The Imaginary World and the Real World

The Canadian Rockies on a cloudy day

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt, taken from page 99, describes how my creative life and my real life run parallel, emotionally speaking. If I’m feeling positive, my stories are positive. If I’m sad, the stories in my mind are also sad. And if I’m ill in real life, it takes a lot of mental strength for me to picture healthy, active characters. This doesn’t mean that I can’t write about happy events on sad days. It just means that it requires more willpower.

For this reason, I counsel part-time writers to hoard their emotional strength and not to beat themselves up and try to force themselves to write when they’re feeling too drained to cope with it. I also suggest that part-time writers try their best to work on fiction-writing early in the day. The novel a part-time writer writes in the predawn hush before the children wake up will be quite different from the novel that same writer writes at the end of the day, after things have gone sour at work, the dog has thrown up, and the baby has refused to fall asleep.

The events related in the excerpt below take place immediately after my older daughter, Valerie, ran away from college and cut off all ties with her doctors and her family. Valerie had been struggling with severe depression and anxiety for two years at this point, and she had spent time in two different hospitals, with one stay lasting eight weeks. When her therapist strongly recommended another hospital stay, Valerie refused to consider it, and she took off into the unknown with two friends she had met on the Internet. She counts herself very fortunate indeed that those young men turned out to be the honest, well-meaning people they had purported to be. Many young women in Valerie’s circumstances haven’t been so lucky.

I crumpled. I did. After a solid year of worry, of anguish, of panicky insomniac plans for how to drag my family whole and entire through the next day—the next week—the next year—I curled up under a mound of blankets and shut down.

I had no more thoughts. No more hopes. No dreams.

I lay motionless and watched gray blobs float across the salmon-colored dusk inside my eyelids. Or I opened my eyes and watched the flimsy shadows of tree branches slide across the cool blue wallpaper of the bedroom. Occasionally, stripy cat Tor might jump up and make a warm nest at my feet. Occasionally, a bird might sing outside. In the evening, Joe or Elena would come in and stand by the bed. But when I heard the door open, I would pretend to be asleep.

I hid my injured soul away inside my safest, most comforting daydreams. I lay in bed, and my imagination brought me other worlds where characters lay in bed. They lay between crisp sheets in a tuberculosis hospital, surrounded by snow and fir trees and the clean, clear, ice-cold mountain air. Or they lay paralyzed in rose-scented hot baths while encouraging attendants massaged their shattered limbs.

The best doctors and nurses tiptoed in and out of my daydreams and brought my characters relief and care. But they couldn’t get better because I couldn’t get better. They would never get well again.

A part of me was missing now, torn out of my soul. Call it trust. Call it hope for the future. Whatever it was, that piece of my soul had kept me going through all those anxious months.

But it was gone now. My daughter had taken it with her.

And my daughter . . .

My daughter was gone.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of the Canadian Rockies on a cloudy day copyright 2010 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Creativity, Daily life, Hope and Other Luxuries, Writing craft, Writing distractions | Leave a comment

Characters as Their Own People

Costume display in a shop in Riga, Latvia

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

Today’s excerpt deals with one of the most difficult things to explain to non-writers: the independence of our own characters. We writers glibly talk about how our characters fascinate us and how they do completely unexpected things, and we can sense non-writers’ disbelief when we say this. In fact, I can feel non-writers extending to me the same disbelieving indulgence we often extend to overly enthusiastic pet owners when they relate the anthropomorphized antics of their “fur babies.” I can feel non-writers thinking, Yeah, but she just made that character up. It’s not doing anything on its own. Of course she’s just told it what to do.

But I haven’t.

Again, I’ll turn to dreams for a comparison. You make up your own dreams: they take place inside your own head, out of your own imagination. The characters in them are just something you made up. And yet those characters often surprise you, or even terrify you. How can that be possible?

It’s possible the same way my characters can surprise me.

My new stories come to me as snippets of film, as a kind of guided dream. By the time I start to write, I’ve watched enough “film” to have a rough idea of what’s going to happen. But I won’t really get to know my characters until I’ve followed them around for an entire first draft and watched them during lots of small moments. Because it’s one thing to know that a character is forgetful, but it’s another thing to see that character forgetting and then trying to cover up that forgetting, minute by minute, in interactions with family and friends. Then I can see just what that forgetfulness costs my character, how she feels about it, and what habits and tricks of speech she’s developed to gloss over those awkward moments. Is she embarrassed? Is she annoyed with herself? Does she even care? The rough draft will teach me those things.

In today’s excerpt, I’ve just noticed in my daughter Valerie some suspicious behavior that I had previously only seen in a character: Miranda, the protagonist of In the Coils of the Snake. Without knowing Miranda, I don’t think I would have picked up on this dangerous behavior so quickly.

Again, it’s hard to explain to non-writers just how much we writers learn about life by observing our characters. Take the habit in question today: cutting, or self-harm. Non-writers tend to think about that habit in complete isolation, without exploring its context: “Cutting? That’s ridiculous! Damaging the body like that. I’d never do such a thing!” But if a writer has a character who cuts, that writer doesn’t have the luxury of isolation anymore. I had to watch Miranda’s habit unfolding within the context of her whole personality and the circumstances of her life. I was forced to confront how similar cutting is to certain nervous habits I myself had had. And that gave me a tremendous amount of empathy and compassion for Miranda—feelings I was then able to feel for my injured daughter. We got Valerie to psychiatric treatment right away.

