In Harry Allard and James Marshall's wonderful series of picture books, "The Stupids," Mr. and Mrs. Stupid and their children, Buster and Petunia constantly upset the apple cart with their alternate reality. Mr. Stupid wears his socks on his ears, Mrs. Stupid uses the cat for a hat and the kids tend to respond to every backwards action with an awestruck, "Wow!"

Not surprisingly, these books have landed on the ALA's 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books, supposedly because they encourage children to be disobedient, and also for celebrating low self-esteem.

While I tend to roll my eyes at these claims, I think that it all has less to do with the content of the books themselves, which is over-the-top silly, and everything to do with the word: stupid.

In fact, in the very first book, The Stupids Step Out, there's a point in which the whole family is looking into a mirror.

"Look at those funny-looking people in the window," {Mr. Stupid} said to his family.
"Yes, they certainly are stupid looking." said Mrs. Stupid.
"Don't stare at them, children. It's impolite."

When I was growing up, "stupid" was the big, fat s-word. I was told never to call anyone or anything stupid. It was the ultimate put-down, as if being or acting stupid meant that there was something terribly wrong with you, something that couldn't be helped. And to use that word as a descriptor or a label was explicitly cruel.

Even now, all these years later, it's harder for me to say that something is stupid than it is for me to call it f**ked up.

In fact, when I was writing Keeper, my editor suggested that I let Keeper use that same s-word. Ack! Could I put it into the mouth of my young hero? At the end of the day, I did, but true confession: it still makes me a little queasy.

But now I have a new book, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, and guess what? There is nary a mention of stupid, at least not that I recall. So, why all this angst?

One February morning, while sitting at my desk and wondering how in the world I was going to meet my June 1st deadline for my next manuscript, I received an email from Cynthia Leitich Smith. It had only a single sentence: "I think you should write something funny." She signed it with love. My first reaction was Huh? Why funny? What was significant about funny? And furthermore, could I even write something funny? Besides, who takes funny seriously?

I mean, hadn't I worked my tookus off to be taken seriously? I sent Cyn a quick reply, explaining that funny wasn't in my repertoire.

In less than a blink she replied that I most certainly could be funny. Hadn't I written the "Bubba and Beau" books? Well, okay, those were funny . . . I guess. But their humor wasn't roll-on-the-floor, laugh out loud, silly sorts of funny. Besides, was that what Cyn was calling for? Alas, what did funny even mean?

The thing is, when you have a person in your life who garners your deepest respect like Cyn garners mine, her messages carry some weight. They're not to be overlooked or discarded, not lightly at any rate. She clearly wasn't trying to jerk my chains. She was serious.

"Write something funny."

I opened a new file, wrote about seven or eight pages, and completely froze. As it turns out, funny is hard. It doesn't roll off the tongue for me, doesn't come naturally. I'd never make it as a stand-up comedian. But even worse--and here's the big thing--the dividing line between funny and stupid is very, very thin.

The question I was suddenly forced to ask was: will this story seem stupid? And the bigger question, the one underlying that one was: will I look stupid if I write it? What would happen to all that serious stuff that I had worked so hard to achieve? Would it all be diminished by a funny story?

In our society, I think we're threatened by silliness, by wit, by humour. No one wants to be on the receiving end of a joke or a taunt. We're embarrassed when we laugh at an off=color remark, and we're uncomfortable with a tart poke in the eye. Certainly no one, including moi, wants to look, you guessed it: STUPID.

Ouch! There it was, my fragile, whiny ego, wailing away, not wanting to be humiliated, especially by a word that came with so much baggage. The s-word.

Who knew that funny required so much gnashing of teeth? I took a deep breath. In the space between my last novel and the task in front of me, I had had to confront a number of personal issues, including a close scare with my health and also the loss of our family's beloved country house to a blazing, all-consuming fire. It had been a difficult couple of years. I felt worn down by it.

