Monday, November 3, 2014

A Visit from E.L. Konigsburg

One of the joys of re-organizing is finding things that have been tucked somewhere for so long that we have forgotten we ever had them.  It’s like finding something new and wonderful—a birthday present in the back of the closet, re-wrapped.

 Re-organizing my bookshelves is how I happened to find “The Mask Beneath the Face,” a talk that E.L. Konigsburg gave in 1989 to authors, publishers, editors, illustrators, reviewers, librarians and potential authors. I loved this talk when I first read it years ago. I still love it. Matters of the heart do not change by the decade.  And I’m so glad to have rediscovered this talk at just this time.  In this election season I have despaired at the mucky, appeal-to-our-basest-nature quality in some political ads—and the fact these ads seem to  work so well.  And I have asked myself what can I do? What can any writer contribute to building a more thoughtful, more thinking culture.  

Then E.L. Konigsburg stepped into my study and said, “Listen up.”

In this talk she focuses on masks, the masks that we wear to both conceal and reveal our true natures.  She noted that masks are especially useful to writers: “…we use our characters as masks. Wearing masks is what writers do, and the masks that one assumes as a writer … reveal; they conceal; they exaggerate, and they do it all for the sake of getting at some truth that is often seen but not fully understood.”   I couldn’t agree more.  Our characters, whether we are making them up or telling the stories of real lives, don’t usually carry signs, but they carry meaning.  The meaning in those characters (masks) is the meaning we hope to hand over to readers as they journey with our characters.

But the really important mask is the one each of us constructs to represent “the ghost of our childhood.” Konigsburg says that every one of these masks is covered with a lacy web of dreams—“Dreams of what we will see. Dreams of what we will be.”  And she says that is why the work of the writer is so important. “Those of us who write for children must give them a variety of masks to try on, and we must write rich and deep so that they can choose what materials they want for the body of that mask. And we must provide threads of many colors to let them weave the web of fantasies to lay over its surface.”

Toward the end of the talk Konigsburg says “If I can write all the nation’s children’s books, I don’t care who writes its laws.”  To me she said, “Stop moping about changing the culture. Just write better.”   Instead of emptying the ocean with a teaspoon, I should be thinking about reaching one reader, writing a book that gets into the heart and mind of just one reader.  That is work enough (and goal enough). It requires going into my writing space each day and closing the door on thoughts about commerce, thoughts about what reviewers will say, thoughts about others who would be writing this story better.  It means bearing down, taking chances—writing it wrong, and writing it again.

It was a great visit.  I hope she comes back.

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