Before I started this blog, I had a Tumblr dedicated wholly to a new literary project I started in February. The premise was that I would take “life prompts” of sorts from every book I read. It started out lacking focus. I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and sent an old journal of mine to a close friend, like Helen gave Gilbert. When I read The Raven Boys, I picked a lesser known historical figure to “search for”/research (in my case, it was the Breton pirate Jeanne de Clisson), and I knitted my own fingerless gloves, much like Blue Sargent. But eventually I started cutting to the real lesson to draw from the book. When I read A Wise Man’s Fear, in addition to rescuing an old guitar that someone had thrown in the trash, I did some soul searching to find the “question that drives me.”
When I started this blog, I realized I wouldn’t have time to keep the other one running. Each book usually had anything from 3-5 entries dedicated to it, and as quickly as I read, I was already running behind. I love that project, though, and I’ve learned so much from it, so I decided to incorporate it into this blog. Rather than several posts, I’ll just write one post per book, and it will be published after the book is already finished. More like a summary of the prompt I took from the book and how I followed it than a play-by-play. And now, without further ado…
I recently read The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown.
As far as covers go, this is one of my favorite books that I own. It’s a used book gift that my friend Laney found online, a lovely, deep blue clothbound cover. On the inside, there’s an inscription from the previous owners: “From Daphne, To Christina on her birthday. 1954.” Without names, I haven’t been able to find anything else about them, though I’ve often wondered.
But I love the blue of the cover best because it reminds me of the blue with which I imagine the children painted the door of their Blue Door Theatre.
What immediately struck me about this book is how motivated the protagonists are. There are seven children in the story: Nigel, Victoria, and Percy “Bulldog” Halford; Jeremy and Lynette Darwin; Sandra and Maddy Fayne. Each one is artistically talented or enthused in some way. When they find an abandoned building, they decide to turn it into a venue for a theatre company they want to start. It starts out strong, as these schemes often do. They get permission from the local vicar, as the church owns the property, and they start to work on cleaning it up and renovating it. They do all of this with no outside assistance, and once the theatre is fixed up and ready to be open to the public, they start to plan a performance in three parts: a sketch, a musical, and a two act play. They write all of this themselves over the course of a few days, produce and direct it all themselves, and perform it in front of everyone all themselves.
And because it’s a children’s story written in the 1930s, of course, they’re an instant success.
I realize that this whole thing is fictional, that very few children let alone adults actually have that much ceaseless motivation, especially in the face of opposition from their parents. It’s worth noting, however, that Pamela Brown herself was fourteen when she started writing this book and sixteen by the time it was published. After writing the entirety of the Blue Door series and other novels, she went on to become a TV producer. So, it’s not hard to imagine where the Halfords, Darwins, and Faynes got their determination. But even knowing it was fictional, I felt a little…called out by this book. I’ve always been great at ideas. A new story, a collaboration with friends, a chance to take action and right this wrong that’s been brought to my attention. In the first few days of an idea, I always feel so filled with fire and eagerness. But then it starts to flicker out. Doubts creep in, or, more often than not, simple exhaustion. This blog itself is a perfect example: I had the idea for it in early October, but didn’t start until the last night of October. Since then, this is my fifth published post. I am awesome when it comes to thinking up ideas. I’m not great at executing them.
I knew, then, from the first couple chapters what my challenge would be. I needed to be proactive about something, to take an idea and actually follow it through into action, even if it seemed unlikely. There are some things, of course, that just weren’t within my power. But I found in a favorite charity something that might not have been within my power to bring about but was certainly within my power to try. Recently, I was introduced to 826 National, a non-profit organization with seven locations across the nation dedicated to promoting child literacy and creative writing. They provide free, after school writing workshops, classes, and tutoring for kids between the ages of 6-18. They foster their goals for the year and help them to reach them. I’ve donated to a few different locations, but every time I did so, I thought, “It would be so great if we had one of these in Louisville.” So, finally, as I read this book, I decided to email the development folks at 826.
I shared my story of how I became a writer as a child and how that shaped the person I am now. I talked about my city and that while we have a great literary scene for twenty-and-thirty-somethings, I still don’t know of programs out here that encourage kids to get into writing, especially those without hundreds of dollars to throw at a workshop entry fee. “I’m far from a community organizer, or any kind of organizer, really,” I disclaimed. “I never finished college, and even if I had the right skills, I have a full-time job that takes up most of my day. But I really believe that Louisville could use a program like 826. What can I do or who would I need to contact to discuss whether or not opening an 826 location in Louisville would be a possibility? If that’s not a possibility, what would you recommend that I could do to get kids and teens in my community into creative writing in an accessible way?”
I didn’t expect them to reply that week, if at all. It seemed like a stupid question that should be obvious, or that if I had to ask, I wasn’t the right person to do so. But in fact, I got a reply the very next day–telling me that I had sent the email to the wrong coordinator. But they were very gracious and helpful, thanking me for my question and for sharing my story, and they forwarded my email to the right person. Within a week, I got an email from her, offering me so many links it was honestly overwhelming, with information about starting a non-profit, who to contact within my government, and other non-profits with similar goals to that of 826. And maybe I haven’t finished my life prompt for this book, because I haven’t gotten much farther than that. I know that I need to finish what I started, or at least see how far I can get, or what’s the point. Writing this post has served as a reminder in that way. But the fact that I sent that email, thinking there was no way that I could do anything about it–that I just had to try so I could say that I did it for my book project–and received an incredibly gracious response detailing what I can do…I definitely owe that start to the Blue Door kids.