Monday, August 8, 2011

On Hollow Sycamores, Treehouses and Writing

"There is no revising a blank page. Keep going." --from Naomi Wolf's The Treehouse 

What's the one thing that piqued your curiosity early on and never shook loose? That started a writing dream you can't walk away from?

For me it's the idea of a huge, hollow tree--a sycamore to be exact. A sycamore that, at the turn of the 19th century, sported a hollow trunk big enough to shelter an entire pioneer family--parents and four children--until they could build a log cabin. That had to have been a mighty tree! Upon reading the historical account some years back, the idea for my book took root. And what a journey the writing has been.

For fun, when family gathered last month--some from far-flung places--we trekked to a later version of a hollow sycamore (certainly much younger than the pioneers' tree), located in a park across town. There my dear daughter-in-law and talented photographer (thanks, Suzan!) captured this picture--one proud grandma and grandkids squirreled away in the bowels of a tree. Talk about trying to put yourself in your book's setting!

All of this reminded me of Naomi Wolf's book, The Treehouse, Eccentric Wisdom from My Father on How to Live, Love and See (2005). Though not about a hollow tree, it is about a treehouse, a family's relationship, and lessons passed on to another generation. In Wolf's case, the lessons extended to the craft of writing since her father, Leonard, was a poet and teacher. In her introduction she wrote, "I wanted to capture some of what he taught me about love, happiness, loss, and above all, about the power of the imagination, as I learned from him how to build a treehouse in the woods."

She divides the book into twelve writing lessons:

1. Be Still and Listen... 2. Use Your Imagination... 3. Destroy the Box... 4. Speak in Your Own Voice... 5. Identify Your Heart's Desire... 6. Do Nothing Without Passion... 7. Be Disciplined With Your Gift... 8. Pay Attention to Detail... 9. Your Only Wage Will Be Joy... 10. Mistakes Are Part of the Draft... 11. Frame Your Words... 12. Sign It and Let It Go.

Lots of great writing wisdom in the topic titles alone!

A sample of Leonard's advice that Wolf quotes: "Don't wait for inspiration, but sit down quietly, and begin; once you have gotten to work, shut up, even to yourself, about writers block; use your imagination; and keep working. That is your draft. The first one will always be terrible; don't worry about that; keep working. Cut anything that is not in your own voice or anything about which you do not feel passionately or anything that is not true. If you have taken a wrong turn, go back; that is part of the process. Then edit, edit, edit. Finally, know when you are done. Of all these, 'get to work' is the most important."

All of this in a volume that set out to chronicle the building of a child's dream, that of a treehouse. My pioneer family's dream started with a hollow tree. My dream started with their story.

Where did your writing dream begin?

(p.s. for fun, check out Jess's recent post at Falling Leaflets, where she shares photos of her younger self...reading up in a tree. Hands up if you identify with this child!)


  1. Good post! I didn't have a hollow sycamore in my life that I can remember. For me, imagination flowed not so much from a place as from actions. And the roots of my storytelling are (surprise) in washing dishes. As a child, my sisters and I had to share that chore. I liked to divert them with stories I made up on the spot. I don't remember the stories themselves, just the need to tell them. Guess what - it's still with me. (Though, with the advent of dishwashers, I've been forced to take up typing as an outlet.) :)

  2. Lovely post and just love the tree. My writing dream? During the war when a child to shut out the fear, I think.

  3. Loved the tree. I liked the 12 writing lessons a lot.

  4. I don't remember when my writing dream began, but I remember when my reading dream did ... I was in the first grade and proudly checking out books from the local library (which was very tiny). I wanted to walk the two blocks to the library alone and check out books. My father must've thought that, and I, was quite special, because he complimented me on my success in learning to read, and he said the words that will stay with me forever, "Cathy can do anything her heart desires her."

  5. What a beautiful photo! I hope your grandkids have copies~ it will be very special to them when they get older. I love this post, and the book sounds fantastic~ full of natural wisdom. And it's a great reminder to have more conversations with my father :)

  6. I'm so glad you all stopped in and commented, thanks!

    Peggy--I couldn't help but think of Jo in Little Women when I read your note! The writer in you started young. How you must have entertained your sisters, and made a boring chore go a bit easier :-)

    Carole Anne--my heart skipped a beat when thinking of the significance of your comment. You must have experienced a childhood most of us cannot imagine. Wow. I can't help but wonder how your early experiences have influenced your writing...

    Rachna--glad you like the picture of the tree :-) And the writing lessons struck me as particularly helpful. Glad to have had an opportunity to share them.

    Catherine--oh, the independence and emerging love of books you showed as a child! And the lasting encouragement from your dad at his comment is precious--loved your story. Thanks for sharing.

    And Jess,I'll be sure to provide a photo of our time together with these kids! It was a special memory for me; I think it will be for them, too. And I loved the Naomi Wolf book. I identified with some conversations I've had with my dad (maybe not about writing but certainly family history), hope you have meaningful ones with your dad, too :-)

  7. What a beautiful post! I love trees, and an old half-hollow one make several appearances in my current WIP.

    Thank you for the mention of Wolfe's book. I hadn't heard of it, but it sounds wonderful. Love the quote. I'm putting the book on my wish list.


  8. Love the picture! Thanks for sharing a lovely post, too.

  9. Wow, I'm going to have to add this to my writing book TBR list. Those titles alone make it worth it. Thanks for telling us about it. :D

  10. That is one amazing tree! And what great advice. It's so easy to get caught up in the words that you forget to enjoy and to just get the story on paper that first time through.