La di da

Recently, a friend asked me what La La La means. Moo Baa La La La, right? she asked. And yes, technically that’s the answer. By why? It means that and a lot more than that. Take away the “Moo” and the “Baa” and the book, in general, and what does La La La on its own stand for? For me it means innocence for children and perhaps a yearning for innocence for adults – similar to “La di da” or the now infamous Seinfeldian phrase “yadda yadda.” It’s what you might say when you don’t know what to say, or when you don’t wish to say anything at all. It’s what an obstinate child might say when they’re refusing to listen. Or what an imaginative child might hum to herself as she’s deep in her own world.

So where is this all going? You’ll see. Yesterday, an old friend and I went to see Elizabeth Strout speak about her new book, The Burgess Boys (can’t wait to read) and writing in general. We were the only two women in the room younger than sixty, but I’m still glad we went. You never know what you’ll get with writers – a lot of them can end up being disappointments, but “Liz” as she’s called, was wonderfully gracious and funny and a bit self-deprecating, but not too much. As a member of the exclusive Pulitzer-prize winning club (for her wonderful collection of short stories, Olive Kitteridge), she could have stood up there and boasted about how talented she was and how we could never understand what it takes to write the way she does, but instead she explained a lot about how writing is a craft that is honed over a long period of time, and that it does not come easy for her. She has to work very hard every day to churn out good sentences. When one of the old ladies asked about her writing process, Liz explained that she writes for a few hours a day in the morning (preferably still in her pjs or sweats) and that she writes to explore emotions and to discover truths along the way. Like many writers I’ve heard talk, she does not use an outline; instead, she figures out where the story is going as she writes.

It was refreshing to hear this; most writers, I’d argue, would agree. The women at my table (including my friend) all gasped when they heard that. To them, it seemed to counter-intuitive to how they’d imagine a novel would unfold. I told them that I write the same way – even with these posts, I often don’t have a plan. By the end, I try to tie it all together, to make it appear to have a theme, but those discoveries are made as I write. “I just can’t imagine that,” my friend said. And the woman next to her said, “yes, well you and I hang up our clothes too. These creative types think differently.” It wasn’t meant as an insult and I didn’t take it that way. I do put my clothes away, but there are certainly other areas of my life that are not as organized as they could be. When I was teaching, my most creative students were the most disorganized. I remember one boy in particular – when it was time to hand in his poem – he’d arrive at my desk with a very disheveled look and a binder that looked more like a garbage can. As he scratched his head, he’d shuffle through that binder, not find it – then scrummage through his backpack and finally find it at the bottom – maybe even rolled up in a ball; you get the idea. And there was a beautifully written poem, that could only come from someone who tends to get lost in his thoughts – whose shoes may be often untied, and shirt untucked.

Back to Elizabeth “Liz” Strout and writing and reading with kids. This one will work backwards. Liz grew up in Maine; she relayed that she lived the first half of her life in Maine and the the last thirty or so years in New York City. Only now, she explained, could she imagine beginning to write stories that take place in New York – her other stories, novels have all taken place in Maine. So if you love the Maine writers as I do – Richard Russo, Elizabeth Strout, Stephen King (who writes from Maine, not necessarily about it)…you might enjoy this beautiful book for your kids:

Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey. In it, McCloskey reveals the beautiful shores and small islands of Maine through the experience of a family’s summer vacation.