Friday, February 26, 2010

Friend on the Journey

I am now revising a picture book manuscript that has been in the works for several years. It will be a companion to an earlier book of mine, Polar Bear Night. In the first book, a little polar bear cub ventures out on her own and witnesses a star shower. In this book, the cub will meet another cub, and they become friends.

I haven't worked on it at all for almost a year. About six months ago, I met with my editor, David, over lunch, to catch up with each other and to go over the manuscript. In the end, we didn't talk much about the manuscript (except, importantly, that he told me that he was as committed to the book as ever). Mostly we talked quite deeply about our early lives. Within a few days he sent me some notes, which were among the most helpful notes I've ever received. Kind, insightful, offering direction without being intrusive. Where earlier I had felt weary of the manuscript, about to give up on it, I now felt inspired.

I was eager to work on the revision right away, but other projects with more urgent deadlines intervened, and I had to put this book to the side. Now those projects are taken care of (for the time being), and so after six months away, in the last few days I've read over the notes and felt again awash in my editor's good wishes and strong faith in me, as a writer and as a person.

Here is a section of the notes that I keep coming back to.

What I think this book is about is the journey to friendship. In the way that the first book was a celebration of taking an inward journey and perhaps connecting spiritually to nature, this book is about connecting with another. It's about developing trust, learning to share, the joy of finding a companion, the give and take of play. All things that are part of friendship. And that's a great thing to explore.

Yes, it's a great thing to explore. It's also a frightening thing to explore. That has been my experience, both with this manuscript and in life. I'm trying to write a story about a polar bear cub making friends with another polar bear cub, when in truth, I have no idea how one does "making friends." At least, that how it feels. To work on this manuscript is to touch that deep loneliness that has been an inner companion my whole life. No wonder it has taken years for me to get to an "almost, nearly ready" stage with this story. I haven't felt ready at all.

The last lines of the first book are

Snow and sky and sea and ice
and mother bear's soft, warm fur ....

The last phrases of this book will be along the lines of

Snow, sea, and ice, and the broad blue sky ...

On the manuscript, David wrote,

I love this ending of "...friends." It feels right to me. This book is about the journey to friendship, which is a great theme. How do you recognize a friend? What do you go through to learn to trust each other? How do you know a true friend? Actions can speak louder than words: there can be grandeur in instinctual trust.

The first book was about "home." This book is about "friend." These are the two most important themes for anyone's life, or certainly for mine: to come to feel at home in the universe, and to trust oneself and others enough to connect without fear. They are undoubtedly one theme, one journey.

"Instinctual trust": that is what I must touch if I am going to complete this story. That is the way it will have to happen.

How is it that David's notes were so helpful? Because he allowed himself to be fully present to my words and to his response to them. And when he wrote his comments to me, he strove, bodhisatva-like, to be both truthful and kind. And so I feel encouraged to approach the manuscript this way myself: with full presence, honesty, and kindness. I feel encouraged to be a friend to myself.

Thanks, David.

More about Polar Bear Night:

AIGA Design Archives. Includes views of spreads and notes about design approach

Reviews, courtesy of [I encourage people, if possible, to purchase books from brick-and-mortar booksellers (i.e. not virtual booksellers), especially independent booksellers. But I admit I am a regular customer of Amazon.]

For those who subscribe to
The New York Times on-line (it's free, for now), a review and an audio slide show featuring me reading the book. The Gray Lady loved this book: Best Illustrated, Notable, Best Book of the Year, Bestseller. Thank you, NYT.

My author website,

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