Ten writers for children. All with something to say.
We were lucky to have my 90-year-old father still able to celebrate Christmas in our home along with 18 members of our extended family. I did not take a photo of my son carrying my father into our house because the sight was just too heart wrenching, but you can see him here in a wheel chair in front of the fireplace in the midst of the gift opening.
Here are the two youngest of the clan--Piper, our son's 20-month-old daughter, and Gareth, our daughter's 2-year-old son, who are great playmates.
And I have to include a photo of my favorite gift--photographs taken on Vinalhaven Island off the coast of Maine. My husband had prints made on canvas, to hang in my writing cabin in order to keep the setting of my novel-in-progress clear in my mind.
This morning I got together with three amazing, creative, thoughtful librarian friends, Julie Reimer, Linda Middleton-Koller, and Kim Faurot. We snacked on Julie's delicious holiday cookies and discussed books and reading. They also indulged me by looking at the latest revisions of my current book project. My heart was light and happy when I left their good company.
On Christmas Eve morning, as is tradition, I met with the members of my old book club, friends I have known for over twenty years: Gary, Robert, Evan, and Timothy, friends who make me feel loved and appreciated.
Still to come, a Saturday morning walk with my college friend Ann, and a New Year's Eve gathering spent eating delicious food and playing board games with three other friends. I couldn't ask for better gifts than the people who make up my life.
Tamales are the traditional Christmas food of Latin countries. They are very labor intensive to make, so usually are only made for special occasions. My daughter and I took a tamale-making class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking a couple of years ago. This was an all day project for us on Christmas Eve. I made a killer pico de gallo, too.
My daughter is pictured here in her "drinking glasses" a well engineered straw that travels quite a distance! Santa brought this for her stocking.
My thoughtful husband took copies of The Compound and four of the foreign language versions and had them framed. Cool.
Early this month I had the pleasure of seeing the Guthrie Theater's excellent production of the Christmas Carol. My favorite line was when Scrooge claimed he wasn't "rich," but instead was a "job creator." I was pulled into the story even though I've seen it multiple times and was struck by Scrooge's first ghost visit, that of his former partner Jacob Marley. Marley's ghost, who's dragging around heavy, clanking chains warns him of the danger of being so focused on money and accumulation if he wants to avoid a miserable afterlife. It's Marley's ghost who sets the stage for Scrooge's transformation.
It's interesting that we now associate the word Scrooge with selfishness and stinginess. It's a measure of the extraordinary way Dickens had with names but also our focus on the unredeemed Ebenezer. For this post I am focusing on the generous, giving, and kind Scrooge at the close of the Christmas Carol. This is the spirit that infuses so much of my experience in the world of writing for children. From editors who have been generous with their time and comments to marketing and publicity people, librarians, teachers, my KTM critique group, my wonderful agent, Andrea Cascardi, parents, and readers of all ages, I feel fortunate for such kindness and support. One other group stands out as well--my fellow spud bloggers.
Best wishes for a wonderful holiday and please look for the New York Times on Sunday with the beautiful piece by my sister about my mother in the magazine. Watch for the watering can.
As for being "Scrooged", I have led two lives as an artist and it was during the transition from one to the other where I was scrooged-- when I was the more vulnerable, of course. After college in California, I moved to NYC where I lived my twenties making art, hoping to get into a gallery, be discovered, perhaps even be invited into the Whitney Biennial?! I applied for grants, artist residencies, fellowships, and found some success and many rejections. Eight years later, I met my husband, moved to the midwest and continued to paint, sculpt, and show in local galleries and museums here in the Twin Cities. It was not a gallery dealer who scrooged me or a publisher, critic, or mentor, but a peer. With the tongue of a witch foretelling my future she snapped: "You will never be a serious artist because you got married and left NYC." That is all she uttered, but it hit me to my core. "Friends" in NY had told me the same thing, but I laughed it off, yet this time it stung. I was pregnant at the time with my first child, so there was no turning back and I was beginning to illustrate my first children's picture book, which at the time, did not feel like making "real" art. Tonight my first-born is coming home from college for the holidays. She is almost 20 years old. For the past twenty years, I have been "seriously" painting picture books and writing stories, sculpting and painting in-between deadlines. Perhaps in this person's eyes, I am still not a "serious" artist, as what I do now will never be in the Whitney Biennial. But who knows? Perhaps some visitor to the Whitney museum will will be walking through the galleries with their child in a stroller and that little girl or boy will tire of looking at the "new" art and instead read through one of my books pulled from the stash of books in the back of the stroller, as my children did on visits to art museums. And to this "peer" with her stinging tongue, I say: "Bah! Humbug!"
