Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.
In her second post, Helena shares the story of how her second book came to be. Enjoy!
Birdsong at Midnight
Two nights ago, sitting by the open window in the quiet country woods, late July, I heard a bird sing—chirp! Chirrup! Chirrup!
I listened and heard it again. Then it must have moved on.
Startling to hear a bird at night—full dark.
There are sounds here—early spring peepers, the tree frogs I wait all winter to hear again. And there are rhythmic callings, like the ringing of an old telephone. One ring not far from my west window, then an answer, deep out of the thicket of woods. Two owls calling to one another? Insects? No one I’ve asked in this rural place, not even the farmer who lives on the next road, and whose family has been here for generations, knows the answer.
I’ve heard owls—screech owls and great horned. The great horned owl sounds like boys calling to each other in the alleys of Brooklyn where I grew up—echoing off the cinderblock garages, or calling through microphones. Once I heard a great horned in the dead of winter, startling in the frozen woodscape.
Such sudden cries stop the world. They strike like an intersection with another world I’m a stranger to. A flash. A glimpse, and I’m lifted out of ordinary thought, above the habit of sleep. By sleep I mean the dullness that seems to be the dream of life. There, life is just life. But when I hear an owl, a red-tailed hawk, the coyotes howling, I’m lifted into Mystery, awakened into the astonishing state of knowing I’m alive.
One night long ago, I heard birdsong at midnight. A series of notes like flutesong ringing into the darkness of a suburb of Long Island, where the green woods have long ago been covered with concrete and asphalt. I experienced it as a miracle. Later I learned it was likely a mockingbird—there are many on Long Island. Though it’s rare, they sing at night. I lay in bed, pierced by that gorgeous melody, in a state of amazement, radical amazement. And these words went through my mind: “A Nightbird calls in the darkness.” I knew the channel had opened inside, the one through which stories come to me.
The line was with me the next day, though I hadn’t written it down, and the rest of the story tumbled out after it. “…the notes ride on the moonlight into the room where Martha is sleeping.” I imagined an enormous white bird and a girl named Martha climbing onto its back, then, the two heading out into the night through her open window. As I wrote, I was Martha, seeing below me roof tops, city streets, the harbor, flying until dawn, then circling home, in through my window to the smells of breakfast, and my mother’s voice calling.
I sent the story out. It was the eighties, a time of lyrical stories, the children’s book market rediscovering itself. The story was bought by Caedmon, a publishing house later acquired by Harper. Caedmon was the great house that recorded Dylan Thomas, and many such great writers, reading his work. Caedmon’s were the first talking books.
Martha and the Nightbird was my second book. After five years of writing, writing, writing, and submitting my stories to a long list of publishers, honing my skills along the way, enduring many rejections—yet helped, too, by toughening up, believing in my work, and, at first, occasional bits of feedback from a few editors who saw something in my writing—I’d begun selling stories.
Martha came out in 1986, with my first set of color illustrations for publication, beautifully printed in Singapore. My first book, A Grain of Rice, was pencil; color printing for an unknown author was out of the question in the eighties—too expensive. Martha is out of print now, but thankfully one can still find copies through the internet.
Here is a quote I’ve excerpted from feedback I’d once written to a student, in response to a beautiful piece she’d written about her sister. The piece was an assignment writing from Writing For Children: Voice, Story and Structure, one of the courses I teach here at the Center. The piece was so poignant, full of feeling that could not be spoken directly, but only through art—through her writing:
Feeling is so very important to learn to write with. Feeling gives the writing impact. Writing is a way to resolve life, a way to weave the monumental story we are, and that alone must be the resolution to so many things that can’t be put right in any other way. But great literature, music, painting, dance—art is born of those depths where life’s content lives, driving us to create. Art is the fruit of deep emotion, pain, joy, love—all of it, or it isn’t art.
The brush, the pen, the voice, open up the transcendence where our experience becomes a narrative, a whole, where its meaning is revealed to us and to our readers.
What questions do you have for Helena about audience? Or, what part of Helena’s advice resonated most with you? Share with us in the comments!
Related reading: Helena Writes #1: On intended audience
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