Parents Who Write: April Halprin Wayland

In my family, writing is essential. Growing up, my love for writing was inspired in large parts by the women I grew up around: my mother Lyra Halprin, whose background as a journalist led to a successful career as a public information specialist for UC Davis, while she simultaneously produced stories for television, radio and print, and my aunt April Halprin Wayland, who for as long as I knew her, was a walking, talking whirlwind of poems and stories, songs and books. From both of these women I inherited a deep respect and awe for writers and artists; to be a Halprin woman was in large parts to be an artist. I still feel that way, which is why my daughter's middle name is Halprin.

My aunt April's career as a children's book author, poet and activist kicked into high gear when I was a small child, so I got to witness the joy of her booksignings, school lectures and public events. For years she would come to my school to talk to kids about the writing process. (I'll never forget the way she compared writing to cooking, telling us to let things "Simmer, boil and cook.") She's garnered critical acclaim for her books, which include To Rabbittown, Nighthorse, It's Not My Turn to Look for Grandma, Girl Coming in For a Landing, New Year at the Pier, and most recently, More Than Enough. She's traveled the world meeting writers and writing students and founded Authors and Illustrators for Children, an organization which unites writers around political causes that benefit kids. 

I called my aunt on a Sunday afternoon shortly after my daughter's first birthday, happy but also exhausted from juggling chores, full-time work, volunteer work, and the day-to-day joys and challenges of living with a small person with a big personality. I'll never forget the relief I felt just hearing about April's experiences as a young writer and parent. 

Thanks to April for answering my questions for today's installment of Parents Who Write.

 

 April Halprin Wayland

April Halprin Wayland

· Name:

April Halprin Wayland

· How many children do you have? How old are they?

I have one; he’s twenty-frickin'-eight.

· How many hats do you wear in your household? I.e. how many gigs do you have?

My jobs:

write a poem every day,
teach writing,
blog about writing on TeachingAuthors.com,
take care of my books (PR, conferences, etc),
make our home a place of peace and comfort,
move our country in a positive direction,
be kind. 

Also walk the dog.

My husband's jobs (according to him):
feed the fish
make money.

When our son was growing up, one of my jobs was to make sure he ate healthy. He did.

· How long have you been a writer?

My first published book, To Rabbittown (Scholastic) came out in 1989, but I wrote and illustrated (in pencil) my very first book in second grade. Clothing Through the Ages began with cave people wearing furry coats; next you see women in colonial gowns, then flappers with shorter skirts, then mini-skirts. In the final spread, everyone is naked. I wrote a sequel, Hair Through the Ages. 

· Tell me about your relationship to writing before you had children.

In the last stages of my corporate life, I was a round peg in square hole; I was very unhappy. I looked around the company for a role model. I asked a colleague what she did to stay happy; she said she took lots of classes. So I took a class in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program on writing for children. As soon as I started taking that class—BAM!—men at construction sites who never noticed me before whistled as I walked past, though nothing else had changed. I was alive—I was soaring!

When I quit my corporate job, I committed to being a full-time writer. I was 30. I joined a group of artists, musicians, architects, dancers, actors, etc. who met to talk about doing our art. That was the first time I said aloud, "I’m a children’s book writer." I wore pinafores (!) thinking that was probably the uniform children's book writers wore.

I was determined, passionate and ambitious. I was a learner. I went to conferences. I took a master class in writing poetry for children from a brilliant teacher for 12 years. I joined three critique groups (Yikes. That would make my head spin today).

I was thrilled to get up each day to write. Somewhere along the way, though (after my son went to college) that joy morphed into a grayness. It was a hard job. It was a lonely profession. Something had to change.

So in 2010, I began writing a poem every day, no matter what. I sent it (and still do) to my best friend, who is also a children's author and poet. He, in turn, sends me a poem every day. I felt alive again.

I loved (and still love) the people in my field. I loved saying that I’m a children’s book writer; it gets a nice response at a cocktail party. I saw that that as part of my paycheck. Still do.

· How did you expect parenthood to impact your writing? Did it?

We didn't expect parenthood to impact us at all. We thought you could just put your kid on your back and do everything you usually did. I hadn't a clue how things would change.

When I was pregnant, my poetry teacher commented that every poem I wrote was about a blooming flower, a fruiting tree. I didn’t see how wrapped up I was in creating a child.

My son was born in 1989, and that’s when my first book was published. I was 9 months pregnant and—OMG!—I was autographing a book!

