Thursday, March 5, 2015

Manuscripts We Burn, Books We Remember

Thinking About the Scott O'Dell Award
By Suzanne Morgan Williams

A writer friend of mine and genuinely nice person, Kirby Larson, just won the Scott O’Dell Award for her book Dash. I can’t wait to read it. Knowing Kirby won the award, I checked the web to learn to learn more about Scott O’Dell, its namesake. I’d read his Newbery winning Island of the Blue Dolphins when I was a child – I didn’t love it. But what else was there to know about him?

O’Dell wrote dozens of books and won a Newbery Honor (same as Kirby Larson for Hattie Big Sky) for Sing Down the Moon. The title seemed familiar. I flipped to another web page to find a summary. Yes, I’d read it. That was a book I really, really liked. In fact, I’d say it piqued my interest in Native American/U.S. history – a passion that’s shaped much of my own writing. I’m not sure how Sing Down the Moon would stand up to today’s scrutiny of diverse literature, but from my point of view at the time, it was a shocking, emotional introduction to the subject. Of course, O’Dell never knew how the book touched me.

I dug a bit deeper on the O’Dell website. His bio page said he grew up in Southern California in the early 20th century when it was a backwater to San Francisco. He spent his boyhood on California beaches and mountains. He worked in the early movie industry, published his first book at twenty-six. Here’s what caught my eye. His first novel was never published. And later he burned the manuscript. Wow, that’s a bold decision. What makes a writer burn a manuscript? Do I have a few I should burn, or the modern equivalent – permanently delete?

So I started thinking about the body of a writer's or an artist's work. Kirby Larson has written a lot of books and they haven’t all won awards. I’m sure if you spoke with her, or any other writer, you’d find they have favorites as well as some they’d like to revisit and tweak a bit for one reason or another. Becoming an artist is a process. I remembered going to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was excited to see so much of her art in one place. What impressed me? There are all kinds of pieces on display – from her earliest rough sketches to masterpieces. It would be a hard stretch to see one of those sketches on its own and think, “This woman is going to be one of the great artists of the twentieth century.” Yet, she was. And I’m glad I had the opportunity to see so many stages of her development.

Not everything an artist creates is great of even memorable. But it all adds up. The artist grows, reworks a project, or produces something new based on the original idea. I take away three lessons: 1) talent takes time and practice to develop into something greater. 2) you don't know which author or which book or which project will be the one that really sings - until it happens. 3) And while you’re waiting it might not be a good idea to burn your manuscripts.

1 comment:

  1. I'll have to revisit the winners of the Scott O'Dell prize. Great post.