).
Even given how important I think food is, on that occasion, finally, it was mostly an accoutrement.
It was Charlotte’s day, and she remained, quietly, the center of attention, the party flowing around her.
She was in her afghan-covered green recliner that afternoon. We’d had to move the recliner from inside the house to the porch. It had been awhile since she’d been on the porch, and so, to get there, Charlotte had to take a longer-than- usual wheelchair ride. This was a little tiring for her.
So, for much of the early part of the party, she floated: half-listening, half-dozing; eyes closed but smiling. And though it was warm, she chilled easily, so she was bundled up, in a turquoise sweater, and under a zebra-striped blanket which matched her much-loved tuxedo cat, Tumbleweed.
Still, I had the sense that she was contented, rocking along in a boat made of the familiar. Conversation, people enjoying themselves, lids being flipped off bottles with church-key openers, laughing, greetings.
All on the porch she had loved for so long, on the street where she had lived for over 70 years.
As wise Hawa Diallo used to put it, when Charlotte entered that dreamy, not-awake-but-not-asleep state, “Now she is traveling in her mind.”
SORTING IT OUT
In those days, well-meaning people, in asking after Charlotte, would often say to me, “Is she still with it?” Or “Does she have dementia?” Or, “How’s her short-term memory?” Or “Is it Alzheimers?”
While Alzheimer’s was out-and-out inaccurate in her case, I didn’t like any of those other summings-up either, or the overly sympathetic tone in which such questions were phrased. This seemed to me to pathologize (label as illness, or abnormality) the altered, but natural, working of the mind in the very old.
To me, this altered working was not abnormal. It was unique and fascinating, like the working of a young child’s mind.
And, barring real illness, where there is a sudden and disordered change of mental state which causes distress and malfunction (like Alzheimer’s or depression), it seems to me that the different ways the minds of human beings work at different ages are all healthy, even vigorous, within their age-specific paradigms.
The adult mind, theoretically rational, linear, logical, and full of referential and learned knowledge (memory) is not the sine qua non of mental states (though we think it is when we’re in it); it is just one phase.
A child is not an immature adult; she, or he, is a child, where, among other things, imagination and supposition step in for lack of cumulative experience. Feelings supersede the not-yet-developed facility of logic, sensuality is strong, and time is not yet perceived. (Charlotte understood all this in her writing for children. That was her genius; she did not have typical adult amnesia. )
Nor are the aged, whom Hawa used to call “the olderly,” mere past-their-sell-by-date, defective post-adult human detritus.
The very old, like children, are simply traveling through their own phase of being human (as, if we live long enough and stay healthy, will we). The elder mind, like the child’s, works in a manner particular and suited to its period of life.
A lot of figuring out goes on, I think, in both stages.
For the very young, everything must be figured out because it is all new. For the extreme elderly, the figuring out is a kind of sorting, because there is so much accumulated experience. In both cases, the process often looks skewed to those stuck in and biased towards midlife mind and its conception of linear time as actual and correct.
But what if the older healthy mind is not “demented” but richly overloaded, with too much complex material to categorize as one did in the past?
And what if, as for children, time, in this phase of life, again alters, becomes non-linear?
If this is so, then a very old brain is not disintegrating, but integrating.
And it is busy, in its own fashion, doing the important work of weaving together and sorting the events of a life in a subjective, personal, non-linear fashion.
CREATIVE ECOSYSTEM NOTE #7: Trust the process, even, maybe especially, when it doesn’t make sense. Writing is another way we sort, and it, too, is often subjective, personal, and non-linear. As W.H. Auden famously said, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?”
I think for writers and artists, the lines between young, middle-life and aged brain may be more fluid than for most of us.
Late in the afternoon of the day of her last birthday party, Charlotte opened her eyes suddenly and looked directly at me.
“What, ” she asked slowly but clearly, “did I… miss?”
I thought for a moment before I answered.
Because maybe she meant that afternoon: what had she missed while she was half-dozing, half-hearing snippets of conversation, voices half-recognized?
But maybe she meant something bigger.
In such moments, I tried to orient her a little bit first, very much improvising, making it as I went along — for how could it be otherwise? This was a new phase for both of us.
“Well, Charlotte, you’re on the front porch at 29 Elm, in Hastings, at your house. And we’re having your birthday party today. You’re 97 years old and … ”
I paused. She seemed deeply attentive, gazing back at me with piercing interest. I plunged on.