So no Scrooges – unless you count bad luck. Like the time twenty years ago when I had a story accepted for publication in the Sunday arts supplement of the Oregonian. My only previous publication had been in my college’s literary magazine, so I was absolutely thrilled with the acceptance letter (which included a check for $200). But a month later the arts section was cut from the newspaper, the editor who loved my story was out of a job, and I was back to submitting the story elsewhere. I could keep the check, though.
I never did find a home for that story. I think I gave up after a couple of years and maybe twenty submissions. The check stub is in my envelope of acceptance letters – but I’d rather the story was published.
The agent began sending me handouts about common mistakes new writers make (enough to fill a looseleaf notebook), and I kept waiting for specific feedback on which of those common mistakes applied to my work. Months later she asked me to make the 200 page manuscript longer, so I spent several months going through page by page and expanding the story by about 50 pages. I did not receive any feedback, except that it still wasn't long enough. Finally I said I wasn't going to do more revisions until she gave me specific suggestions on what needed to be done. After six months of hearing nothing, I received a registered letter stating that I had not followed any of her suggestions, I was unresponsive, and she was ending our business arrangement. I truly don't think she ever read any of my manuscript. Of course, I sat down and wrote a long letter back to her, stating that I was the one ending my business arrangement with her. It helped diffuse some of my anger, even though I never mailed it.
So what did I learn by this? First of all, not to jump at the first sign of interest, to do my homework before signing a contract with an agent, to find out what genres he/she represents, to find out if this person truly likes my work and if he/she has a personality that meshes with mine.
I did eventually give up on that manuscript, which is still sitting on the shelf, but I did lift an entire scene from that novel and inserted it (with changes, of course) in ROAD TO TATER HILL.
You also know that my classmates poked fun of me when I spoke in English. Hello? Are you there? They challenged me, and here I am writing, reading, and speaking in English.
But what you don't know is that I quit writing for a few years. By then I had two published books--and a new literary agent. I have no idea why she signed me up. She kept telling me that I wasn't ready to submit, that I wasn't there yet. I felt so small I quit writing.
A few years later, an editor asked me to write a biography. I didn't think I could write it. But it was time to prove that agent that she was wrong.
What a blessing those challenges have been!
Before the conference we received copies of the other manuscripts. I hate to admit it, but I was secretly glad when I saw that my story was better than the other nine submissions.
All the conference attendees crowded into the auditorium where the New York Editor would spend a full five minutes critiquing each story. She loved the first manuscript (which wasn't very good). The second manuscript (which was worse) she loved even more. She went on and on extolling its positive qualities and told the author to please send the entire story to her publishing company - she'd like to consider it for possible publication. It was hard to restrain my mounting excitement.
And then it was my turn. I picked up my pencil and got ready to take notes on all her compliments and any suggestions she might have.
The New York Editor made a sour face. "There really isn't anything I like about this one," she said. She shuffled my manuscript to the bottom of her pile and went on to the next story.
I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. I remember trying to keep a smile plastered on my face, and walking through the rest of the conference on auto-pilot.
The positive outcome from this experience? I didn't give up. I went on to write several successful published books. The story that she hated (and which I still like) I use as a very successful story writing prompt with kids when I visit schools. And when I became the person giving critiques at SCBWI conferences, I remember the sinking feeling I experienced, I remember that opinions differ, and I always treat each author I review with gentleness and respect...and find at least one nice thing to say about their story.
