Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Wonder of Worlds Within Words

When I was much younger and beginning my studies as a graduate student in the newly designed MFA Writing for Children program at Vermont College, I was assigned to participate in a workshop led by two writers whose names weren’t widely known outside the field of children’s literature at the time.

One of the writers was a skinny, gruff guy with a Boston accent, broad shoulders, pitch black hair, and an intimidating stare, a young man by the name of Chris Lynch, whose more than thirty books since then, including Iceman, Slot Machine, Whitechurch, Gold Dust, Freewill, Inexcusable, and The Big Game of Everything, have been named ALA Best Books For Young Adults and have received many awards.

The other writer, a soft-spoken young woman with a gentle smile and a voice that sounded like velvet, was Jacqueline Woodson, who was named earlier this year as the United States' National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and who this week received word that she had won the Astrid Lindgren Prize, the world’s largest award for children’s literature, for her work of more than thirty books, including I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This, The House You Pass on the Way, If You Come Softly, and Brown Girl Dreaming.

Even then, long before these two writers had established their reputations, it was an intimidating workshop.

There was another writer, though, who helped lead that workshop long ago. She was a graduate assistant who offered insights into our manuscripts with a Southern drawl that I later learned was more of an Oklahoma-Texas twang, and who spoke about the writing process with the self-assuredness of a poet and with the sensitivity and kindness of a writer who understood our disappointment and pain when we were told our stories needed more work as if it were her own

Her name was Sharon Darrow, and she went on to become an esteemed member of the Vermont College faculty, teaching at her alma mater for more than twenty years, as well as publishing her own award-winning work for children--Old Thunder and Miss Rainey, The Painters of Lexieville, Trash, Yafi’s Family, and Through the Tempests Dark and Wild.

Memories of that workshop flooded back recently as I opened Sharon’s newest book, Worlds Within Words, a hefty collection of her thoughts on writing and on the writing life that she's shared with her students and other writers over the course of her career. 

What she’s learned over a lifetime about writing and teaching the craft of writing might be summed up in three words: Trust the process.

Again and again, in various chapters devoted to the writing life and to the craft of writing, as well as to the art of teaching writing, she suggests that trusting this process, which is filled with mystery and setbacks, obstacles, frustration, and despair, is the only way a writer can go forward into the dark, leap off a cliff, set foot into an unknown forest, or swim into unchartered waters.

Trust in your ability, she seems to whisper with assurance, and you will find a way where no way existed before you picked up your pen to write.

But don’t listen to me summarize her work. Here are a few samples from the book:

On first drafts:
“Allowing the reader to share in the character’s thoughts and responses as the scenes unfold, allowing more of the character’s emotional core to show through is difficult, and can’t usually be expected to come to the fore with power on the first draft. In first drafts you find the characters, setting, events, and begin to watch the scenes unfold. In subsequent drafts, do not settle for what you noticed first, but continue to discover the hidden moments in the folds and layers of your story.” 
 “In the first bursts of inspiration, a writer is struggling to tell herself the story. In revision, she is striving to show the story to the reader.” (p. 105)
 On beginnings:
“The first step in the presentation of a story is the setup, and in that setup, the spotlight shines upon the first sentence. It signals what kind of story we can expect, it gives us the first sound of the voice of the story, and, for some readers, may determine whether they keep reading or put the book down and go make a cheese sandwich.” (p. 137)
 On revision:
“The first draft is a way to tell yourself the story. The succeeding revisions will be your increasingly successful efforts to show the story to the reader. That’s why revision is such an important and necessary part of the process of discovering your real story. You don’t always find it in first draft, but in revisiting the moments one after the other and finding more than you could possibly have seen at first glance, just like entering a room day after day and viewing it from many angles each succeeding day. You will gradually discover the most minute and elusive details. Then (and only then) will you absolutely know which details are the most important ones for the story. In the same way, you won’t really know the whole story until the details have unfolded through revision and re-vision.” (p. 80)
 On finding our way:
“The contradictions and uncertainties we learners see coming toward us all the time seem to be detriments; they seem to be roadblocks, but really they are the road…We persist with courage and discover our way as we go. 
 “We walk into the dark and find the light, tread upon the rough ways and find a road. We learn by doing. We are here to give it our all, to teach, to learn, to read, to write, to grow, to become what is possible.” (p. 169)
As I turned the pages in Sharon’s book, I could hear her gentle voice, filled with the same compassion and encouragement that I remember hearing more than twenty years ago, whispering in my ear “You can do this!”

She’s the kind of teacher every writer needs to hear when facing a challenging part of a story or when coming up against a blank page. She trusts in the creative process—its beauty and mystery and, ultimately, its ability to enable us to grow and expand as writers and as human beings.

Her book is packed with lots of helpful advice, some of it, I’m sure, gleaned and stored in her heart from that remarkable workshop of ours with Jackie and Chris so many years ago.

But mostly it’s the sound of her gentle voice on each page that inspires us to keep going, to keep putting words on paper, to keep having faith in the process, and, most importantly, to trust our ability to write our story.

For more information about Sharon Darrow, visit her website:

And to check out her book, Worlds Within Words, visit:


Sarah Lamstein said...

Thank you so much for this, Bruce. Sharon's words are a trusted guidepost.

Bruce Black said...

I've trusted her words for years. They always point true North.