My life has always been fueled by books and writing. It has also been fueled by dance. Much of my youth was focused on ballet and modern dance. Mikhail Baryshnikov, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1974, was one of my earliest inspirations. His 1985 movie “White Nights” with the late-great Gregory Hines remains one of my all-time favorites.
In a recent interview with Pointe Magazine Editor Amy Brandt, Baryshnikov said, “The most important thing for a dancer, besides mastering their technique, is to be persistent and brave when it comes to finding their own voice and style.”
That advice applies to writers, too.
It applies to all art forms and vocations, really.
“Art heals wounds, even the deepest ones. Art can be our best friend in our most lonely hours and can give us hope in the worst moments,” Baryshnikov told Pointe Magazine.
He has spoken out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine and helped found a humanitarian organization to support Ukrainian refugees, True Russia. Its website is a database of social, cultural and scientific initiatives of Russian-speaking communities around the world who are anti-war and pro-democracy. Its founders and supporters seek to show the world that dictator Vladimir Putin “does not speak and act for all Russians.”
“I have been astonished by the heroic response of artists in Ukraine, many of whom exchanged ballet shoes for army boots…,” Baryshnikov said. “I had a brief correspondence with one of those dancers and told him he was my hero. He protested, saying he wasn’t a hero and that it’s the people of Ukraine who are the heroes. His answer, so immediate and so full of conviction, touched me deeply.”
Brandt asked Baryshnikov what advice he would share with his younger self. His answer is sage advice for us all.
“Don’t waste your time. Keep learning. Study languages, literature, math, geography. Step outside of dance. Go to the opera. Learn to play an instrument. Try photography. Visit museums. Broaden your horizons and stretch your imagination. Become a student of the world.”
Posts include a series of videos in which I read #firstlines from my all-time favorite historical novels. Others include book trailers , writing tips, and other fun reading-related topics. All are only a couple minutes or less. @JMcCannWriter
The connection between today’s children and the nature world gets further eroded each year. The Lost Words is a big, beautiful book of poems and artwork created to celebrate the wonder and reinforce the importance of everyday nature in all our lives.
Here’s a summary from the publisher: “In 2007, when a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary — widely used in schools around the world — was published, a sharp-eyed reader soon noticed that around forty common words concerning nature had been dropped. Apparently they were no longer being used enough by children to merit their place in the dictionary. The list of these “lost words” included acorn, adder, bluebell, dandelion, fern, heron, kingfisher, newt, otter, and willow. Among the words taking their place were attachment, blog, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste, and voicemail.”
In response, nature writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris created a “spell book” meant to be read aloud. They sought “to summon these words again into the voices, stories, and dreams of children and adults alike.”
The brief video below shows off the gorgeous artwork of The Lost Words (though it doesn’t truly do it justice!). This a book with heft that is sure to become a family heirloom. I highly recommend buying this special book for all the children in your life.*
* If you decide to purchase from Bookshop.org, a portion of the sale will support indie bookstores and authors, including me.
When I was in the fourth grade, a couple of the moms made several visits to our class to teach us “life skills.” They addressed topics like how to make new friends, to be kind to others and so on. During one visit they announced the final week would include a cupcake party, and we were each to place an advance order so they would know how many to bake. Most kids ordered chocolate. A handful of us ordered vanilla, and we were promptly derided. That’s boring, the chocolate-eaters said. Vanilla isn’t even a real flavor.
The next week, the moms arrived bearing their tasty treats. The vanilla cupcakes had whipped cream frosting and rainbow sprinkles. The chocolate cupcakes were plain. And the rumblings soon began. What? No fair! How come you got frosting? Trade with me.
No trades, we vanilla-eaters gloated. That’s what you get for ordering stupid-old chocolate. We have frosting, and you don’t.
The adults let us grumble and gloat for a bit, then put an end to it. Quiet down and eat your cupcakes, they said. So we did. And a funny thing happened. The chocolate-eaters soon discovered a delicious surprise. The moms had baked M&M candies into the bottoms of their cupcakes. A rich, colorful, chocolate bonus. Huzzah! Chocolate was the best choice after all, or so the complainers said.
