Sunday, January 24, 2010

Clueless in Atlanta: A Writer's Search for a Heart

     How do I begin a story?  Usually, with an idea that jumps on my shoulder and shouts "Pick me, pick me." Sometimes the idea seems so ripe and whole I think the Muses have send me a full blown picture book, characters, plot and all.
      Then I sit down to write, and discover that I have almost everything. 
      I have a series of events, an anecdote. That magic thread that weaves the events into a story, isn't there. That magic thread is theme, the heart that drives the story. 

   Such was the case with A TREE FOR EMMY.
    My daughter Lily's first real friend, Emme, lived across the street. As pre-school BFF's they shared a love of anything pink, stomping through mud puddles and flowers (especially pink ones.) Emme's mother was an easy going woman who allowed the girls to dig and plant in her yard.

   Because Emme and Lily loved wildflowers, dandelions, wild daisies and Queen Anne's lace had free reign in the yard. The neighbors were not amused.
     It was no big surprise when Emme announced she wanted a mimosa tree for her birthday. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of living near a mimosa tree, they produce lovely fluffy pink blossoms and big stringbean-like seed pods. The tree also sheds those blossoms and pods, leaving an untidy yard. This bothers some people.  
     I am not one of those people. Neither was Emme's mother. A TREE FOR EMMY sticks closely to the real-life events. Girl wants tree, girl meets resistance, girl gets tree. Real-life handed me characters, plot and conflict. What more could a writer ask for?
     A heart. I had written a story, but I didn't know what it was about
     Over time, I've discovered I have to write the story first and hope that by the next time I read it, I'll have an idea of what is flowing beneath the surface.
     I literally don't know what I am writing about.
     I wrote EMMY and put it away. I read it six months later. . .and I still didn't know what it was about. Another six months, another reading. Nothing. Six more months. Still clueless.  So much for a "complete story" bestowed on me by the Muses.
     In the interim, I wrote another picture book in which the main character was a dead Christmas tree (no kidding). A critique that story received was "A dead tree doesn't do anything. If it were a living tree, it would at least grow."
      The Big A-Ha Moment.  Trees grow!  A TREE FOR EMMY was about growth, both plant and human. At last my story had a heart.
      It only took five years to find The Missing Heart. Like Emmy and her tree, I discovered that writing requires time and patience. 

      P.S.  The "dead Christmas tree" picture book eventually became a middle grade historical fiction, JIMMY'S STARS.

                                   Mary Ann Rodman

P.S.S.  Are you a Teacher or Homeschooler?  Remember to enter our contest!  The winner can choose one of six Teaching Author books as a prize.  Read all about it here.


Michelle Sussman said...

I love, love, love A Tree for Emmy and I love, love, love hearing the story behind it. Thanks for this post! :)

Jaymie said...

This is a very encouraging story! Thanks for sharing it.

Megan Frances Abrahams said...

What a great story behind the story. I've always been fascinated by the evolution of the writing process.

Kristin Tubb said...

Thank you for sharing that, MA! I love A TREE FOR EMMY, and it's encouraging to hear that it often takes a while for an idea to bloom. And I of course remember that tree in JIMMY'S STARS - who could forget it! So interesting. I look forward to your next book, MA!

Elise Murphy said...

What a great story!

I am fascinated by the tales we have to tell that need to percolate for a long, long time before they are ready to be written.

Evelyn said...

A wonderful story, Mary Ann! Thanks for sharing with us this part of your journey with A TREE FOR EMMY. Your patience and persistence are inspiring. (And I, too, loved mimosas as a child.)

Esther Hershenhorn said...

This is a long but sincere post.

I love how my fellow TA's posts on the ideas behind our stories have evolved!
With each post it becomes so apparent: an idea grabs us, indeed often grabs our hearts and won't let go!
But until we figure out WHY that is so - until we see where our hearts lie within that story, the telling remains but words on the page.
The teacher in me puts forth for my students the basics, the mechanics, the elements of narrative, the steps of the process...and then the writer in me - patiently, knowingly,lovingly - waits for each student's heart-finding Ah-Hah Moment!
For those who teach students disenchanted with their story ideas, with their characters, maybe suggest they write their characters to see what's what, why these characters need their stories told, why they need their writers to start writing their stories.

Peggy Archer said...

I love this post! I think this is the reason I have so many un-finished mss in my file cabinet. SOMEday, they'll have heart. Your book is on my list for the next library visit :)

Elizabeth O Dulemba said...

Mary Ann, I loved reading about this peek into your process! :) e

Kimbra Kasch said...

And I love the name Emmy. Too cute.

Suzanne Lieurance said...


I just love stories behind the story! Thanks for sharing!