Making the Dead Come to Life: Biographies with Patricia Lakin

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Early Years:

At the April 11th SCBWI seminar on writing biographies for early and middle-grade readers, Patricia Lakin first took us back in time with a mental and physical leap showing us her sprightly vigor as a seventy-one year old prolific author. She took us back to her school-age childhood in Boston where female teachers were not allowed to work if they were married and children were disciplined with a rattan rod. Patricia never got the rod, however, as she was “a mouse” hiding behind her desk, avoiding notice. She endured uninspiring writing lessons and a stifling fear of spelling error to somehow blossom, after a teaching career, to emerge from behind her desk as a children’s book author.

Critical Critique:

Patty Lakin signed up for classes at the “New School” taught by the now famous “Bunny”PattyL2 Gable. She persevered for ten years, honing her craft by gathering good advice from critiques. While listening to or reading the works of an admired author, she learned to ask herself this important question: “What is it that I like about this story?” And she learned to recognize and correct in her own written manuscripts the things that she disliked in other authors’ works. A keen critique group is key to a developing author, she emphasized, and shared that she still meets regularly near her home in New York with her kind, but honest, critique group.

Rejection Lessons:

Patricia Lakin saves her rejection letters, especially the personalized ones that contain nuggets of advice. These rejection letters can lead to PattyL3acceptance letters if taken in the right spirit. Some letters explain why the work was rejected or contain a suggestion for improving the story. Her first published story, “Don’t Touch My Room,” was initially rejected and then later accepted at a later date. Some submissions are rejected because the publishing house doesn’t have a place for it in their line-up or, as was the case with a Dr. Seuss biography that she wanted to publish, the rights to the story or illustrations had not yet been acquired. Permissions can be tricky. The estate of Ted Geisel, for example, strictly limits when and where his photos and illustrations can be used.

 Research and Renewal:

Patricia Lakin does all of her research from her computer. The internet is a wealth of   PattyL5information and it is much easier nowadays to track down individuals who may have a piece of information that may be valuable to you and your story. Patty will often highlight a lesser-known detail or character in the life story of a famous person. For example, while researching the biography of Steve Jobs, she tracked down the daughter of Steve’s favorite grade school teacher and was given permission to use a photo in her book by that daughter who was thrilled that her mother was given the recognition as a key encourager of the young genius.

While writing a biography, Patty searches for a way to create a full circle of the subject’s PattyL6life. Helen Keller, for example, when she was very young and was full of anxiety and frustration with a world that to her was dark and silent, would throw herself down on the grass outside and let the smells and touch of nature soothe her. In a key moment, when she was older and had climbed a tree just before a violent storm struck, Helen clung to the branches, bewildered and confused that what had so often soothed her could suddenly turn against her. The touch of the hands of her teacher calmed her fears and rescued her from her perilous perch in the tree.

Patty will often find a connection between her own life and the life of the person for whom she is writing a biography. This helps her focus on details that matter to her and help to bring a liveliness and immediacy to her writing. For the biography on Steve Jobs, for example, Patty recalled that she loved the calligraphy classes she had taken and in her research, she found that, while attending Reed College, Steve Jobs had also taken calligraphy from former monk, Robert Palladino. His love of fonts had prompted Steve to make sure that the users of the new Apple computer had a variety of fonts from which to choose.

Full Circle:  PattyL4

At the end of the evening, we leapt back into the present and peppered Patty with questions about the writing process and the possibility of publication. She shared with us that she still hopes to publish a middle-grade work of fiction. She has written a story about a very short character but may have to wait a longer time to get that one published. In the meantime, she can be pleased with the pile of books that have already been published as she continues to bring those who have passed on back to life in the pages of her books.

The World Wide Wakayama Chronicles; Part II; Day Seven

12-18-13; Wednesday

4:00 am, the alarm rings. We leap from bed to shower to taxi to train to another train to monorail to plane. We land at Shirahama Airport at 8:55 am and then pile into the vans again. It is raining and will rain all day, so that means we have a free day.

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We drive to a large indoor market that sells fresh ocean produce of every shape and size. At the entrance sits an enormous panda stuffed animal. Panda related products are everywhere. As one souvenir T-shirt declares, “Shirahama is infested with pandas!” I haven’t seen any actual pandas yet but I have seen a true infestation of panda cookies, cakes, toys, key chains, dusters, hats, blankets and giant pillows.