This excerpt comes from page 75.

A day or so later, I noticed Valerie’s hand. I stopped and took a closer look. It wasn’t the alternating blue and black nail polish on her fingers. I was used to that by this time. Joe threw out her bottles of dark nail polish, but she kept getting her hands on new ones.

No, this was different: a round red scab. It looked odd. It looked . . . wrong.

“Valerie!” I said. “What happened there?”

“Oh, that,” she said. “It’s no big deal. It’s just a burn.” And then, looking oddly pleased: “It doesn’t even hurt.”

Doesn’t hurt? What kind of burn doesn’t hurt?

“Is that—Valerie, were you smoking? Is that a cigarette burn?”

“Yeah, Momma, but it wasn’t me, it was Matthias. Just an accident—you know, talking with his hands.”

“Oh. Okay . . .”

That afternoon, I went up to the garret room and tried to spend time with Martin. I stared at the keyboard and tried to go to his colorful, artificial world. But instead, it was another character my imagination kept showing me, a beautiful auburn-haired girl, richly dressed, with a Mona Lisa smile on her face. Her brown eyes were cool and worldly, but her fingers, quick and nervous, were ripping away at torn skin.

It was an old habit. Miranda had hoarded her injuries even when she was very small for the pleasure of watching Marak heal them. Later, she had sneaked the nursemaid’s scissors to administer her own cuts. It made her proud to bear pain without a murmur: she felt that she had mastered herself. Some days, when the household was particularly harsh to her, it seemed the only thing she could control.

I hadn’t intended to write about this topic. It was Miranda’s own idea. But I could pinpoint the exact moment when I had learned her secret. I was watching her carry on witty conversation with the goblin King. Her face was a perfect mask, smiling and beautiful. But down at her side, her fingers—those nervous fingers—

Miranda’s a cutter! I had said to myself with that shock of true discovery that comes when a character does something unexpected. Of course! She’s under so much stress, she has to have an outlet. Pain brings her a little relief.

And when I had said that—was I remembering myself as a little grade-school freak, tearing open scabs of my own?

The pain was like a friend, sharing her silent vigil . . .

Oh, yes. I had understood.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books and Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. Photo of a costume display in a shop in Riga, Latvia, copyright 2015 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Characters, Creativity, Hope and Other Luxuries, Writing craft | Leave a comment

Many of you know my daughter Elena as the protagonist of her memoir about adolescent anorexa nervosa, Elena Vanishing. And some of you write to me occasionally to ask how she’s doing. I thought I’d bring you up to date.

Elena’s recovery is almost a miracle. At death’s door eight years ago, Elena is now a busy wife, hospice nurse, and mother of two. She is involved in the lives of everyone and everything around her, from her husband and children who come to her constantly with every sort of query or need and the dogs who follow her around all day long to the crows and robins who gripe at the window when their feeders are empty and the squirrel who swears sleepily at the dogs each morning from its cozy home in an old birdhouse. Elena is interested in all of them and constantly relates to us their ups and downs. Even the plants she has rescued one by one from the last-ditch sale table at the local supermarket and nursed back to health have their own tastes and habits. Many have names.

Flower with garden gnome

Of course, Elena has fish. Of course! It began with the betta she and her husband rescued from its prison in a filthy coffee cup at a relative’s house. But we all knew it wouldn’t stop there. And it hasn’t.


Elena has handsome purebreds in her tanks, but the oddballs are welcome, too. There’s the gorgeous silver goldfish, pulled out of a tank of feeder fish as a gift from a store employee. And there are the crazy catfish dudes, four small dark spotted anomalies that showed up in a pet store’s shipment of new cory cats. Purists would rush to destroy such unwelcome hybrids. Elena volunteered to take them home. We have no idea what their pedigree is, but the cories love them, and the pleco loves them too. They often join him in swimming lazily upside down.

(Update: the breeder later contacted the store and said that bag of fish had been sent by mistake. It was supposed to go to an expert. The breeder thinks the crazy catfish dudes are pictus catfish/cory cat hybrids and was sending them off to find out their pedigree. Elena says the breeder is welcome to contact her about them, but they’re tremendous fun, and she has no intention of giving them up.)

Weird hybrid cory cat

Elena’s fish kingdom is constantly expanding. Her fish don’t just eat, poop, and die sideways-drifting deaths like the fish of the rest of us do. No, in one of Elena’s tanks, they find life good. Pretty soon, the most unbreedable fish start digging nests and guarding eggs, and in weeks, improbably minuscule fry are darting about, doing their best to avoid the hungry grown-ups. Elena doesn’t interfere in this process: “I just let nature take its course.” This means that only the occasional youngster makes it. Elena celebrates life, but as a hospice nurse, she celebrates life in its full circle.

The circle of life is going on right now in one of Elena’s “empty” tanks. The fish from that tank moved up to a larger tank, and Elena threw some ghost shrimp into the old tank to clean it up. The tiniest feeder guppy fry imaginable made it home with the ghost shrimp and has since tripled in size. Now the shrimp are “laying” eggs—which isn’t what shrimp actually do. Actually, they fling their hatching eggs out onto the current to struggle through infancy as best they can. A few tiny clear shrimp babies are now doing just that, looking very much like little exclamation marks with eyes. Meanwhile, the other shrimp are living out their tribal existence, which seems to involve much more slapping than I would have expected.