Steve Jobs said being fired from Apple was ultimately a good thing. In the midst of that humiliation he realized he still loved his work and wanted to continue anyway.
Earlier in my career I turned in art for a book and the contract was subsequently canceled. The news hit me like a punch in the stomach. I curled in pain. I was so ashamed. Surely everyone in the industry knew about my rejection, I thought. I imagined a scarlet letter across my chest.
There were scrooges involved. I believe this only could have progressed to this point from lack of communication. It has always been my practice to show sample art and work-in-progress. At no point did the art director or editor alert me that they were unhappy. I received comments like, “Add more yellow.”
I was filled with self-doubt after this experience. Who would hire me again? I desperately wanted to get back up on the horse. My next opportunity came like a gift from a fairy godmother. I approached the project in a completely different style and the book garnered three stars, an ALA notable award, and many other accolades. Sound familiar, Stephanie? Yep, the book that brought me back was Elizabeti’s Doll. I am forever grateful to our editor, Liz Szabla.
There is value in disappointment. It helps define weakness, focus attention, and clarify desire.
“One’s best success comes after their greatest disappointments.”—Henry Ward Beecher
Wow. So it's not enough to bash my writing ( fine, everyone is entitled to their own opinion) but to throw around what is the meanest cliche about the teaching profession? Many of my friends and relatives are teachers, as am I, obviously, and I despise that people even have the nerve to utter such an awful, derisive thing. I won't lie, this one left me in tears and made me spend the whole day questioning whether I should even be a teacher OR a writer.
When I was thirteen months old, my mother gave birth to a little girl. My new sister was named Mary Elizabeth, but everybody called her Molly. She was born early and had problems with her lungs so she had to stay in the hospital for a few weeks. But she got better and came home.
One evening I could hear her from her crib, and I told my mother, "Baby's crying." Molly was having problems breathing and my mother called my father who came home and rushed her to the doctor. Molly died that evening.
My parents decided that I was too young to go to the wake or the funeral and nobody knew what to say to me about what had happened so nobody said anything about it.
It wasn't until I was much older that I heard about my sister Molly. Her death has had a big impact and I continue to miss her.
What’s some stuff not everyone knows about me? Let’s see. For some reason, people usually express surprise when I tell them I was born in
That’s not much of a revelation, though. So what else can I share? Well, I used to play saxophone in elementary and junior high. I was first chair in the stage band. I say this not to brag but to point out the reason why: practice. I had weekly private lessons and something my teacher once said has always stuck with me: “If I skip practice for a day, I can notice it. If I skip for two days, my audience can notice.” I followed this mantra to become a better saxophone player, and in the many years since then I have used it as a concise reminder of the value of diligence.
On a more embarrassing note, I’ll share a cautionary tale from my freshman year of high school. On the first day of school my English teacher told us to write a short paragraph about our favorite movie, television show, or book. Rather than applying myself or giving any effort at all, I goofed around gabbing with a buddy until five minutes before the end of class, at which point I dashed off a few sentences about the latest movie I’d seen. The next day, the teacher read off a list of names including my own. The chosen ones were escorted down the hall to a class for remedial writing instruction. As soon as I sat down and my new teacher asked us to read a sentence and figure out what was wrong with the first letter in the first word (it wasn’t capitalized), I knew I had screwed up royally this time. I immediately apologized and asked to return to my original class, but I hadn’t figured on how many times my new teacher had heard the line, “I don’t belong in this class.” So it took a week of pleading – “I’m sorry! I’m a goofball! I didn’t take the assignment seriously! Let me write another essay and prove it to you – pleeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaase!” – before the teacher finally relented and allowed me to remedy my mistake.
Thank goodness my parents never found out. Not to mention my saxophone teacher!
As the youngest of three, I was definitely babied. I was pretty fearless at home, but once I left the safety of my family, I was a very timid child. I remember that a high school teacher commented that she had never heard my voice - which made me even more embarrassed and shy. It didn't help that I was taller than most everyone, especially the boys. I have no idea exactly when that shyness ended (I know that it still exists deep inside), but when it finally came time to make my own way in the world, I had to speak up for myself. My first time speaking in front of an audience when I was in my 30's was a huge flop, but surprisingly the world didn't end. When I subbed, I was constantly "on stage" and I came to enjoy the give and take with the students. Now I can speak to auditoriums of students with very little fear. I guess it proves that you can change your life, or maybe it shows that once you are able or allowed to exert some control in your own life, you can feel less fearful.
