Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Beautiful Soul

My heart is heavy with grief. On January 13, 2015 I, along with the rest of the children's writing community lost a wise, funny, kind-hearted soul when Bonnie Christensen lost her battle with cancer. She was particularly special to me because she was my first advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts. 

I vividly recall the day I found out she would be my advisor. I was nervous about working with her because I didn't want to write picture books and she was a master at it. When I met with her one-on-one I apprehensively told her about my preference for young adult novels. She instantly put me at ease by saying, "Oh good because I don't want to read of bunch of picture books, I like variety." Overcoming that hurdle, I was excited to get to work with and learn from such a respected, award-winning writer. 

Fast forward to my first packet. Packets consisted of a minimum of forty pages of new material, plus annotated bibliographies of the dozen books we read, plus critical essays. In my first semester I had to complete two critical essays per packet. Packets were due to our advisors once a month. Each advisor administers packet feedback differently. Bonnie required a phone call to talk about the written feedback she provided. When the day came for our phone call I was nervous once again. I had never had a phone conversation with a professor. My first critical essay was horrendous. Was I ready to hear how bad I'd done? It was hard enough to stomach her written comments, even though she delivered them gently. Aside from nerves, I was embarrassed that my essay was so bad and knew from her notes that it would a big topic during our call. 

When the hour came, I set my cell phone on my lap and waited for Bonnie to call. She was about four minutes late so my anxiety had time to grow. She was breathless on the phone. She opened the call with, "Sorry I'm late but I was unclogging my sink. All these gray hairs cause havoc on my pipes so I have to play plumber once in a while."

Her voice was warm and I could feel her smile through the phone. My anxiety melted and I knew that our conversation was going to come from a place of genuine desire to make me a better writer.

I was correct. We talked for about forty minutes and while she asked that I re-write the essay, she also gave me a ton of ideas and examples that steered me in the right direction. She assured me that I was not the first (nor would I be the last) student to write a less-than-stellar critical essay, and that as long as each essay improved with time and practice, I would be fine. 

As the semester went on, I worked on a short story that featured a feisty Latina teen protagonist who enters a mixed martial arts reality television competition as way of surviving her drug addicted mother. Bonnie loved my character. She said there was more there than a short story. She challenged me to find the rest of the story. She planted the seed of the novel I used to land my first literary agent. It hurts my soul to know that she won't be around to see how that story ended, where it went after her delicate touch.

She did something else that semester that I will never forget. She told me to play. As you know from an earlier post, I have a Type A personality. I don't play, I work. That advice was hard for me to follow. Play? How? I didn't want to play. I took my writing seriously, I wanted to improve. Bonnie informed me that I would improve by playing, and proceeded to give me writing exercise options to help me learn how to play while getting work done. I enjoyed those exercises. They were like the old days of extra credit work, and as a Type A, that worked for me. Through playing I got to interview my character. Even in draft I-don't-even-know-anymore of my novel, there are elements from that exercise that have survived. To this day I still refer to those exercises when getting to know new characters, or a new story. I can never thank her enough for teaching me the importance of play.

When I went to Vermont for my final semester, full of the dread and excitement of graduating, I noticed that Bonnie looked thinner and her hair looked like something out of a hair care magazine. I wasn't sure what product had tamed her wild hair, but it looked very pretty. But, something seemed off. She was still often smiling and funny but something wasn't there. I couldn't pinpoint what it was and since I didn't want to pry, I didn't ask. 

I attended her lecture, as many did, expecting to hear some brilliance about how to create and nurture a strong writing life.  She opened up the conversation with jokes about how life sometimes decides to give you a hard time and keeps piling up the hard knocks. She went on to share with the entire VCFA WCYA community that she was battling cancer. The room went silent and for me, all I saw was her. 

She was at the front of Chapel Hall, the largest lecture hall on campus and no one else existed around me at that moment. I tried to listen respectfully as she went on to tell us that she was fighting it like she had fought all other obstacles in her life. I gripped the chair and stayed put, even though all I wanted to do was run up there, hug her, and protect her from what was to come. I knew I couldn't do that. It wouldn't have been appropriate to run up to the front of the lecture hall while she was still addressing us and throw my arms around her, and even if I could, it would not negate what she had been through, and what she was about to face. 

There was never a trace of woe-is-me or pity in her voice. She was upbeat and full of smiles, even as she delivered what was probably the most raw and personal lecture of her life to a room full of eager students who hung on her every syllable. Those who had worked with her in workshops or as an advisee were no doubt thanking their lucky stars that they had the chance to learn from her. Students who had not had that honor were most likely experiencing the disappointment that they may never get the chance. I was among those who was grateful, but I quickly became angry. 

Again, life was showing me who was boss. It was reaffirming that it wasn't fair and never would be. Bonnie was one of the kindest, most generous, giving spirits I have ever met. She offered smiles and warm words like butter on toast - smooth and plentiful, spreading through the recipient like a hearty meal. She delivered her feedback, even when it was unpleasant (RE: my horrible first essay) as though it was a hiccup on the road to success, something to acknowledge, learn from and move on from so your talent could be strengthened and shine through. I couldn't help think, "God, what is your problem? Why must you be so selfish and take those who offer so much to the world?" 

Bonnie had been on faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts for years and had impacted so many writers. Many students exceeded their own expectations under her encouragement. So many of her advisees went on to write beautiful and well-written books of all kinds. She was working on her first middle grade novel that she was so excited about. It was funny and had charismatic, varied characters that may never get in front of children and that thought burned me to the core, and still does. 

As I've been told many times in the last two years, God works in mysterious ways. I agree with that statement, although I often change it up in my head to read, "God works in crappy ways that hurt." I know that is harsh, but when your heart aches and you see and feel the pain of loss, your thoughts tend to get a little severe. 

I don't feel that way all the time, but when I got the news of Bonnie's passing, my adaptation of the passage seemed fitting. It is crappy that she is no longer imparting wisdom on her students. It is crappy that her novel may not get published, even though the snippets I heard were excellent and moving. It is crappy that she won't be at any more residencies to offer kind smiles, jokes and uplifting anecdotes to nervous first semester students. It is crappy that her daughter has to face the rest of her life without her mother to share it with. It is crappy that she will never get to read the final version of the story I have been dedicated to since she first pushed me to see it for more than what I first imagined.

Bonnie's legacy is rich and encompasses so many facets. From her mentoring students who aspired to write as well as her, to the young readers who marveled at her words and art, to the countless family members and friends who lost someone who added so much to their lives. The world is more colorful and whimsical because of Bonnie Christensen and I will forever be grateful that she ignited some of that color and spark in me.

Bonnie Christensen
Artist, Illustrator, Award-winning Author
Trusted Advisor, Friend, Mother & Colleague

Books written and/or illustrated by Bonnie Christensen:
I, Galileo
Plant a Little Seed
A Single Pebble: A Story of the Silk Road
Fabulous!: A Portrait of Andy Warhol
The Princess of Borscht
Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told
Magic in the Margins
Pompeii, Lost and Found
I, Dred Scott
The Daring Nellie Bly
In My Grandmother’s House
Woody Guthrie, Poet of the People
Moon Over Tennessee
The Grapes of Wrath
Rebus Riot
Breaking Into Print
Putting the World to Sleep
An Edible Alphabet
Green Mountain Ghosts

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