Ghost shrimp resting on a plant

Elena is delighted, of course. She keeps us all updated constantly on how the baby guppy and baby shrimp are doing. So far, they’re surviving quite well.

“But what will you do with a hundred ghost shrimp?” I wrote her, dismayed.

“Nurture them!” she wrote back. And at the end of the message, she added the “hug” emoji, a smiling face and open arms.

That fits. Elena welcomes everything with open arms. That’s how she welcomes life itself.

Text copyright 2017 by Clare B. Dunkle. Photos copyright 2017 by Elena Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted on by Clare Dunkle | 4 Comments

Writing distractions

Wax statue at the Netherlands Open Air Museum (Nederlands Openluchtmuseum) Arnhem, the Netherlands

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt deals with the writing of my fifth book, The Sky Inside. This was a particularly challenging time for our family. Joe was regularly having to work twelve-hour days. The rape of Elena at thirteen, a deep dark secret at this point, had completely altered her personality. It had wrecked Elena’s relationship with her sister and the happiness of all of us. Witnessing the girls’ misery, I had removed them from the boarding school, and they were finishing the school year in a correspondence-course program. I was having trouble handling the grading and the bad attitudes of my angry daughters.

In all of this, I still tried to write, and as usual, my writing was an exploration of and an antidote for the problems I was facing in my daily life. But it was a process filled with distractions and unhappiness.

This excerpt begins on page 67.

I created a new Word file. It would be the future home of Martin, a thirteen-year-old boy. He looked like my husband had looked at thirteen, and he lived in a kind of parallel future. That was almost all I knew about him.

Now, I stared at the white Word page and waited for my imagination to take over. What is Martin’s world like? I wondered.

I could answer all of your mail in five minutes.

I shook my head like an Etch A Sketch to reset the movie playing there.

Not my world. Martin’s world!

Vague patches of color began to blossom in my mind and block out the view of the white screen. Bright colors. Grape soda. Gummy candy.

Jell-O—that was it! Bright Jell-O colors.

Almost the first thing I see, when I start to work on a book, is patches or pools of color. These colors set the palette for the whole book. Kate and Marak’s story had started with clear forest greens, along with deep-hued satin and the sparkle of gems. In spite of its gloom, it was a rich, sumptuous world.

My werewolf’s world had been smudged and gritty, with gray peat smoke, flickering firelight, and the bright red of spilled blood.

Martin’s world was going to be colorful, I could see that already. It was too colorful, in fact—highly artificial. It was clean, I could see that, too. I took a closer look into the patches of color. Now I could see bright plastic flowers stuck on window glass.

What are they doing here? I wondered.

It was spring. That’s why those flower stickers were there. This world had no trees, no flowers, no bugs. That was all this world had left of springtime.

And now I could see brick around that window. A brick wall. A garage door. A front door. It looked like the door of an apartment or condo: a flat metal door with a peephole.

What’s inside? I wondered.

A living room. A little living room. Here was the easy chair, here was the couch. And over here were stacks of papers to grade—I had so many papers to grade! And unfriendly, angry eyes.

Why should I care what some mythical teacher in Washington State thinks about me?

Again, I squeezed my eyes shut and gave a little shake. Not my world! I needed to see Martin’s world! Hadn’t this been easy once upon a time? Hadn’t I had to fight to keep my dreamy head in the real world? Now I was having to fight to keep the real world out!

Slowly, the living room came into focus again. The biggest thing in it was the television. It was on. It had no switches or buttons. It couldn’t be turned off. It was the most exciting thing in the whole boring room—the most passionate thing in Martin’s whole world.

“The ALLDOG!” the television shrieked. “Large or small, sleek or fuzzy—all the dogs you ever wanted rolled into one!”

What does a computerized dog look like? I wondered.

Images flashed through my imagination. Exactly like a real dog, full of energy. Boundless energy and hopeful enthusiasm.

I needed some hopeful enthusiasm right now. I started typing.

A large object struck Martin in the chest, knocking his chair to the ground. Something heavy proceeded to dance on him. He gave it a shove and got a look at it. A big golden-coated collie was attacking him in a frenzy of affection, licking his face and yelping ecstatically.

I smiled. I loved that dog. I loved the affection.

“He’s all yours, son,” Dad said, helping Martin to his feet. “They had us send in your photo and a dirty sock and programmed him right at the factory.”

I laughed. It made sense, practically speaking. But it also tickled my fancy.

The collie, unable to contain itself any longer, began swimming forward on its belly. When its nose rested on Martin’s sneaker, it toppled sideways and began running in place. Its warm brown eyes never left his face for a second.

“‘The Alldog,’” read Martin’s little sister Cassie, “‘is the perfect pet and particularly good with children. Do not place your Alldog in a strong magnetic field. Some assembly required.’”

“Mom?” came the voice from downstairs.

It was Valerie. But Valerie and Elena had had me all day, and they had snapped at me all day. Surely I could have a little time to myself. I kept typing.

Now I was in Martin’s room, and he and Cassie were talking, but things weren’t so happy anymore. Martin didn’t like his dog, no matter what kind of dog it changed into. It kept switching dog breeds to try to please him, but nothing worked.

Because that’s what warmth and enthusiasm brings you these days, I thought sadly. It doesn’t necessarily win you friends.