When I was a kid, I was afraid of everything.
I was afraid of bees (they can sense fear) and dragonflies (if they land on your face they can sew your lips shut).
I was afraid of water. My fear intensified after I almost drowned, accidentally jumping into the deep end of the Holiday Inn swimming pool when I was trying to splash my older sister.
I was afraid of donkeys. When we visited Reptile Gardens in South Dakota, my parents wanted a picture of me standing next to the donkey at the petting zoo. "He's going to bite me!" I said. "He won't bite you," my parents assured. They took the picture and the donkey bit me.
I was afraid of turtles. My fear didn't stop me from entering the turtle races during the Park and Rec summer program at the local playground, because I didn't have to actually touch the turtle, all I had to do was bring a dollar from home and a turtle would be raced in my name. Then one year my turtle won, which meant I had to carry the turtle home so it could race at the next level of competition. Gingerly I held the turtle by its shell and ran until it began waving its claws, then I'd drop it on the ground. That's how I made it home, about five feet at a time.
But my biggest fear was a statue that my mother had in the living room. It showed a monkey sitting on a pile of books written by Darwin, examining a skull. I'm not sure which scared me more, the monkey, or the skull. In order to make sure that this evil monkey didn't do anything bad to me, every night when I went to bed I had to honor that statue by going to sleep facing it. I went to bed facing the same direction for years.
Thank goodness those fearful days of childhood are over!
Whenever we had a heavy rain, the land crabs were flooded from their shallow holes, and they came out snapping. I hated going out my front door on a rainy morning because the crabs often took refuge on our front porch--not just one, but sometimes four or five. They were blue and white and pink and sometimes spanned more than a foot with their claws outspread. I could hear the clicking of their feet on the terrazzo floor of the porch, and their claws looked strong enough to snap off a toe or a finger. There was a nearby park where my family often went for picnics, but I always avoided the sandy/muddy area sloping down to the pond. It was pockmarked with holes, often with large eyes peering out at me and with a claw ready to attack. No, I was never actually grabbed by one of those claws--except in dreams.
Would one of these scare you?
More stuff you never knew about me:
I used to wake up in the dark and change into my school clothes then get back under the covers until it was light. I wanted to be ready. My father caught me at it one time and told me it was only 1:00AM. I'm the most eager person you're likely to meet.
I was hit by a flying saucer while walking my pet skunk. Wait—do you already know this story? Stephanie does because it shows we were meant to collaborate on Elizabeti's Doll. In Massachusetts, my father built stonewalls surrounding our land and flanking the steps that zigzagged up our back hill. I claimed a striped stone for my own, wrapped some rope around it and dragged it behind me—Pepé Le Pew. It was a windy day in early spring. Our aluminum snow saucers still leaned against the cellar door. One caught the current, flew across the yard, and hit me under the nose. You can still see the scar from the stitches. In high school I found an advertisement in a magazine from some children's book institute. I sent in a variation on this story and received a letter back assuring me I could have a career in children's books. Guess you could say I was marked for this.
Our theme this round is to tell something about ourselves people may not know. And I suggested we reach back to our childhoods to do that. Here's me and my older brother:
1. There are cows.
2. Those cows need to be milked twice a day. Always. 365 days a year. No days off.
3. Those cows also need to be fed and watered and cleaned up after, because what goes into a cow always comes out, in a much bigger and smellier quantity than it went in. And, trust me, they don't clean up after themselves.
4. Did I mention the cows?
When I was in third grade, my job was to feed the calves. Sounds simple, yes? Hold on. We kept our calves in hutches, small wooden calf-size sheds, up on a hill. I had to carry grain and water up that hill, two buckets at a time. Ever thought about how much a calf can drink? Trust me, on a hot day in summer, a lot. I have no idea how many hundreds of trips I made up that hill and back down by the time I turned ten.
