Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Gates of Excellence by Katherine Paterson

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book was Katherine Paterson’s ability to find exactly the right quote from a panoply of writers to reinforce her own thoughts and opinions. The book is comprised of various lectures and acceptance speeches mixed with reviews of other writers’ books and personal essays.

At the beginning of the book, when Paterson is asked when she wanted to be a writer, she explains that it was her love of reading that made her want to “get inside the process (Paterson, p. 2)” not that she ever wanted to be a writer at all. In this opening essay, she shares two items in her office that apparently protect her from her “terror of mediocrity.” One is a Greek quote borrowed from Edith Hamilton which also provides the title for this collection:

Before the gates of excellence
The high gods have placed sweat (Ibid, p. 3).

The other is a mounted Charles Schultz cartoon of Snoopy typing, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Snoopy then remarks, “Good writing is hard work.” I’m not sure the Greeks actually said “sweat” but the point is both remind her that she is a worker, not a part of some gifted group bestowing their words on “less fortunate mortals (Ibid p.3).”

In her Velma Varner lecture from 1979, she compares words to water. They are just as precious and necessary to life, but when both are plentiful, we have a tendency to waste them or not appreciate them. She gives the example of visiting Japan and being so frustrated at not being able to make herself understood because she did not have the words in that language. She wanted the people to know her as she was in her own language. She found a strong identification with Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker when she was “starving for words (Ibid p.7).”

Paterson personifies the dilemma of those of us caught between two cultures. She felt misunderstood in Japan but when she returned to the United States, she found that Americans did not understand or appreciate who she had become. Being entwined in two cultures changes us and makes us belong to both and neither at the same time. I thought about the many times I have been in a room full of people letting the music of Chinese wash over me, understanding words here and there, belonging and being other, or different, in the same moment.

In this same lecture on “Words,” she tries to define why humans have a need, a compulsion, for language and she quotes from Jacob Bronowski’s The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination:

The world is totally connected. Whatever explanation we invent at any moment is a partial connection and its richness derives from the richness of such connections that we are able to make. . . . The act of imagination is the opening of the system so that it shows new connections (Ibid p.11).

This could be a watchword for all of us who consider ourselves to be writers. It seems especially a propos for travel writers. Isn’t travel writing all about the connectedness among us all?

In the same essay, Paterson shares a story about how her book The Great Gilly Hopkins provided a connection for a young student named Eddie. A teacher had read the book aloud to her special reading class and when Paterson visited the school, Eddie bean questioning her about the book and the characters. Her point is that someone had to make that connection for Eddie. According to Paterson “Someone had to first give him the words.” Eddie’s “teacher believed that Eddie had a right to the words-- had a need for the words, even if no one else, not even Eddie did (Ibid p.16).”

Paterson also believes in the power of good stories and great writing. She had never read Homer’s Odyssey until she was 46 years old even though for many years she had been told she should read it. Now she was wondering did any of those people who recommended it ever read it? She says the reason Odyssey lasted for three thousand years is “because it is a simply marvelous story (Ibid, p.17).” That makes me think of the hatred most students have for Shakespeare, which can be attributed to poor or uninspired, uninformed teaching of Shakespeare, who was a marvelous story teller, at high school level.

Her article, “Dog Day Wonder” has the flavor of nature writing. She describes in delicate detail every step of a cicada shedding its skin. She quotes Rachel Carson from her book, A Sense of Wonder, where Carson says she would ask the good fairy that every child be given “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life. . . (Ibid, p.20).” I would hope as writers we all cultivate and keep that “sense of wonder” in all of our work.

Paterson speaks about sentimentality and creativity. She attempts to identify the difference between cheap sentimentality that deliberately plays on our emotions and a deeper response that can be life changing. As a writer she admits that she doesn’t get “a perfect pearl every time (Ibid p.26)” but she strives for that sense of true characters in her writing.

She sent me to my beloved Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary published in 1953 because she says the word “creativity” doesn’t even appear in her 1971 Oxford (Ibid, p. 32). I think the word has just gone through some evolution because certainly I found “creativeness” and what really is the difference? The point is she is talking about concepts that are difficult to pin down or define, like creativity and freedom. What do they really mean? She freely admits to borrowing form her family and friends for her plots and characters even when it is unintentional.

She believes that the age range and length recommendations for her novels and others are rather arbitrary. A reading level test was applied to The Master Puppeteer and it was found to be two grade levels higher that Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying which was determined to be sixth grade level. She uses this to illustrate that she find very little limitations in her writing. Her subject matter has included death, prostitution, illegitimate birth, suicide and more, all for young readers (Ibid pp.33-34).

In the essay “A Song of Innocence and Experience,” she explains that, “Art has the power to change life (Ibid p.44).” She further says that, “this is what my intent has been and must continue to be.” She finds this to be a terrifying concept. When she has been asked who she writes for, she has often explained that she writes for herself. What she means is that she has inside of her the “weird little kid (Ibid p.100)” she once was. Apparently she has the gift of remembering that child inside her and gives us a little bit of that child in every book she writes. She is qualified to write for children because she still carries the child that she was inside.

She is kind and generous when she reviews other writers’ books such as All Together Now by Sue Ellen Bridger, Ramona and her Father by Beverly Cleary, The Disappearance by Rosa Guy, Children of the Fox by Jill Paton Walsh and Absolute Zero by Helen Cresswell. Maybe I am in the wrong time frame but I was not familiar with any of these books and her critique made me want to explore them. But of much greater interest to me was her evaluation of her own books that I have become familiar with including Bridge to Terebithia, Jacob Have I Loved, The Master Puppeteer and Lyddie. I felt that I knew her characters even better and that I knew Katherine Paterson much better.

Much in this collection of personal essays carried me back to my own childhood when I was also a “weird little kid” who lived in the library and devoured every book that came my way. Even her inspiration for writing The Master Puppeteer crossed over my past. She mentions Bunraku puppetry coming to the Kennedy Center (Ibid, p. 83). I thought that can only be a magical production they did years ago of The Tale of Peter Rabbit where Peter was played by a man on pointe and Farmer MacGregor was a giant towering to the top of the proscenium arch.

We cannot always identify that moment in time that inspires a new story in us but how wonderful it is when that spark comes and delivers a new idea, or as Paterson explains it, a seed that germinates and we hope will grow to be a full plant.

Paterson was asked by a child, “Is your story true?” and she replied, “I hope so. I meant for it to be true (Ibid, pp. 56-57).” I hope that is so for all of us who aspire to write for children. Every book that begins with “once upon a time . . .” or a hand clapping griot who gives us “a story, a story” is opening a door for children and it should be meant for true.

1 comment:

  1. The book Gates of Excellence by Katherine Paterson came by mail yesterday. I could hardly put it down. I truly enjoyed it.
    Katherine's down-to-earth reflections on Reading and Writing for Children and her understanding of the child´s needs and the natural way that Words give new meaning to even difficult experiences in Life.
    I grew up in foreign countries and came to my parents' home country. I was blessed by being able to read books in several languages. I've found even Katherine's books in Finland, both in Swedish and Finnish. I've ordered some in English through internet . Low funds force me to choose a few at a time.
    I try my hand at writing - and this book is an encouragement to any writer!