Footsteps sounded on the stairs, and the garret door pushed open.

“Hey, Momma,” Valerie said as she came in and sat down on the floor. “Did you ever play the guitar?”

“Um . . . No.”

A little cream-colored Chihuahua came crawling out from under the bed, whip tail curled between skinny legs. Its large ears lay against its round head like crumpled Kleenex, and tiny whimpers rose from it at every breath. Its enormous brown eyes practically held tears.

I had it all: the feel of it, the sound of it, the way the room looked, the emotions, the next four or five paragraphs. But it was slipping. I could feel it slipping. I squinted with concentration.

“I used to play Gabi’s guitar,” Valerie said. “Do you know the band Echt?”

“Uh-uh,” I muttered, still typing.

But the Chihuahua began to look more and more like Kleenex, and that looked like crumpled paper. Stacks of school papers gathered in drifts in Martin’s room. I could see that they hadn’t been graded yet.

“Before I left the school, I bought a Toten Hosen CD,” Valerie said. “Do you know the Toten Hosen?”

Toten Hosen? Dead pants? A pair of black pants went walking through Martin’s room, stepping over the stacks of school papers.

“Dead pants?” I heard myself ask. “What kind of a band name is that?”

“They were supposed to be the Roten Rosen, the Red Roses,” Valerie said. “But a drunk fan called them the Toten Hosen.”

Now the black pants walking through Martin’s room had bold red roses embroidered on their pockets. The Chihuahua was a crumpled-up essay because Seriously, Mom! What difference does it make? The collection of words waiting to be racked into the next several paragraphs dripped and flowed into messy, sticky clumps of phrases with no meaning.

Then it was over. I was back in the garret room.

But did it even matter? Who would want to read this book, anyway? Joe didn’t have time these days. And let’s face it: my whole family thought that my writing was a waste of time.

Or maybe they just hated to share me.

So I closed the file. Good-bye, Martin. I hope I see you tomorrow.

And I said, “So, tell me about these Dead Pants.”

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books and Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Photo of a wax statue at the Netherlands Open Air Museum (Nederlands Openluchtmuseum), Arnhem, the Netherlands, copyright 2014 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Creativity, Hope and Other Luxuries, Story creation, Writing craft, Writing distractions | Leave a comment

Jungian archetypes in writing

Clare B. Dunkle on a bridge in Rothenberg ob der Tauber

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt deals with story creation.

As I worked on my memoir, I sought the help of a fabulous Jungian therapist in the Kaiserslautern area, Eva Theiss (or Eva Theiß in German), to help me make sense of my own story. Eva was a genius when it came to dream exploration, and as we worked together, she confirmed what I had already begun to sense on my own: my stories are like waking dreams in which I work out problems of concern to my conscious and subconscious mind. This explains why the creation of my stories often seems to be out of my control, and it also explains why my stories often seem to arrive from nowhere, ready-made, so that I usually have no answer to the ubiquitous author questions, Where do you get your ideas? or Why did you make x happen?

Carl Jung avidly studied his own dreams as well as the dreams of others. He came to believe that, just as a crystal forms itself in a certain predictable order out of the chaos of a saturated liquid, so our psyches order themselves using certain predictable story episodes and characters which then appear over and over in our dreams. Jung called these ordering elements archetypes. Jung’s point wasn’t that all of us share exactly the same archetype: my “shadow” archetype is not your “shadow” archetype, for example, and the importance of that archetype to me and to you will differ based on our psyches’ formation. But your archetype and my archetype may display eerie similarities that cut across time, place, or cultural boundaries. That’s because, Jung would argue, those archetypes come from structures already inside our minds, and possibly inside our brains themselves.

In other words, Jung would say that the trickster god (Loki, Coyote, Hermes, Vainamoinen, or Reynard the Fox) appears all over the world in stories (Gollum, anyone?) because to some extent or another, the trickster god already exists, ready-made but empty of detail, as a structure within each one of us human beings. How our psyches form dictates how that archetype forms within us and what it comes to represent in the landscape of our minds.

Whether or not this innate psychological ordering is universal and whether or not it affects all authors’ creation processes, I don’t know. I’m not a psychologist. But I do know that Jung’s ideas describe my story process very well. My stories come out of a need, a concern, a question, or a problem that I’m actively trying to manage. They contain scenes that often are an elaborate pictorial metaphor for the state of my life at the time. In effect, my inner mind creates a puppet show for me out of the worries and feelings I’m struggling with at the moment—or out of the worries and feelings I’ve struggled with all my life. When I look back on a story later, I can usually pinpoint exactly why that story mattered to me then and why I needed to experience it. I can even pinpoint exactly which scenes in the story mattered the most to me—and why.

The excerpt below, which appears on page 47 of Hope and Other Luxuries, begins to explore those Jungian parallels between my life and my story worlds. It begins as Joe and I dropped our daughters off at the boarding school to begin their second school year. By this time, my first book, The Hollow Kingdom, had been accepted for publication at Holt, and Holt had also purchased the other two Hollow Kingdom adventures I’d written as letters to my girls for publication as well. Only now did I begin to work on an entirely new project: By These Ten Bones, a werewolf story. This excerpt highlights the reason I felt deeply drawn to the main character of By These Ten Bones: the protagonist was the young me, reimagined as a monster.