Speaking of age ten, here's me at the Jackson County Fair with my calf Popcorn:
(No, I didn't win a blue ribbon. Or even a red. I got a white ribbon, one of those "Thanks for coming, I'm sure you'll find something else you're good at...")
As I got older, I did more chores. I fed the cows, which meant I progressed from buckets full of grain to wheelbarrows full of silage. ( chopped-up hay from the silo) Those puppies are heavy, trust me. And one filled while you pushed with the other one, so if you dawdled at all, it would overflow and then you'd have to shovel. Which I did a lot. Not just silage. I remember coming home for Thanksgiving my sophomore year of college. The barn cleaner, the thing that cleans all the gutters out, had broken. And I stood there for hours, knee deep in cow manure, shoveling.
Milking cows was another chore I did for years. But I digress. This is not all about the work. I meant for this to be about the cows, and that, even though they were tons of work, I loved them. And I named them. Most were named for characters out of books I had read. And I was constantly out in the barn playing with them, so by the time they had grown up to be milking cows in the barn, they were so friendly and gentle.
My parents no longer have cows. Now, if I want to pet a cow, I have to call upon rancher friends out here where we live. And in the spring when the fields are full of calves, I stop by the road and get out and walk over to the fence, hoping one will stray my way so I can pet them....
The goal is the walk. I offer myself this lesson, well, again and again. Still the word and the story show up. I'm juggling life and the cost of houses and college educations. This puts a pressure that is not conducive to creativity. Instead, it says go, work, give--somewhere in that space I still write. I see the moon and I walk the lake with my dog and watch it turn silver, watch pelicans dip their beaks into that silver lake, sipping a silvery fish. It slows me down, my dog swims, I sit on the levee and feel grateful. It returns me to myself and I shed my skin.
One of my goals the past years has been to give thanks for the many opportunities that come my way. On a school visit to Gilman, Wisconsin in 1997, I was presented a beautiful Gratitude Journal by Heather Palmer, the art teacher. Heather told me that the journal was one in which I should write down things I was grateful for. I started doing this and came to value the practice. It's helped me cope with the ups and downs of publishing and reminds me how fortunate I am to get to do what I love when so many people struggle with so little. On this Thanksgiving, I give thanks for all of you and send all best wishes for a wonderful holiday.
|Mock-cover for *new* book|
|Igor Stravinsky and Vaslov Nijinsky in 1911|
I have another goal that seemed to come out of thin air, but it is also seated deep in my heart's desires- While lying on the couch with the flu at the beginning of November, I acted on an impulse to register with NaNoWriMo and begin writing a middle grade novel that had been bumping around in my head for over a year. Spurred on by NaNo's pep talks and support from writer friends, I have embarked on a journey of writing that I do not want to let go of. I love my characters, my setting, and the plot begins to simmer, though not thickening yet. November is nearly over, but I am setting what I hope is a workable goal of writing two pages a day, even through the above deadline!
Goals are often attached to commitments. Over the past five years I have committed myself to being the script writer for Circus Juventas and I have committed myself to visiting schools and libraries as an illustrator/author. The Wild West is the theme for this summer's Circus Show and the script is nearly done. Usually I would linger over the winter holidays, finalizing the script for the unveiling in the new year, but I have already spoken with the Artistic Director and set myself the goal of finishing by December 12th before the circus school's winter break. And almost with some kind of sixth sense, I have not scheduled myself with too many school visits this winter leaving open time for illustrating WSMN~ what a gift for the new year!
Ever since I was in grade school my primary dream/goal has been to be an author. Over the intervening years I have kept the faith and continued the quest -- through the rise (and eventual decline) of Minimalism, the supposed Death of the Novel, the resurgence of Children’s Literature (thanks, Harry Potter!), the dawn of the Information Age, and on into a new Millennium. Along the way -- while juggling jobs, relationships, and my own family -- I have managed to publish two stories, a haiku, a humorous essay, and, this past summer, a poem. So I guess I’m an author, of sorts, but I have yet to achieve my main goal: to write (and publish) a novel.