I didn't write much as a new mother. A writer who worked at our local bookstore brought me to my senses. “If I were you, I'd hire a babysitter a few hours a week; my writing is worth that.”

I loved my writing time when I did finally hire a regular babysitter. And yet...there was an inner tug-of-war when I had to leave to speak or teach and the sitter got to stay home and take our son to the park. Why couldn't I pay her to go speak so I could stay home?

· Have you shared your writing with your children? If not, do you plan to someday?


Yes. When my son was in elementary school, I would ask him to read some rough drafts. Does this ending work? He’d say, not really, or what if…? Both he and my husband were brutally honest with me. I can't always tell if my stories are delightfully off-the-wall or completely incomprehensible.

· What piece of culture are you obsessed with right now? 

I am crazy about audiobooks. Now I’m listening to My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman. I just finished Girl on the Train. I loved Each Little Bird That Sings, a middle grade novel by Deborah Wiles and a library-full of others.
 

·  Is there a poem, short story, novel or play that you return to when you are stuck in your writing?

Harold and the Purple Crayon, written and illustrated by Crocket Johnson, hands down. Although I have many favorite teen, middle-grade and picture books, Harold and the Purple Crayon is my all-time favorite. Why? When Harold falls into the ocean and is drowning, he comes up thinking fast—and draws a boat with his purple crayon. It's a story about being resourceful. Whatever you need is already inside you.

 

Learn more about April at aprilwayland.com.

If you are a parent who writes and would like to share your experience with me, please reach out. I'd love to hear from you. 

 

 

Blog Hop: On Writing

My friend Ben Black invited me to participate in a blog hop--a series of writers answering questions about their writing. Ben writes really fast and furious, compressed and delicious short fiction. Ben’s work has appeared in Harpur Palate, New American Writing, The Los Angeles Review, and Smokelong Quarterly. He recently completed his MFA at San Francisco State University, where he also teaches. His stories have been finalists for the Omnidawn Fabulist Fiction Chapbook Contest and the Calvino Award.

I met Ben in a graduate creative writing course at SF State in 2009--and then again in 2012 when I moved to San Jose, walked into my first-ever Trials Trivia night, and there Ben was, sitting at the back of the bar. What follows are my answers to his questions, and the bios for 3 more writers whose work and aesthetics I admire. Thanks, Ben, for passing the blog-hop baton.

What am I working on?

I’m currently at work on my first novel, which I’m writing as a series of linked stories set in southern Spain. Technically this project started in my second year of grad school at UC Davis, but in truth these stories started in 2006, when I moved to the Costa del Sol to work as an Auxiliar de Conversacion at a Spanish elementary school. A few of these stories have been published--most recently, “The Africans” was published by West Branch Wired in January 2014. The remaining four or five are still lying dormant in my brain. I have yet to crack them open.

I also write very very short fiction in the form of 100-word stories. A number of these I have illustrated as postcards.

I also co-founded and co-curate a collaborative literary arts series in San Jose called Play On Words. This volunteer effort, which I run with Nicole Hughes and Melinda Marks, has really fed my literary brain while working in the corporate world. As a professional marketer I feel it my duty to mention that our next show is this Thursday, May 22, at the Blackbird Tavern. I’m a strong believer in group creativity and fostering a real sense of artistic community. It’s hydrating for your brain.

How is my work different than others in its genre?

I don't really ascribe to a genre. I suppose I aspire to be read as contemporary realistic fiction, whatever that means on a given day, though I don’t care that much about genre. I’m much more obsessed with language, character, place, and action. I’m fascinated by fictional topography. What characters look like when they’re fully realized and put in opposition to one another. I’m very interested in language on a literal and spatial level. I like learning how we acquire vocabulary, and how we keep it authentic. The stories I’m currently writing grapple with that weird gap in language acquisition--how sometimes we just don’t have the words for something, on a very basic level, and so we have no choice but to make decisions with our bodies.

My favorite writers make this look effortless, and they do it in their own unique and distinctive voice. I discovered Lydia Davis’ collected stories in grad school and they cracked me right open. Aimee Hempel, Danzy Senna, Jennifer Egan, Junot Diaz, Horacio Quiroga, Toni Morrison, Charles Baxter. These writers don’t ease you in; they sit you down and say, where on earth have you been?

How does my writing process work?

