Helena Writes #6: On watching, and traveling through story-telling

Helena Writes
Date Posted:
2/6/2020

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 sixth post, Helena shares, through her own childhood memories, the importance of watching in the writing process, and provides an exercise to put you back in touch with your child’s self.

WATCHING

The bears are asleep now that the temperature has dipped into the single digits, nights in these foothills of the Catskill Mountains. So, I’ve put out the bird feeders. I acquired this wisdom soon after coming here 23 years ago, when my sturdy feeder, made so that squirrels couldn’t chew it through, disappeared.

I found it the following fall, on a walk with a friend, buried in a pile of leaves, deep grooves in its space-age plastic. A powerful jaw and sharp teeth had failed to pierce it, but the bear had figured out how to open it from the top. In the warm weather, I soon reasoned, the birds have plenty to eat. It’s in winter they need my help. A great consolation. I didn’t want to meet a bear on my porch, as my neighbor has.

So it’s theatre time for my kitties.

The chickadees arrive in a small crowd. My cats watch from our window. I think of the people who sat at the windows of the apartment houses on Crown Street, in Brooklyn, winter, spring, summer, and fall, watching the life on the street. Children playing stick ball and sidewalk games, and adults walking by on their way to and from the places people walked to then—the grocery store, the butcher shop, the shoemaker, the bakery, and the subway station at Utica Avenue. Walkers! The streets of that small neighborhood were filled with them.

Crown Street was also lined on both sides with parked cars. Our 1952 Dodge was one of them, when my father wasn’t teaching. Yet traffic was infrequent, and cars drove slowly over the asphalt, which exposed the old cobblestones in places the paving was worn. The people at the windows turned their heads with the passage of cars, Mrs. Solloway’s, Mr. Bender’s—two of the window regulars.

Day and night my cats watch the life of the world through our windows—when they’re not sleeping, or asking to be fed, or to be held and cuddled. I have never had cats who asked so directly for love—consoling in this woods life. Through my windows, Oliver and Sebastian, brothers, see things I don’t see. Visitors who leave tracks in the snow—a cat? A dog? A coyote? I’ve heard stores of bobcats here, but they’re known to be shy.

When I lived on Long Island, there were footprints someone had left in the walk of my backyard, when the concrete was fresh. They led to the fence that delineated the yard of the house on the next street—a mysterious place, because the “neighborhood” didn’t extend that far. Frank Place seemed like another world from Hemlock Avenue, where we, my son and I, lived. Like Crown Street, neighborhoods seem small places where people just know each other—live side by side, see each other come and go. One block, a half block, sequestered in a bigger place, beyond that the borders of the unknown wider world.

There were 28 children on Hemlock Avenue, and they too played in their hives of street games and imaginary worlds. I and my friends were cowgirls. My son was a ninja. My son’s childhood was 40 years ago. The world of “play dates” was just stirring. But the street life of children was still known only to themselves, as it was when I was growing up. Those who watched from their windows witnessed the charisma of children’s mysterious and exciting lives. I wonder now if watching stirred the memory of their own.

In silence, some nights, I watch my fire. I’m certain people always have watched fire. In Japan, people watched the moon, sitting together in the night. There are 19th century Japanese woodblock prints of “moon viewing.”

We are clearly watchers. Before television and computers, we were watchers.

Oliver and Sebastian are fed by watching. Maybe all animals are, I don’t know. But we are. We need to travel beyond the confines of our physical selves, and the walls of our minds to perhaps find the way back to ourselves.

WRITING

One fall, an illustrator friend and I became writing partners. We made a commitment to write a story about the seasons. We’d meet in three weeks to share our work.

If one wonders if the imagination has atrophied in this time of technology, stories supplied by television, movies, and computers, sit quietly with an image and see what happens.

The image that came to me, writing in my kitchen, my feet propped on a chair, my knees supporting my notebook, were those footprints left by an unknown child in that still, yet-to-dry concrete of my backyard. What magic that must have been!

I saw those footprints as I wrote, covered in dry leaves in the autumn, filled with snow and traces of ice in winter. They thawed in spring, seedlings sprouting in summer, pools of water at the heels. And I thought: in one year, that child would have outgrown those prints leading into the alley. The alley? There was no alley on Hemlock Avenue.

But there were alleys in Brooklyn. They ran parallel to the rows of houses and divided the neighborhoods like ghost images of the streets, as magical as the pale double of a rainbow. They were empty of people. Garbage cans were kept there, and big oil drums filled with spent coal. I could hear the clatter of those pails. I’d left my kitchen. I sailed free of my body, and of time.

Inside me, snow was falling. Suddenly there he was, a snowman. I heard him speak. And a boy named Nathan. Now they were conversing. It was my first experience of characters coming alive within me and I wrote to keep up with them.

The Snowman’s Path was acquired by Dial Books, by an editor who had encouraged me for years. Next came The Angel Tree, a Christmas story. (And next would have come Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn, which eventually came out with Maple Hill Press, but that’s a publishing story for another day.)

That day in my kitchen, the snow fell through my walls. Time stopped. The laws of gravity held no sway over me as I wrote. There sat a writer in her kitchen, traveling through her story-telling. Such freedom!

Like Oliver and Sebastian at my window, like the people at the windows on Crown Street, the moon-viewers in beautiful block-printed kimonos in Japan on a silent full-moon night, and the fire watchers at the dawn of humanity, all of us are seeing stories unfolding beyond the confines of our daily lives, in that miraculous thing we call imagination.

Time stopped. The laws of gravity held no sway over me as I wrote. There sat a writer in her kitchen, traveling through her story-telling. Such freedom!

AN EXERCISE

Here’s an exercise to try—call it an exercise in dialogue.

Who was your doll, or your stuffed bear, or your satin-covered clown, when you were a child?

Mine was a bear named Brownie. He lay each night on the pillow beside me as I fell asleep, until I was 12 and we drove away without him one summer on our way to camp—I’d forgotten him. I must have been ready to go it alone. But until that time, I told him my sorrows, my joys, my worries. He was alive, and somehow still is, sitting on the shelf in my bedroom here in adulthood.

If you speak to your doll or bear now, in the quiet of the place where you write, if you ask a question, what does she reply? What does he ask you? Likely, you will begin to write. And write and write. And you might find that there is a story there, waiting to be born.

Will you try Helena’s exercise and write a conversation about a beloved childhood stuffed animal or doll? Share with us in the comments!

Related reading: Read the previous Helena Writes posts

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