I have written upwards of 10 different novels in the course of the last 20 years, all of which reached various levels of “completeness” but none of which, so far, has developed into a finished manuscript. Currently I have drafts of two different novels I am working on, either of which might be “the one” that allows me to finally realize my dream. To be honest, some days I fear I will lose the will to keep plugging away, but then I come up with a new character or a scene, and I plunge back in again. I believe I will continue doing so until either I succeed or mortality catches up to me. Until then, I’ll stay hard at work. Wish me luck. It can only be a matter of time, right?
Besides, if I didn’t keep trying to write, what else would I do?
My daily goals are a little less pie in the sky. I need to work on the syllabus for my children's lit. class. I need to review illustrations for one of my books and turn in my comments by Monday. I need to respond to the students in my Humanities class, and I need to turn in papers to be copied for my class. All are doable. Some are more overwhelming than others. Most will be done in the next week.
My goals for the next few weeks are to come up with some new story ideas, or revise some old ones. I guess that's not too bad for someone who is not the biggest fan of planning.
These days as I am facing the reality of mortality during my father's fast decline, I am back to baby steps--specific goals set for a few days at a time, squeezing writing in as I can, but with the primary focus on making the most of the time left with my father. I am also bolstered by John's words about being brave and not simply being satisfied with what I've done in the past. Now I must push myself to take chances and try something new and different.
What you see here is an illustration by Salvador Dalí of Don Quixote de La Mancha translated by Peter Motteux. Poet David R. Wagoner gave me the book when he learned that I was writing about Dalí.What an honor!
That precious gift is forcing me to finish the Dalí biography by next spring. I also want to revise Late She Came to Know, the novel I had talked about here.
While working on both, I will study how to use the mechanics of writing--punctuation, capitals, italics, sentence structure, paragraph length, white spaces--to show the mood of a scene. All this time I have been concentrating on word choices. I won't stop. But it's time to pay attention to those commas.
Taped to the inside of my dresser is a handwritten note dated November 13, 1993. It reads: I will produce a quality children's book. Over twelve years later, after the publication of The Best Pet of All, I made the addition: I did produce a quality children's book! I've kept that note inside my dresser to remind myself that it's good to have goals and that dreams do come true, even if the road to their realization is long.
Like Christy, most of my goals are the short range ones. Currently my goal each day is to finish the sketch for another two-page spread for my current picture book project, with the goal of having a revised dummy to send to my editor by the end of the month. When I think of all the work I need to do in order to complete the final artwork by spring, I panic. But can I finish one sketch today? Yes, that's doable. And when even that seems insurmountable, I turn to smaller goals: I will finish the sketch of this one character before lunch. Small step by small step I'm inching toward my goal: the completion of the first book where I am both author and illustrator.
Many years ago at a family party a friend of my mother's asked me my “five-year-plan.” I bristled. Was this a party or an interview? I assumed the phrase originated in a self-help book, but a little Google-action showed me it dates back to the Soviet Union and China in the mid-to-late 1920s. While web surfing I found sites offering templates for creating personal five-year-plans, and many more sites with strategies for setting and working toward goals in all areas of life.
I did realize my childhood dream of becoming a children's book author-illustrator, yet most days I am not aware of my distant goals. I'm only aware of the flashlight beam illuminating the near spot on the path so I can put one foot in front of the other. Do I know where my path is leading? Not really. I hope when this project concludes there will be another one ahead. My graphic design teacher scolded me for just accepting jobs that fell in my lap. He said I should steer my career.
I'm great at meeting imposed deadlines. That is one reason I take writing classes or join writers groups. It's important to switch from this mode of pleasing others to looking at what I want and then break that down into tasks I do for myself. I can look to one example where I did this with happy results. My second author/illustrator project, Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building will publish with Lee & Low in fall 2012. I set the goal of submitting this project for consideration on the pub date of my first author/illustrator book. I chose to put aside other ideas in development and focus solely on this. Those other half-baked projects still call to me now—a MG novel, a biography, concept picture books, poetry, and more. The ideas bump into each other and compete. I need to stand back and get a distant view. Where do I want to go? Uh-oh, I might just have to develop a five-year-plan! Which project should be the next to develop? For those of you who entertain multiple ideas at one time, how do you decide?