“Yes?” she said.
“I don’t think you missed much, Charlotte. Let’s see… You were married, you had two children, you wrote an incredible number of books, you helped a lot of people write their books when you were an editor. You traveled all over America and through a lot of Europe. You went to the Bologna Book Fair many times; you went to Florence, you saw those golden doors.
“You had a lot of friends, like Ursula and Dorothy Fields and Buena and Norma Hayes and Augusta. You had a lover, Jules. You had a garden, you were in therapy. You had a house, where you still live, 29 Elm Place. You had two dogs, Pudgy and Cleo. And you still have a cat, Tumbleweed. You read hundreds and hundreds of books. You ate Indian food, Chinese food and French and Italian and Mexican, and now you’re often having African and Jamaican food— really, I don’t think there was anything big that you missed!”
Charlotte began smiling broadly, then laughing during this recitation. She said, when I finished, with resounding wholeheartedness, “GOOD!”
CREATIVE ECOSYSTEM NOTE #8: “It’s never too late,” people say. Well, for some things it is; there was a point where Charlotte was no longer writing. But something creative in her remained verdant.
Be willing to be surprised. By writing; by life; by what they both, insistently, reveal to you.
By their intersection. List it, from time to time: not only all you have, but all you have had. And let gratitude, that Old Faithful, rise up again, fountain-like.
ALL THAT IS UNKNOWN IN YOUR HEART
Now it is six years since Charlotte died. Six years that I have in a sense collaborated with her (even though she is no longer here), for she made me her literary executor.
Every time a book of her is reissued and must be updated, and I am asked to write an introduction or an afterword or an article about her, I ask myself, What would Charlotte have done? What would she have wanted?
Her views on writing for children, were, fortunately, very well articulated. I heard them my whole life (so often that, I am afraid I, as most daughters do when their mothers repeat things, often rolled my eyes… do I have to listen to this again?).
Yet now, how glad I am that she did make her views known.
I’ve come to think she and I collaborate in another way: by our desire to nurture other writers, giving weight not only to the solitary aspects of writing, as I have talked about here.
Like Charlotte, I find in this a different, though related, satisfaction than in doing my own writing.
Teaching, like editing, takes deep listening. To what someone else is saying. To what s/he isn’t yet saying but needs to say, in writing. One listens to what is there, and what is missing. Then, only then, does one gently prod, question, and encourage the writer past her or his deviation from personal truth.
Doing one’s own writing requires that same kind of listening, but to oneself. Digging for personal truth, expressing it transparently and tangibly, without avoidance.
It is easier to see others’ evasions than one’s own. The hidden, sometimes unpleasant or frightening parts of one’s own “material”, one’s history, are always partially invisible, revealing themselves only through the act of writing (often with the help of an editor or teacher).
Yet when I pay attention to others’ work, and sense the places where something is missing, it does build my ability to see the places where I, too, scurry away in my own work.
Like my mother, I often say, “I wish I had more time to write!”
But also like her, it turns out, the time I spend working with others on their writing nourishes my own.
Though editing or teaching others’ work versus doing one’s own seems bifurcated, it’s synergistic.
Especially since her death, I feel the need to pass on what she gave, and receive the continually given gift, the divine alternation, of doing my own work while assisting others in theirs.
Life is bigger than all of us. Life itself outlives our brief lives. We are tiny intricate pieces of an infinitely larger and more intricate whole.
Perhaps the final work of maturity is to live with mystery and certain mortality. And to stop trying to explain everything all the time. To just, as the Beatles sang, “let it be.”
Or, as Rainer Maria Rilke said in his Letters to a Young Poet… oh wait, let’s let this be this post’s last CREATIVE ECOSYSTEM NOTE #9: ” Be patient towards all that is unknown in your heart, and learn to love the questions themselves.”
Yet even here, in the unknowns, I find Charlotte: able to articulate this mystery even in a short poem for young readers, just beginning to grapple consciously with the incomparable peculiarity and beauty of this world.
In making it possible for a child to grasp the heart of mortality’s mystery, perhaps those young readers, realizing they were part of this mystery, were less lonely for it.
How strange that when I finally die
to lie beneath the grass and snow
while overhead the birds fly by
and I can’t watch them go.
This post is part of Crescent’s Nothing is Wasted on the Writer series.
The poem HOW STRANGE appeared in Charlotte Zolotow’s 1970 book of poetry for children, River Winding.