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While the photo crew settles into a booth at Toretore Ichiba (http://www.toretore.com) to chat and smoke, I run around the market using my new Nikon D3200, (my first real camera ever!) to practice by photography skills by taking photos of fish: dried fish, pickled fish, fresh fish, pressed fish and even stretched fish. There are large tanks of swimming fish, tubs of squishy sea cucumbers and pools of lobsters and clams piled up on top of each other.

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When the sushi bar at one end of the market opens, we all put in our orders and tuck into our tucker. The salmon and salmon egg donburi are very fresh and absolutely delicious! We have to wait for an hour after our meal for our hotel rooms to become available so I write and Elsa plays a video game called, “Papers Please,” and pretends that she is an immigration official trying to support a revolution while staying alive.

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“Hotel Seamore” is our destination and it is indeed perched on the shore of the sea. The hotel is a bit old, but our corner room is spacious and lovely with an amazing view of the ocean from the large plate glass windows that wrap around the room. Room 615 is set up like a suite with a separate genkan and hallway leading to the bath, toilet and main room.

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The beds are very comfortable and I crawl under the covers to sleep away most of the day as I have come down with a sore throat that drops my voice an octave or two. My daughter says that I now sound like a heavy smoker. ( Land of Counterpane )

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The project writer who came up with the creative text on the JR posters is pictured above!

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Translation: “More than walking, it was like being led by God.”

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I wake up in time to join the crew at a yaki-niku restaurant where we grill tender slices of beef and vegetables over the fire in the middle of the table. We eat our fill and then head back to the hotel to catch up on email using the free Wi-Fi in the lobby.

Finally, we head downstairs to enjoy the wonderful hotel onsen. The outdoor tubs are especially lovely and we prop our elbows on the fresh smooth cedar and listen to the waves splashing on the rocks directly below.

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Down below on the shore, you can see the ancient rotenburo where the photos for the JR ad were taken.

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Tomorrow, we are off to “Kushi-Moto;” perhaps we will se the source of the dango on a stick!

 

The World Wide Wakayama Chronicles; Day Six

10-31-13, Thursday

Early wakeup and makeup this morning. We trundle back to the main temple at Koyasan to wait for the sun to come up. More photos are taken at the same spot in the sun with a view of the beautiful temple in the background. Here is the shot that they end up using:Wakayama_Koyasan_poster

We hear the chanting monks once more in the background and Elsa and I join in the morning sing-along with an old latin round, “Dona Nobis Pacem.” The writer for the JR Wakayama campaign is already hard at work creating the text that will accompany each poster.CIMG8441

We stop to chat on the steps of one of the temple buildings and I tell him about my small writing career and my two websites. One is for my children’s sermons: http://kidsermons.com The other is a children’s book website http://belovedofbeasts.comPrincess_Ramona_cover-300x444-202x300

He plans to show “Princess Ramona, Beloved of Beasts” to his own children when he returns home.

Elsa and I wander around the temple grounds and learn more about the Koyasan historical site and the various deities that were worshipped here.

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After the morning shoot at Koyasan, we drive along the Kumanogawa to scout out locations for shots that will be taken in December. We pause to skip some stones and admire the bluffs along the river. Then we scramble back over the river rocks up to the road. CIMG8426

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We climb back into the vans and drive to the small airport on the southwest edge of Wakayama to board the flight to Haneda airport. We say our goodbyes to the staff and tell them to take care until we meet up again in December. The first half of our Wakayama Campaign modeling job is over.IMG_0300It is a short flight back to Tokyo. It is Halloween evening and Elsa will be home in plenty of time for her evening trick-or-treating with friends.

The World Wide Wakayama Chronicles; Day Five

10-30-13; Wednesday

In the makeup room this morning we learn that we were not the only ones bothered by mosquitoes last night. The makeup artist also experienced an unwelcome invasion. I had left the windows open at night to let in the fresh air, but the local mosquitoes smelled blood and went after us. I woke up at midnight because I heard the whine of a blood-thirsty beast even though I wore ear plugs. When I turned on the light, I could see three mosquitoes all in a row, drinking blood from Elsa’s arm. I slapped them and woke Elsa. I closed the window and then spent the next fifteen minutes or so hunting down the rest of them. Tiny bloodstains on the wall marked the battleground map. The enemy vanquished, I finally could go back to sleep.mosquito_Japan

We pack up, meet the crew in the lobby and turn in our key. As we step outside, a breath-taking sunrise with pink clouds greet us. What a glorious day! The drive to Tachi Taki (Tachi Waterfall) gives us amazing views of the ocean, sparkling in the sunshine. CIMG8387

All along the way up the mountain, we see bulldozers trying to repair the damage left by the last catastrophic typhoon several years ago. Apparently Wakayama Prefecture has very unstable ground and there is often quite a bit of damage to repair after a violent rain storm. One indication of how extremely high the water in the Kumanogawa had risen are the sticks and logs lodged in the underside of a high bridge spanning the river. WakayamaBridgeUndersideIt looks as though some of the riverside buildings have been recently damaged in the last flood. The “Peace Boat” website gives a thorough explanation of the extensive damage that Wakayama had to endure in the great typhoon and flood of 2011. Click on “Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center” for more information.