Here's a couple interesting bits I found in my web explorations:
A creativity coach's web site (http://seedfiddle.com/) introduced the concept of Kaizen (Kai=change; Zen=good). “Kaizen, also known as 'continuous improvement,' is a long-term approach to success that systematically seeks to achieve small, incremental changes in processes in order to improve quality and achieve significant goals. Said simply, it is all about the power of small steps.”
Another site offered a helpful mnemonic, SMART goals:
S - Specific
M - Measurable
A - Attainable
R - Relevant
T - Time-bound
This is my youngest daughter and I this past
Saturday night, moments after she and her teammates won the Oregon 3A State Volleyball
tournament. From the moment the season started, even before the first day of
practice, she told me she wanted to win state. That goal was one shared by her
teammates, only three of which had even been on varsity the previous year. And
things looked good for the first 6 weeks of the season. But then our middle
hitter blew out her knee, sidelining her for the rest of the season. The team
didn’t have a replacement for her, our school is small, so they just
reconfigured the line-up. They missed their middle hitter, but they made do,
and they still thought they could win state. They were undefeated in league
play, and had a 28-2 record going into the quarterfinal, which they took easily
in three games.
But our semi-final game on Friday night, our girls
played the worst game of their season. They couldn’t serve, couldn’t hit,
couldn’t pass. It’s easy to win when everything is working, but when it isn’t,
well…then you need to dig deeper. And they did. I don’t know how, but they managed
to eke out a win. I think I was prouder of them for that win than any other
game this season. And when they stepped on the court for the championship game
on Saturday night, I could feel it. They knew they could do it, and they played
like it. Minutes after this photo was
taken, my kid got a gold medal around her neck.
How could a team just have a goal of winning state
like that? Because that’s the best you can do, and they wanted to be the best.
What if their goal had been to have a better than .500 season? Or to finish top
3 in their league? Decent goals, but really, what would be the point? Don’t you
have to dream as big as possible? Why NOT have a goal of that gold medal draped
around your neck?
My husband pointed out that during the semi-final
game, a game we needed to win in order to make the finals, our girls were
playing “to not lose”, instead of playing “to win.” And I realized writing is
the same. I start each book with a goal. But is my goal big enough? Am I simply
writing to “not lose” instead of writing “to win”? Each time I start a book,
shouldn’t I have the loftiest goal in mind? I mean, if my goal for my book is
simply to have my friends like it, or to make the shelf of my local bookstore, or
to get a dozen fan letters, what’s the point? Like my daughter, why aim for
anything else BUT the state title? For me, why not admit yeah, I’d love a best-seller or a Printz or a Newbery? If I don’t have that level of goal in mind
when I write, what’s the point?
There are seven volleyball teams that drove home
from Eugene today without the state title. They’ll all try again next year, and
someone else will win. Just like each year, there are hundreds of authors who
don’t get the big awards, myself included. But each new book I write, I’m back
in the running. I’m writing to win. And, like a state volleyball tournament, it’s
exciting, because you never know when you might just meet your goal. My
daughter, and her dreams, taught me that.
- Pause ~ Find moments throughout the day to pause and appreciate what I am writing, drawing or painting.
- Let Go ~ Begin the day with yoga and a brief meditation to let go of all the to-do lists that begin making themselves as soon as I wake. They will return. they always do.
- Morning is my best time for work~ Clear mornings for writing, sketching, painting.
- Write and draw/paint on ideas that do not have a deadline~ I am a very fortunate illustrator with manuscripts to illustrate on contract for the next several years. I love having a deadline to work with, like all of my fellow potatoes, the deadline spurs me on. But giving time to stories and pictures without deadlines adds excitement and adventure to my studio life!