What Cynthia could see, and what I finally realized as I embarked upon Scouts, was that humor was what I needed. I had plenty of serious in my life. Now I needed funny. I also needed to get over myself. And in the light of all this, stupid seemed insignificant.

I can't say whether or not my readers will find my raccoon brothers and their quest for the Sugar Man funny or stupid--that's not my call to make. But I can say that the writing of their tale gave me the kind of light-hearted joy that I had forgotten about. It reminded me of laughter and silliness and how important those are in the course of a life. And at the end of it, my sincerest hope is that the only thing left on the last page will be a quote from Buster and Petunia: "Wow!"

And if there is a smile to go along with it, please give at least some of the credit to Cynthia and her huge and knowing heart. May we all be blessed with such a wise and loving friend--the kind who tells you something true even when you may not be ready to hear it. Listen anyways. 

Posted by elena at 03:07 PM Link to this post

The New Year begins and so does my new novel. So far, I only have bits and pieces, odds and ends, and some scattered images that, if I’m lucky, will show up when I sit down to work, but mostly appear when I’m driving or taking a shower or doing some other activity where a pen and paper are non-existent.

It’s like this with each new project.  In a million ways I feel like I’m chasing a goose, one that keeps dodging my grasp and leaving me with only a handful of feathers. What I want is the whole goose, but that honking sound in my ear reminds me that it takes more than a chase to capture her.

When I first met Holly McGhee, we spoke on the phone and she asked me to answer this question: where do you see your writing a year from now?

It caught me off guard. Such a simple question, really. In my long career I had been asked about the stories I was working on and the stories I had already written, but I couldn’t recall anyone asking me where I specifically wanted my writing to go. She didn’t ask me what I wanted to write or when I wanted to write it. She didn’t ask me who I wanted to write for or why. Nothing about how. The question was about where. All at once, it felt like this: if I could figure out the where of it all, the other questions would be answered at the same time.

But where was it that I wanted it to be?

I hung up the phone and promised Holly that I would get back to her.

In the moment that followed that call, I felt rattled, unsettled. The call had left me unnerved. To answer the question, I had to first figure out where my work was at that particular moment. That was easy. I knew exactly where it was. Stuck! After fifteen years, I was at a place in my career where I could have continued writing the kinds of books that I had been writing all along. And truthfully, that would have been okay. I was satisfied with the work I had done. And for the most part my books had been well-received, and even won a few awards here and there. I didn’t need to make apologies.

I also didn’t need to stay there. But why not?

Simply put, my heart wasn’t in it anymore.

My heart!

All at once my heart ached. Physically ached, as if someone had reached into my chest and grabbed it. Suddenly, I could barely breathe. My heart! I had forgotten that trusty organ, the one I had called upon so many times, but had somehow set aside. How does one set aside something as powerful as your own heart? What I realized was that in my work I had reached a level of competence that didn’t require me to tap into my heart so much. No wonder I was so stuck. In a trice I became painfully aware that what was missing in my current writing was heart. My heart.

The ache became almost unbearable, and all I could do was rest my head on my desk and weep. Where? Where was my heart?

And then I knew. Holly had asked me the essential question, and in the asking of it she reminded me that a story’s heart requires the teller to crack open her own heart. Yes, I wanted to catch the goose, but chasing her was only part of it. The other part was love, falling in love with that honking goose, even though it might require some serious discomfort.

Holly asked me that question on New Year’s in 2005. Since then it’s the question I pose to myself every year. It’s the question I pose to my story—where is it that the heart cracks open?

Here’s the thing . . . where the heart cracks open is where our deepest longings lie, and that is what Story is all about. It’s where our characters ache for something that is missing. It’s where we feel the tug and pull of our own patch of ground. It’s where the goose spreads her substantial wings and flies straight into the stars. There. Come on then, let’s follow. Let’s go there.
Posted by elena at 09:01 AM Link to this post
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