It changes, but typically I am the kind of writer who writes several drafts. Writing is such a series of contradictions for me. I love writing exposition but I hate reading it--so often I’ll write a very long first draft, wait a few weeks, then return to it and cut it in half. I once saw Dorothy Allison speak about character, and she said that when she is writing a new character, she writes a five-page monologue in that person’s voice, most of which she never keeps. The exercise is about knowing who this person is, and the kinds of words she uses. That piece of advice has stayed with me.

I also rely on critical feedback. I have a few friends from grad school whose opinion I hold very dear, and who are familiar with my goals and questions, and we try to swap work when we can. I also love generative writing workshops. I took a few taught by my friend Matthew Clark Davison (shoutout Matthew) that were such a breath of fresh air. It is a real treat to be in a room full of writers and to get their feedback.

Revision is key. If you give a draft long enough to breathe, and then return to it, revision can be a truly rewarding, fun exercise.

Why do I write what I do?

Because I have to. It’s an impulse that is never quenched, which makes it both unbearable and ecstatic.

Next week three writers I love will be carrying the Blog Hop torch:

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Rachel Van Blankenship is a poet/photographer/designer raised in Northern California. She studied Photojournalism and Creative Writing at The University of Montana, Missoula and has recently relocated to Phoenix, Arizona to daylight as a Features Designer. Her nomadic tendencies have taken her to Oklahoma, Texas and Pennsylvania. "Menacing Hedge," "Gather Kindling," "Cease, Cows" and "JMWW" have published her poems and she placed 4th in the international "Flash Mob 2013" competition. She is still working on her first poetry chapbook and manuscript. (She knows she's slow). Visit her website and blog at www.rachelvb.com.

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Marta Moreno and her partner, photographer Lorenzo Hernandez, have been editing COLLAGE magazine, an independent multilingual online publication, since 2008. She has also been the editor and coordinator of “Through the Eyes of Love”, a collaborative project that aimed to bring to the ESL classroom engaging literacy activities for the students. The result of this project was a workbook containing activities that serve as a supplement for a book of short stories written by Irish writer Siobhan Galvin. After spending several years teaching EFL in different Official Schools of Languages in Spain, Marta decided to move to London to work for the European Reminiscence Network, an organization that aims to promote best practice in reminiscence work, especially with people with dementia and their carers, and to share experience across national frontiers. She is also digitising the contents of Pam Schweitzer’s Reminiscence Theatre Archive at the University of Greenwich. Marta’s blog, “Remembering in London” reflects this experience together with her very personal view of a city that constantly stimulates creativity. A key element in this blog is Lorenzo’s exceptional photography.

Writer, performer, Zen-ster, Gray Performs is on a mission to love Who We Are (in all of its incarnations) with such wild abandon that she inspires in you the courage and enthusiasm to do the same. She was once described by a producer as, "not an ordinary human being… She has the spunk of Punky Brewster, the mind of General Patton, and the awkward neuroticism of Woody Allen. She is lively, honest–full of piss and vinegar." Read Gray’s blog at www.notkeepingscore.com.

First Day

I think I know what the word "bucolic" means now.  Bucolic means Vermont. Three shades of green woven together across rolling hills. Clouds furrowed deep and white, lilac startling against yellow farmhouses.

I arrived in this morning, after an overnight journey from Northern California to Chicago to Burlington, Vermont, where a friendly taxi driver picked me and another writer up for the hour-long drive to Middlebury College. I'm attending the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference on a work-study scholarship, which means I'm attending Charles Baxter's fiction workshop and meeting writers at all stages of their careers while serving food in the dining hall. And I am here a day early, when the campus is eerily quiet and calm, a summer camp spell waiting to happen. 

I had enough time, between my two layovers and long flights, to steam through Kristiana Kahakauwila's debut collection, This is Paradise. The stories are all set in Hawai'i, very beautifully rendered, featuring a wide range of characters whose relationship with the islands are complicated, emotional and honest. My brother recently moved to Honolulu, with his wife soon to follow, and as someone who likes her stories very firmly steeped in place, the book kept me going from San Jose to LAX to Chicago, even on the tiny express plane that took me here. Word has it the writer herself might be here.

I am already awkward in my fandom, and only a small group of us are here yet. I walked out down a long, pebbly lane, stopping to take pictures of the light on the hills, still not quite awake. When I arrived this morning it was lightly raining, and though raindrops have let up, the air still hangs with heavy anticipation. There are words in the air, waiting for us. Bucolic, they whisper. Pastoral.