That’s when the moms explained their little experiment to us. Explained how important it is to be grateful for what we receive, even when we might feel someone else has something better. Explained that sometimes, even when life seems most unfair, we could discover something unexpected, something wonderful, something better than what we thought we wanted.
Blah, blah, blah.
At the time, the message was lost on us kids. We mostly felt manipulated, used, a bit like lab rats. Yet, their lesson seeped into my subconscious and stayed with me. They were right, of course. It’s not always easy advice to follow, but they were 100 percent spot on.
As adults, too often, we’re not a whole lot more mature than that group of fourth graders — criticizing, teasing and judging others for their choices. I’ve most recently experienced this phenomenon during discussions about books and the differences between commercial and literary fiction. People are quick to condemn others’ reading preferences. You like literary fiction? That’s so boring. Oh, you read chick lit. Those books are trashy. Is that sci-fi? Why waste your time reading about something that could never really happen?
Why can’t we just say, Hey! You’re reading a book. Cool. How is it?
With the explosion of audiobooks, e-books, and print-on-demand publishing technology, books have become much more accessible than they once were. There are literally millions of books out there. Far too many for one person to ever read. So why not celebrate the variety? Maybe that so-called boring literary novel, if you take the time to savor it, just might have a delicious, satisfying surprise in the end. And perhaps the chick lit that seems to be all whipped cream and sprinkles just might satisfy your craving for a happy ending.
Those of us who write for a living, or aspire to, would be especially wise to heed this advice.
For one thing, reading a wide range of genres expands our minds, introduces us to new ideas and teaches us about good writing (or, sometimes, about not-so-good writing, but that’s also a beneficial thing). A voracious reading appetite just might lead us to discover something unexpected, something wonderful, something better than what we thought we wanted from a book. That makes us stronger writers.
For another thing, having respect for all kinds of readers empowers us to break barriers and attract fans to our stories that we might not have anticipated. My debut historical novel, for example, was marketed as women’s fiction. Yet, I’ve received several amazing, thoughtful reviews from male readers who were moved by the book’s multiple perspectives on slavery and freedom, and its universal themes of self-reliance, perseverance and hope.
It’s just like those bakeries that have sprung up all over the place that serve only cupcakes. You know the ones. Dozens of flavors and combinations. Red velvet, pumpkin, peanut butter chocolate, lemon-ginger, you name it. It blows my fourth-grade mind.
Eat whatever cupcake you want, and read whatever book you like. Don’t judge others for their choices. And don’t be afraid to sample something different once in a while. Have a chai latte cupcake with your historical fiction, or try a rocky road cupcake with your paranormal thriller. It’s all good.
p.s. A shout-out and long-overdue thank you to my fourth grade teacher at Madison Park Elementary School, Mrs. Kuzmanoff, and the moms, Mrs. Free and Mrs. Lawson, who took the time to share their talents and insights (and cupcakes) with us kids.
Where do writers come up with their story ideas? It’s one of the most common questions we are asked, and the answer is different for every writer. For me, the answer is also different for every story I write.
Many of my ideas come from reading and watching the news. Something will catch my attention and cause me to wonder “what’s that all about?” or ask “what if…?” The answer that develops inevitably becomes a magazine article, short story or novel premise. Other ideas come from real life experiences — events witnessed firsthand — that grip my mind so tightly I must write about them to expel them. A car accident perhaps, or a child bullied at school.
A few years ago, a bizarre nightmare led me to draft a short fiction piece that eventually won an award and publication in the literary journal River Styx. That was a first for me. Inspiration through dream hasn’t struck since, but I’m glad it did that once. (If you’re curious, Download NightWindow.)
Much like their different origins, my stories also tend to have different voices. The thread that ties all my ideas and writing together is my goal to weave compelling stories and bring characters to life, whether short fiction, novel or nonfiction.
Where do you get your ideas? Do they vary depending on whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction? Share your thoughts!