We finally reach Nachi Taki which is an astounding waterfall that reminds us of some places in Yosemite. The pounding water casts shadows on the rock beside it creating horses of spray galloping down the rock. CIMG8388CIMG8400
We stop to buy little 100 yen saucers to catch the water spurting from the mouth of a bronze dragon. As this water is routed through from the flow of the waterfall, the pressure occasionally drops and then gushes making it tricky to get a saucer-full of water to drink. The dragon water is supposed to give one long life like a dragon.

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After the photo shoot, we stop at the omiyage shop to buy a few trinkets. I find a lovely bell on a red cord in the shape of a crow’s head. Back into the vans we pile to drive to the nearby Kumano Nachi Taisha, a famous, bright red temple. We stop to take photos on the wide stone walkway that leads towards the front of the temple.CIMG8408

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Back down the mountain we go to take some more photos at a previous location, Daimon-zaka, where the path is now slick from yesterday’s rain. A few tourist groups start up the steps past our shooting location, but all of them decide to turn back early. The tourists are elderly and the stones are slippery and treacherous. The photographer likes the look of the stone steps, dark with moisture, so he takes a few more pictures.

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Photographer with Director planning the day’s shooting.

Our next stop will be Mizunomi-Ouji, or Drinkwater Road which is near the “Bowing Down Road” that we visited on Monday. Everyone sleeps on the way excepting the driver and myself. We wind along beside the aqua-colored river with its wide gravel bed, green forested hills and the occasional dramatic cliff. We drive along route 168 towards Gojo, and finally arrive at the trail access. CIMG8414 CIMG8413 CIMG8418

Mizunomi-Ouji is a mossy, Sugi-enveloped trail studded with green stumps and tiny mushrooms. We walk along the trail looking for good patches of leaf-filtered light. Elsa and I are told to walk on ahead while the ad director and the entire crew follow along behind. “Do you ever get the feeling,” says Elsa with a smirk, “that you’re being followed?” Up the trail and back we go, marveling at tiny purple flowers, sparkling spider webs and towering sugi trees.CIMG8421 CIMG8422 CIMG8424

Massugu sugi

Mori de matte imasu

Shiko atsume

 

真っすぐすぎ

森でまっています

思考集め

(Small haiku attempt. Be patient with my growing… An old young seedling.)

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We stop at a charming little café and B&B along the road on our way back down the Kumanogawa called the “Café Hongu.” The bread they serve with the pumpkin soup is as wonderful as my mom’s homemade bread. I am amazed at how good it is and I compliment the owner on her scrumptious food.HotLoveTea In their homey gift shop, I find some delicious apple butter and some “Hot Love” tea to bring back with me as omiyage.

On the drive back we notice a stretch of the river where a sediment-laden tributary joins the main trunk. There, the river runs with two colors of water, sharply divided down the middle. The far side of the river runs aqua ice blue and the near side is light brown. Another striking contrast along the way is a field of glowing white Pampas grass with a brilliant scarlet sprig of sumac poking its head out over the top. The colors are changing faster now that the weather has gotten colder. CIMG8324

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We drive through Koyasan once more and turn into a narrow alley with a traditional Japanese entrance at the end; a different ryokan but this one is charming as well. The building is very old with a maze of indoor hallways that are open to the cool night air and lead us past small rock gardens. After we have found our room, I am afraid that if I wander away, I will not be able to find my room again. IMG_0299

CIMG8439Thankfully, we find the large tatami room which is the dining hall and we do find our way back to our room. We burrow under the poofy covers and fall quickly asleep. It’s been a long day.

The World Wide Wakayama Chronicles; Day Four

10-29-13; Tuesday

A rainy morning delays our start and even though we had to get up at 4:40, we do get to relax in our room until the 12 noon departure. No point setting up a photo shoot with no sun. Time to relax, catch up on email and do homework.