We're here, we whisper back. We're ready.


Is writing itself creative nonfiction?



Adam Haslett at Napa Valley College, July 2011

This summer, I learned to read again.

It's amazing how long I tried to write without really trying to read. Though perhaps that's just it--I didn't want to feel like I had to try. I missed the pleasure of simply falling in, absorbing language and character and story without having to dissect any of it. What made the difference? Adam Haslett, Dorothy Allison, Michelle Huneven, Steve Almond, Aimee Bender, Maggie Nelson, Jim Shepard, Major Jackson--I got to see them read. Watching Almond describe hapless actors, listening to Allison bellow the most beautiful curses, sitting in the room while Jackson conveyed mood and tone and history in a series of careful phrases; it was electric. It reminded me of reading in my parents' cars, even after sunset, when I'd keep my finger on the page until we passed the next stoplight, because it was all so urgent. This was life, distilled in a way that made the world more real, thrilling, wonderful or tragic.

I've attended two conferences in the past month, studied writing on and off for years, worked at various institutions and stopped and started various projects. I needed a reminder that reading and writing are acts of pleasure, that maybe good stories and poems don't always beg deconstruction, that perhaps the best books are the ones that remind us of who we are. There are so many reasons not to write, and even more not to read--there's enough content floating through the universe that is digestible in visual and auditory form, what's the point of relying simply on words? And perhaps the scariest question of all: if our writing is not immediately marketable, or can't promise any financial gain, is it worth the time and energy?

I see this question in terms of its fiction and non-fiction: if the answer is yes, writing is always worth it, regardless of what we earn and what we spend, then we are telling one of the "writing market"'s greatest fictions--that if we believe in ourselves, eventually we'll be recognized. If the answer is no, that good writing reflects raw talent and there's a specific formula for achieving success, then we lose the opportunity to risk originality. I veer from one pole to the other, encouraged by the positive feedback of one teacher while reeling in the amount of work it will take to make any singular story passable or (maybe) publishable. This is all work that I enjoy doing, but I know that the minute I leave grad school, this is all work that I cannot afford to do full-time.

I present this not as a surprise, nor as a tragedy, but simply as an example of how we as writers tell ourselves stories in order to sit down and write our own. Some people (Allison, Haslett, Almond, etc.) do it so well, we tend to forget they were ever anyone else except those well-spoken professionals behind the microphone. I can't help wondering if at some point they had to distinguish between the fictions and nonfictions in their own lives from those they figured out how to depict on the page.


Either way, I'm so glad they reminded me that reading is fun--a truth that keeps us all writing.

Lemony Snicket: how to make things happen


Tonight Daniel Handler (also known as Lemony Snicket, of A Series of Misfortune Events fame) spoke on campus. This man is irreverent, brilliant, strange, and opinionated on the topics of story, plot, and honesty in literature. My understanding of him as a writer comes less from his popular children's books, and more from his novel Adverbs, which many argue is actually a collection of love stories. His prose is familiar both with itself and (it claims) with you as a reader. He often acknowledges his narrators, perhaps to beat us all to the punch, or to further the story in a way he finds interesting, or to add a finer, more textured experimental layer to the story.

I realized as he was speaking that he's exactly the inverse of the writer that often pops out of me, and maybe that's why I find him so easy to admire. He drew a diagram of the way he often imagines his characters intersecting, focusing less on their individual characteristics than the incidences that make them collide. His prose is often fast, funny, and furious; although it is clear that writing so clean can only be the product of laborious effort (he said that his first draft of Adverbs was 1000 pages long), he made it clear that developing full characters is only interesting when they operate in a plot- and problem-studded universe. Often when I try to write fiction, I get so absorbed in the very concept of a person, and his or her psychology, and the place in which he or she resides, that I have to weed out and around the outline of who they are in order to see the story at hand. There comes a time when being so conscious of character, and how he or she would react in any given situation, actually inhibits the writer from furthering an invented universe.

Handler quoted a fan letter that complimented him by saying, "I enjoy your books. I am always curious when things happen." He underscored the simplicity of that statement, and how the more interesting parts of our own lives, the parts worth retelling, are not morality tales or formulaic episodes, but rather the honest, bizarre and unexpected moments that arise when stuff happens.

When stuff happens. His great magic trick as a writer is knowing instinctively what "stuff" is worth happening, and what is worth leaving behind. I hope one day to understand that maneuver myself.