I watched my two girls, happy and animated, chattering away with their friends. My daughters are popular, I thought in amazement. They are actually popular at school. I realized that even if I told them what school had been like for me—about how it had felt to be the school freak for years—they wouldn’t be able to understand.

That was a strange feeling for me, both happy and sad.

Finally, the last bag was up in the room where it belonged, and Joe and I felt the welcome needlessness of our presence. So deep were our girls in catching up with their friends that they had to make an effort to remember we were there.

First, I went to Valerie’s room and hugged her good-bye.

“Look after yourself, Mom,” she said with her usual wisdom. “And hurry up and send me that new chapter.”

Then I made my way down to Elena’s room and hugged her.

“I love you, Mom,” she told me. “Write lots!”

“And you will, too, won’t you?” Joe said as we walked to the car. “Write lots, now that they’re back at school.”

I gave a little sigh of happiness.

“I certainly hope so.”

The atmosphere of the house reverted to quiet. The cat moved back down to the living room sofa. The dog caught up on his rest. I missed my girls, but I had a new youngster to worry about now: Paul, a woodcarver who lived in the Middle Ages in the Highlands of Scotland.

There was a fragile quality to his hands as they turned the wood. They were bone-white, the fingers long and slender. There was a fragile quality, too, to the hunch of his lanky shoulders. Shaggy black hair fell into his face as he bent over his work.

Like the changeling child of my own early years, Paul was an outcast. He was carrying a terrible secret. His kind—the werewolf kind—kill the people they love . . . if they aren’t killed first, that is.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of Clare B. Dunkle on a bridge in Rothenberg ob der Tauber copyright 2002 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Hope and Other Luxuries, Jungian archetypes, Story creation, Writing craft | Leave a comment

Finding a Publisher

Crest at Tübingen University (Universität Tübingen), Germany

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

The following excerpt, beginning on page 36 of the book, talks about how I found my first editor, Reka Simonsen, who was then at Henry Holt & Co. Or perhaps I should say that it talks about how she found me.

Incidentally, this section describes me doing a final readthrough of The Hollow Kingdom while on a train to Paris. Years afterwards, a reader tweeted that he was reading The Hollow Kingdom while on a train to Paris. That made me smile. The book had come full-circle.

A few more weeks of quiet passed, with just the sleepy dog and cat for company, and the goblin King’s story was complete. I printed it out and read the whole thing through on a train to Paris while Joe watched sunny fields rolling past our window.

“What do you think I ought to change?” I asked Joe as the train rocked us gently back and forth.

“Why should anything change? It’s a great story.”

“I just don’t know if this is it yet, though. I need help with it.”

“But how could it change? It’s finished. It’s all already there.”

“No. That’s only one way the story could be.” And I tried to convey to his tidy engineering brain how the story felt in my mind: like a map, maybe, or like a country covered over with dozens of different paths. Just as the train and the highway both connected our city to Paris, so one story path instead of another would cause the whole feeling of the story to change. But somehow, it was still the same place in my mind. The same country. The same world.

“I don’t get it,” Joe said finally. “I wouldn’t mess with it. I think it’s fine the way it is.”

“Well, what do you think I should do with it, then?”

He looked very serious. “I think you should send it somewhere.”

“It’s not a bad story,” I conceded. “I studied teen literature in library school, so I know what a young adult novel should look like. And I don’t think I’m bragging here, either. It’s really not bad.”

“Then do it!” he said. “Get it published. You could be a famous author and make me a million dollars. That would be amazing!”

“Oh, please!” I said. “It doesn’t work that way. Everybody wants to be a famous author! Do you know how many people are trying to get published right this minute? Everybody’s written a book.”

“I haven’t.”

“Well, everybody else has, and they’re all fighting to get their name into print. That takes years of hard work, rejections, begging, letter writing . . . You know me—I don’t have that kind of patience.”

“Publishing doesn’t look that hard,” Joe said. “I was on the web the other night, and there are these publishers all over the place who say they can help you get published. One of them could turn your story into a book.”

“So I could—what? Use it as a paperweight?” I countered. “That’s not the way to get a book to readers. The publishers who get their books into bookstores aren’t waiting to hold my hand. They’re the big places in New York City: Scholastic; Simon & Schuster; Holt; Penguin; Harcourt; Little, Brown . . .”

As I said the names, they echoed back to me from my earliest childhood, from long summer days spent sitting in the corners of offices, listening to the literature professors talk. I had heard many conversations about the New York publishing companies, about their mergers and ruptures, their tastes and trends, and their triumphs and disasters. In my childish mind, these institutions had loomed large but mysterious: the venerable guardians of society and culture, like noble families lodged in great castles. Their logos—the farmer scattering seeds, the sprinting torchbearer, the boxy double H—had seemed to me no different from the quaint images on knights’ shields in my mother’s old books.

There was the House of Tudor, and there was Random House. The main difference, to my young mind, was that Random House seemed to use its wealth more wisely.

But all of this was lost on Joe. He had spent his childhood playing Little League.

“Well, aren’t writers supposed to get agents or something?” he asked. “The agent does the letter writing and begging for you, right?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “I don’t know anything about agents. I guess I ought to find out how this works.”

When we got back from vacation, we both turned to the Internet. I looked for information about agents while Joe went through a stack of YA books from the girls’ rooms and searched the websites of their various publishers.

