Thursday, July 21, 2011

Passion and Sympatico

This is the month that we choose our favorite posts. I love this one because it symbolizes a friendship that developed through being a nonfiction writer.

ORIGINAL POST: I will open with an anecdote that, I promise, is on point. On May 18, I spoke with a writer friend who, quite unprompted and out of the blue, said, “You have to meet Deb Heiligman, you two would really love each other.” I thought that an interesting comment as Deb and I had recently connected via Facebook and had been instant chatting with a chummy ease. The very next day I logged on to INK and literally had to read the first two paragraphs of Deb’s blog entry twice. I could have written those two paragraphs, verbatim. Truly.

And so, in the spirit of nonfiction togetherness, I will see Deb’s Thoreau quote (scroll down to May 19) and raise her a Blaise Pascal. I had long and incorrectly attributed that “I would have written a shorter letter but I did not have the time” quote to Voltaire, but it seems that this quote actually comes from one of the Provincial Letters of Pascal, which definitely influenced the thinking of Voltaire and possibly also Thoreau. I say possibly, because we have no specific knowledge that Thoreau read Pascal’s Letters, and even though Pascal pre-dates Thoreau by approximately 200 years, it is perfectly within the realm of reason for two writers to think and write similar things without being aware they are doing so. Sympatico, yes?!

The other thing I related to in Deborah's post was the anecdote about aspiring to write for adults. I have likewise been frequently challenged, and indeed it is almost always put forth as a challenge, as if we are merely on the beginning stepping stones of the path that must surely lead to writing for adults. A friend of mine battles this heckle by saying, “Can you imagine asking your pediatrician if she aspires to take care of adults!” That’s the comeback I keep in my arsenal and fling forth whenever necessary.

Now, to the topic at hand. I recently did a school visit during which a teacher asked me, in front of an audience of 140 students, if I think the sale of nonfiction books will start to suffer since anyone can find out anything on the Internet. Ah, I thought, rubbing my hands together, what a great setup for a teaching moment!

Educators one and all, we don’t really think that an Internet search on a topic can replace the book, do we? No, I didn’t think so (and I’ll give that teacher the benefit of the doubt that he was leading me to the promised land via the last question of the day). On the Internet, to be sure, one can learn a little bit about a lot of things. But it takes the skill and craft and research and patience and love of a writer dedicated to learning every possible piece of a story to put it together with context and meaning in a way that kids will find engaging.

And why do we do it? I think it’s because we are compelled to. We are driven to find out why, what was the motivation, what else was going on behind the scenes, who else was involved, how else could this be viewed, and what does it all mean as we try to make sense of this vast world and hand our small part in it over to kids. It’s a passion. If you're interested in reading more about this quirky brand of passion and the desire to put the pieces of the puzzle together that nonfiction authors share, I've delved into both ideas in more detail in two recent articles, one for SLJ and one for VOYA. Both pieces laud a variety of authors and their brilliant nonfiction books that craft stories from the many facts spinning all around us, and they are gifts to young readers.

Take that, Internet.

And Deb, we are ON for coffee!
(NEW) We've come a long way, baby! ;-)


Melissa Stewart said...

Freat post, Tanya. I couldn't agree more.

Melissa Stewart

Deborah Heiligman said...

I love your post, Tanya, and of course I couldn't agree more! And I want to add two things: books have editors, the internet almost never does. So we have people to help us make sure what we say is right and true.

And the second thing is for our readers, a little behind the scenes moment. Tanya e-mailed me and told me she was going to write what she wrote about Thoreau, etc. and I decided to check with a friend of mine who is a Thoreau expert. (I also have a friend who is a warlord expert, but now I'm just bragging). Jeff Cramer, Curator of Collections at the Thoreau Institute, helped me track down the Thoreau quote I use in CHARLES AND EMMA, "Not that the story need to be long, but it will take a long while to make it short." So I e-mailed Jeff the other day to ask him if Thoreau read Pascal. Here's part of what Jeff wrote back:

"I cannot find any record that Thoreau ever read Pascal, which is not to say that he didn’t. His works were available at Harvard. Thoreau went there and had borrowing privileges from their library, but there is no record that he took any of Pascal’s works out (and records do exist for what he took out of Harvard)...."

Do we have the best job in the world or what?

Anonymous said...

Passion and research - what a combination and for readers interested, read more quotes from Tanya in this week's Through the Tollbooth discussion about writing nonfiction for children. Another fascinating research story is unfolding this week and next at the writing of Harper Lee's biography. Nancy Bo Flood

Myra Zarnowski said...

Thank you for the links to your articles in SLJ and VOYA. As a teacher-educator and frequent classroom visitor, I am interested in having children and teachers understand that seeing history as a puzzle is important. They need to join in the fun of making sense of the past.