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For lunch, we walk to a nearby okonomiyaki place where we watch the cooks make delicious omlette-type thick pancakes containing eggs, flour, seasonings, and various meats. My favorite is the squid okomomiyaki with its firm and chewy chunks of white meat. The guys in the crew start to drink even though it is only noon. We find out later, that they all end up having to take naps in order to sleep off the effects of the alcohol. squid_lobsters

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We meet in the lobby at 5:00 pm to go out to supper where we are treated to a huge feast at the same restaurant as the nights before. The restaurant owners create dish after dish of wonderful food and it is tempting to eat much too much. The beef, in particular, was so tender; some of the best I have ever tasted.

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Back in the hotel, after the usual mother-daughter arguments about use of the computer and time limits, we head to bed at around 9:00 pm with the windows propped open for the cool fresh rainy air. It has been a very relaxing day as the weather has made it impossible to shoot any photos. Tomorrow, we will have to make up for the day of rest.

The World Wide Wakayama Chronicles; Day Three

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10-28-13; MONDAY Makeup and hair prep isn’t until 7:20 this morning, so we get to sleep in a bit. Good thing since Elsa had stayed up past 1:00 am Skyping and D&D adventuring with friends. Mama is not too happy about this. … Continue reading

The World Wide Wakayama Chronicles; Day Two

10-27-13; SUNDAY

The alarm rings at 5:00 am and we scurry to get ourselves to the make-up and hair room. The stylist is there waiting and Elsa goes first. He starts in trimming Elsa’s unruly mop and I go back to our room to pack since we will have to leave right after breakfast. When I get back to Elsa, I see that the “trim” is turning into a real hair cut, but it looks very nice.CIMG8297

The stylist apparently has cut the hair of some famous folks here in Japan, including the actress, Aoi Yu, who has a name like someone saying all the vowels in the alphabet. Arai-san says that he has just returned from Hawaii and the temperature difference is quite a shock. While he finishes with Elsa, I decide to do some of my morning sit-ups on the tatami which turns out to be not such a bright idea as the friction results in raw spots in the skin near my tailbone which I don’t discover until later.

The stylist re-braids my hair into the French braid I arrived with, brushes on a touch of makeup, and I am done. After a quick breakfast, we pile into the vans and drive to the famous temple at Koyasan for the first modeling shots of the trip. CIMG8300

For a listing of all of the temple lodgings available in the area, go to the following website: http://eng.shukubo.net or click on the embedded link: Welcome to Koyasan

When we arrive, the photographer has already set up the shot. The temple grounds are almost deserted in the early morning and we are able to get in lots of shots in a patch of warm sunshine before the crowds arrive. CIMG8309

After the shooting session, we follow the sounds of monotone chanting and find a large group of saffron-robed monks doing their morning obeisance at the various shrines throughout the temple grounds. They walk in formation with wooden geta-sandals clattering on the ground, then stop, turn, chant, bow and then continue to the next station.

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After shooting at Koyasan, we take a long drive over twisty mountain roads to an ancient onsen inn called Ryujin Onsen, or “Dragon-God Onsen.” When we arrive, we are met by the bowing, smiling owner. Two girls clad in onsen yukata with over-jackets are set in place, holding towels in their laps for the background scene while Elsa and I walk in front of the ryokan towards the camera while they take shot after shot in the cool morning air. I feel sorry for the girls who sit on the front porch with bare feet and geta, so Elsa and I hand them our kairo hand-warmers. Guess there will be no time to actually soak in the “Dragon-god” onsen. Maybe next time.

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Photo from Kumano Travel; click photo for link

Back into the vans we pile and on the way back to Koyasan for more photos, we stop at a little restaurant and have lunch. I order tsukimi soba or “moon viewing” soba. It comes with a raw egg floating on top of the noodles looking like a yellow moon in the dark soba sky.

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After lunch, Elsa and I run over the the nearby suspension bridge to run out over the water, the wooden slats bouncing under our footsteps.CIMG8326

The lunch location turns out to be a poor choice as several people, myself included, experience stomach pain and digestive problems after eating the soba. The drive through the mountains to our hotel is a bit miserable and I try to keep my eyes up and looking out the window to ease the nausea.

We finally make it to the hotel, drop off our bags and head out for dinner. The restaurant is run by a sweet old mom-and-pop couple and it is quite good. I really appreciate the salads and the amazingly tender beef that practically melts in one’s mouth. Elsa and I get to leave early so that we can shower and get to bed at a decent hour. We happily discover that we can get internet access in our rooms. I check my email and Elsa settles in to chat with her friends. It’s been a good day overall. CIMG8317

I am working on learning the names of some of the hard-working support staff: Misaki-san and Sayaka-san, Miyuki-san (who is my age), Arai-san; (makeup); Morikawa-san; (photographer).