“There’s this book that lists all the agents,” I told him when we reconvened. “But it’s not at the library, and it’s not in our bookstore, either. I can ask my mother to copy the young-adult agents’ pages and send them to me.”

“Well, it looks like that’s the only way you’ll get published,” Joe said. “The publishers in this stack won’t give you the time of day unless you’ve got an agent. Except one—they’ll look at your manuscript as long as you give them a couple of months to do it. It’s”—he pulled out a Post-it note and consulted it—“Henry Holt and Company.”

“Holt? Oh, that’s nice,” I said. “They published Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series.”

Even to the engineer beside me, that comment had meaning. Lloyd Alexander is my hero. I loved his Prydain books so much as a child that when the girls were old enough for them, I’d sat the whole family down, including Joe, and we had read them out loud together.

“What great books!” Joe said, his eyes dreamy. “Wouldn’t it be great if your book could come out from the same place that published his?”

I laughed. “Please! It’s not going to happen.”

Nevertheless, I had nothing to lose except the cost of a box and some printing paper, so the next morning, Joe posted a bulky package to New York City. Then I got on the phone with my mother to request the photocopies.

A thick packet of copied pages arrived a couple of weeks later. I brewed an extra-strong cup of coffee and sat down to read through them. Page fees, commissions, percentages, extra charges, instructions on what not to send—my heart sank as I slogged along.

This wasn’t my idea of the venerable guardianship of culture. It felt more like selling a used car. This was exactly that uncaring world, that shark-toothed, dog-eat-dog world that was the antimatter to my worlds of imagination.

Market analysis and genre breakdowns . . . what did that have to do with magic and wonder?

Oh, well, I thought. At least I gave it a look. And I set the stack of photocopies aside and did other things. I think I may even have finished the ironing.

Weeks went by. The photocopies started to gather dust. Meanwhile, Joe kept talking about publishers and contracts.

“Did you find some people to send your story to?” he asked.

“Not today,” I said. “I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow.” And maybe tomorrow is exactly where my publishing career would have stayed. But that’s when it happened: that’s when something so extraordinary took place that it could have come right out of my dreamworlds.

The email materialized in my inbox late at night, like a disembodied voice from another dimension:

Dear Ms. Dunkle,

The Hollow Kingdom managed to fall into the hands of the editor here at Holt who would most appreciate it. I am a big fan of this kind of fantasy, and I very much enjoyed reading your novel . . .

Was I asleep? Was I actually reading this?

Here was no hard-bitten analysis of fees and markets. This was the voice of a friend, a kindred spirit, telling me what was great in my story—and what could improve. As I read her suggestions, I felt them fall into place in my mind. Of course! I had known those were problems, hadn’t I?

If you’d like to discuss anything I’ve said (or haven’t said), that magical letter concluded, please feel free to email or call me. And there followed the contact information of a real, live editor ensconced in one of those semimythical castles of my childhood—the actual number of an actual phone that rang on an actual desk halfway up an actual skyscraper in the heart of really-truly New York City.

Joe’s proposal of marriage didn’t sweep me off my feet the way that midnight email did. I wandered to bed in a rainbow-colored haze, in a cloud of pure, blissful romance. I was every bit as happy and giddy as any girl who ever went to a ball. All I needed was a rose to hold as I drifted off to sleep.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of a crest at Tübingen University (Universität Tübingen), Germany, copyright 2014 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Books and reading, Editors, Hope and Other Luxuries, Publishing, Writing craft | Leave a comment

Writing My First Novel

Moreton Bay fig trees, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Poipu, Kauai

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

The following excerpt, beginning on page 34 of the book, relates how I wrote the manuscript that became my first published book, The Hollow Kingdom.

Working on that story was slow going at first. I hadn’t written fiction in almost a quarter of a century, not since I’d had fiction assignments in middle school. As much as I had always loved books and writing, I had hated to share my stories. They weren’t for the outside world. They were the very things that kept me safe from that outside world.

Now, as I watched this movie in my head, I struggled to find the best way to capture what I was seeing in words. “Not right,” I muttered as I backspaced over half an hour’s hard work. “The sentences don’t lead into one another. They stutter. The image they create is blurry. And right here, the word dark is too . . . flimsy. I need a heavier word.”

Because writing isn’t just a question of setting down accurate images, as I had known from birth, and possibly before, if doctors are right that unborn children listen to their mothers’ voices. There was the rhythm of the sentences to consider, the pauses for breath, and the placement of critical words. As a story unfolds, the words have to flow like a river. That’s how a good book casts its spell. That’s how the words and pages disappear completely and the reader falls into the writer’s world. My literature-loving mother had taught my writer’s ear to listen for balance.

As those spring days slowly passed, I sat at the keyboard and marveled at what was happening on the screen. I would agonize for hours, barely coming up with more than a page or two of prose, and the whole thing would seem like a hopeless waste of time. But the next morning, I would read those couple of pages, and the scene would unfold before my eyes, just as if I myself were reading a book I’d never read before.

What happens next? I asked myself each morning when I came to the last sentence. Let’s get to work. I want to see what happens next!

That’s how the first couple of weeks passed: hours of struggle followed by moments of sheer excitement. Then the goblin King stepped in, and I lost myself in the story. He was so much fun to write!

My new hobby enchanted Joe. He sat down with that day’s new pages the minute he walked through the door each night.

“I don’t know how you do it!” he gushed. “This is the best novel I’ve ever read!”

“It’s just about the only novel you’ve read,” I pointed out. “You know you’ve never been a fiction guy.”

But that didn’t make the compliments any less fun to hear.

Valerie and Elena were thrilled. They adored getting their letters. They called me up and pumped me for information about goblins, as if I were a paparazzo who followed around living people rather than a writer who made things up. Kate and Marak were as real to them as their own friends were—as real as they were to me, in fact.

“When I get a letter,” Elena told me on the phone one night, “I run off with it to where it’s quiet. And then, as I read, it’s like you’re telling the story into my ear. I can hear your voice reading me the words.”

That brought tears to my eyes.

“Write more!” she begged me as she said good-bye. “Write more!” echoed Valerie as she took the phone.

After I got off the phone with my girls that night, I sat with that conversation for a while. I leaned in close and warmed my heart at it. Even though it seemed as if my daughters were far away, I could still sit by them in their rooms and whisper my story to them. We weren’t apart while that happened. We transcended time and distance. We were a family.

By the time the girls came home for summer break, I had written hundreds of pages and made my way like a machete-wielding explorer deep into the crisis of the story. Writing had surprised me yet again: I was not remotely in control of this process. My characters were the ones who were in control. It took all I had to keep up with them.

Nothing about who these people were or what they did seemed to be my decision. All I could do was spy on them relentlessly, until I learned things about them that even they barely guessed. Along the way, those characters taught me lessons about hope, endurance, duty, and forgiveness. Their lives were a very serious matter to them. How could they mean any less to me?

Each day that summer, Valerie and Elena dashed by my computer as they played their high-spirited games—sophisticated teens they might be now, but they still were young enough to play. As they passed, they leaned over my shoulder to read the new paragraphs. “Write lots!” they shrieked as they dashed away.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of the Moreton Bay fig trees, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Poipu, Kauai, copyright 2016 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Books and reading, Creativity, Hope and Other Luxuries, Writing craft | Leave a comment

The Creative Process: Imagination

Statue of Diana, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Poipu, Kauai
My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

The following excerpt, beginning on page 29 of the book, details the start of the imaginative journey that became my first published book, The Hollow Kingdom. This incident took place the day after Joe and I dropped our daughters off at boarding school.

The following morning was completely different from any day that had preceded it. Since Valerie’s birth, the welfare of the children had shaped every one of my days. Now they weren’t here, and I wasn’t worried about them. My day seemed to have no shape.

Joe sensed this.

“What do you think you’ll do with yourself today?” he asked me over breakfast.

The thought completely baffled me. I felt simultaneously lighthearted and numb. I felt as if I might be walking in my sleep.

“Maybe I’ll do some cleaning,” I said. “Maybe get a little ironing done.”

“My shirts are starting to pile up,” Joe agreed, getting up to rinse out his coffee cup.

I kissed him good-bye at the door, and then I took my own cup of coffee and wandered the empty rooms. Nothing moved, and nothing made a sound. The old Dalmatian was asleep on his rug. Our old cat might as well have been a couch cushion.

For the first time in fourteen years, I had no children to plan for or care for. I had no job, no schoolwork, no errands, and no projects. I had not a single thing, in short, that had to get done. It was a phenomenon I could barely comprehend.

I’ll clean, I thought as I drifted through the silent spaces. Now that I’m alone, I can get this house whipped into shape. But I didn’t—because, with the imagination I have, it turns out that I am never alone.

When I was little, my imagination terrified me with glimpses of disaster, but it also helped me escape my lonely childhood. I spent days at a time shut away in my room, staring at the wall while my imagination played its movies. Every book I read, I moved into and took over, and I turned my own characters loose in that world to see what would happen. I played with other worlds the way some children play with Legos.

That was fine when I was young and lonely, but once I grew up, I decided that my imagination was a waste of time. All it did was steal energy and attention that ought to belong to others: my family, my home, or my employer. I realized that I must be the only manager in the library who spent half her break time staring at a blank wall.

Through careful attention, I slowly learned to conquer my imagination. It was like stopping any bad habit—like getting a handle on nail-biting. I would catch my mind as soon it started to wander, as soon as I saw that first few seconds of new film. Then I would stamp a neon-green X over the image.

But now, as I sat on the sofa in my empty house and drank my cup of coffee, that mischievous imagination crept up on me unawares. Little by little, a forest of tall, twisted trees wove itself around me. It grew until the walls of my living room faded out, and I could see that it spread for miles: wild, verdant woodland, engulfing tumbled hills and rugged boulders. Beneath its mossy boughs, narrow paths wound away into the shadows.

What is this place? I wondered.

England. Northern England. At the edge of this forest stood an old English mansion. Nearby, sheer cliffs fell to the surface of a deep blue lake.

Who lives here? I wondered.

And two people walked out of the forest, hand in hand—a young woman and a girl.

Who are they? I wondered.

By this time, I had forgotten about cleaning my house. I had forgotten that I even had a house.

The two girls were sisters, Kate and Emily, and they wore dresses with the empire waists and long, trailing skirts of Regency-era England. They appeared to have stepped out of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I realized that Kate, at least, would have loved to find herself in Pride and Prejudice. But, bad luck for her, this was not a Jane Austen world.

There were surprises waiting for the two sisters in this tangle of hoary trees. I glimpsed a large black cat with huge golden eyes—I could tell right away that he wasn’t a regular cat. I spotted a short, ugly gypsy woman who read palms and told fortunes—I was positive that she wasn’t a regular gypsy. I saw a tall, stooped man with a black hood over his face—I was sure that he wasn’t a regular man. He was a brilliant magician and a magnificently ugly monster. He was Marak, my goblin King.

I had sensed Marak’s presence in that twisted old forest even before Kate and Emily had stepped out of it. As soon as I saw that land, I knew it belonged to him. I am fond of every single character in each of my books, including many of the villains. But the goblin King is the oldest and best beloved of all my character children.

That day, Marak’s story unspooled itself before my eyes, a movie that was playing just for me. The first time Kate, my Jane Austen girl, got a good look at him, his ugly face was peering at her out of her own mirror. While Kate stared at him, I forgot entirely that I had breakfast dishes to wash. I forgot that I had promised Joe I would iron him some shirts. I even forgot that I should probably make at least some sort of effort to defrost dinner.

What does a goblin look like? I wondered. What does Kate see?

Long hair—rough hair, like a horse’s mane. Shrewd eyes in two different colors, one eye green and the other eye black. A lean, pinched face, bony forehead, sunken temples, deep-set eyes, and pointed ears that flopped at the tips like a dog’s. Shiny gray skin, brown lips, and dark pointed teeth—teeth like tarnished silver.

Marak’s hair was all one length, brushing his shoulders in a shaggy mane. It was pale beige. Or was it? The image came into clearer focus, and I saw a palm-size patch of black hair growing in a cowlick over the green eye. That black hair cast long sooty streaks over the pale hair below.

While I sat and studied this brilliantly ugly monster, a sudden sound jarred me out of my reverie. The front door. The front door? It couldn’t be! But it was. The workday was over, and Joe had come home to admire his newly cleaned house and ironed shirts.

“Oh, hey!” I called, jumping up. “So, I was thinking of French toast. How does that sound to you?”

Over the dinner we threw together, Joe said, “I thought you were going to clean today.” But he said it philosophically—almost dispassionately. After fifteen years of marriage, he had learned not to count too much on my homemaking skills.

“It’s this new daydream,” I said. “It’s keeping me from getting any work done.” (And was that a circle of ancient oak trees on that hill?)

“What’s the daydream about?” Joe asked.

“I don’t know. A goblin King.” (A king of what, exactly? And why were his eyes different colors?)

I didn’t expect Joe to ask any more questions. He had heard me make similar complaints for years. I had been at war with my imagination for our entire marriage, and I had complained about it the whole time. Joe is reassuringly immune from this weakness, so I didn’t expect goblins to interest him particularly, much less where they lived (jeweled caverns? Yes, and the twilit, indigo-tinted lands below the lake) or what they ate. (Sheep? Yes, sheep probably made the most sense.)

But this time, Joe surprised me.

“Why don’t you write it down?” he said.

The idea didn’t immediately appeal to me. It sounded suspiciously like work.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle, text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of a statue of Diana, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Poipu, Kauai, copyright 2016 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Creativity, Daily life, Hope and Other Luxuries, Story creation, Writing craft | Leave a comment

“Can we tell our own life story with any sort of truth at all? Of course, we know we can’t. I mean, our life stories, whether we write them or not, are a tissue of evasions, or, perhaps, enhancements. So, that story that we carry around in our head, the story we call our life, we can’t know our birth and death, but we create them somehow, imaginatively. There are other parts of our lives in which we’re quite happy to erase. There are other parts that we want to touch up just a little bit. So what we end with is a fiction. Our autobiography is a form of fiction.”
Carol Shields

Posted on by Clare Dunkle | Leave a comment

Looking Back, Looking Ahead, Looking Around

Elena Dunkle with a very happy dog

For the last fifteen months, I’ve been pretending that Elena’s and my memoirs, Elena Vanishing and Hope and Other Luxuries, didn’t exist. It was just too painful to think of the darkest moments of our lives out there in bookstores for anyone to thumb through and judge. Reader mail didn’t upset me because it was comforting and positive. These were other mothers and fathers suffering just like I had suffered, and they made me feel less alone. But it was those other readers I didn’t want to think about, the ones who picked up a memoir just in passing and laughed over it and made some rude joke. I had left my whole family open to that kind of treatment. I’ve always been careful about what I share with the world, but this time, I shared everything.

Now, I just feel grateful. Truly, deeply grateful. The last year has brought wonderful changes to Elena’s life, and to mine. Elena is foster mother now to two amazing children who fill all our lives with joy and laughter. She is the heart of a very special home. The environment she has created for her family is a beautiful place, a charming place, a perfect setting for growth and happiness.

Elena's home

I have been blessed to watch my daughter not just struggle but succeed, not just react to the past but reach out and embrace the future–not just survive but blossom. What did I… she… we… do to deserve this? Nothing that countless other parents and other anorexia patients haven’t done too. Why should we find joy when so many others work every bit as hard and find heartbreak? Only God knows.

Elena doesn’t take anything for granted. She walks her path of recovery every day, and that path is lifelong.

But the scenery sure is looking better.

Elena's home

Text copyright 2016 by Clare B. Dunkle. Photos copyright 2016 by Elena Dunkle To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Anorexia nervosa, Elena Vanishing, Hope and Other Luxuries | Leave a comment