- Connect with those who believe in me~ I am very fortunate to be working with an editor who believes in me. I am still not clear how it all happened. When I sent her a dark, scary first interpretation of the story SCARECROW years ago, she didn't throw out the contract, though I think everyone at Harcourt was urging her to. Instead, she gave me more time. Her patience and belief in me gave me courage. I also have an artist/composer/writer husband who is intimate with my creative process from the ecstatic successes to the weepy failures, and still he believes in me. And friends. I have cultivated many artist/author friends to share work and life with, all of whom are essential for my best work.
- Read ~ Make time for reading. Picture Books, Chapter Books, Adult fiction and Non. Make a pile of my favorite reads nearby so I can refer to them when inspiration is needed.
- Walks ~ A daily walk loosens my cluttered mind and if I open my eyes, something is bound to inspire me.
- Take Time Off ~ I have a too-strong work ethic. If I am not busy on some task, I feel worthless. Having sat around the house for the past two weeks, reading, watching movies, looking through poetry and art books, and sleeping, I am convinced that time off from everything is essential to doing my best work.
I completed my MFA in Writing while working full-time as Coordinator of Admissions in a busy Maryland community college and while having my daughter and young grandchild sharing our home. Believe me, there were many distractions, but the deadline of having to produce a packet of creative and critical work every three weeks was my taskmaster. I devoted my one-hour lunch break each work day to writing in a study carrel tucked away in the basement of the community college library. I knew I had a limited time to accomplish a lot of work, and I was able to dive into it quickly. The hard part was to stop and re-enter my regular work world at the end of that hour. Of course, I had to fit in other early morning and late night hours at home, too, but those short bursts of time kept me going!
Now that I have more freedom, I have to designate hours here and there (with a specific beginning and ending time) to get myself on track. And nothing helps more than having a deadline from an editor!
2. Revision after the first draft is down
6. Creating characters and worlds
7. Visiting schools
8. Speaking at conferences
9. Book signings--mine and that of other authors
10. Meeting famous authors
11. Blogging with my papitas calientes
12. Participating in writing list-serves
13. Talking to my readers in Facebook
14. Participating in my writing group meetings
15. Teaching writing at the Whidbey Island MFA program
16. Teaching writing to high school students
17. Teaching writing to elementary school students
18. Answering e-mails
And then there are the precious moments with my grandsons, family, and friends--including my Maltese dog, Lily.
If I could only have more time to write all the stories I have in my head, my life would be perfect.
I agree with Stephanie and Christy about all the distractions that keep me from creating books. Why am I so easily led astray from what I want to do most in the world? This past month in particular, I have come to view the Internet as the Enemy, at least with regards to me being productive with my current book project. I tell myself that I need a break and I'm only going to check my email and WHAM - two hours have gone by. Even more than that, being on the computer affects my thinking in a negative way that I can't explain; it leaves my brain mushy and less creative. As I face up to this new book's deadline I am doing my best to follow this rule: absolutely NO checking my email until I am done with my creative work for the day.
As far as other conditions that help me with my work, having enough time to think, experiment, and play is helpful. I am a slow, methodical worker, and I'm learning to embrace that and not feel like a slacker just because others are twice as productive. But I also need deadlines, otherwise I will drag out my work for years (and years). And for a slow thinker, I sometimes come up with my best ideas under harsh deadlines (like this past Halloween when I had only a few hours left to carve pumpkins and I came up with some of my best ideas). So that's a balance I seek: time to work slowly, yet a deadline that holds me accountable.
Other than that, give me a can of Pepsi, a couple of homemade chocolate chip cookies, and the privacy of my apartment's little studio and I'm ready to work...as long as I stay away from the computer.
This round we're posting about the conditions that contribute to our best work. Like Stephanie, who wrote about distractions and procrastination, I first want to focus on what prevents me from working at my highest level.
As a self-employed creator, I need to hunt and gather for my livelihood. When I was offered my first book to illustrate, back in the early 90s, I worked as an art director for Four Winds Press. It was a part time position. I worked three days in-house, leaving me the other four days to create. This was an ideal situation for me. When Simon & Schuster bought out Macmillan, there was no longer an option to work part time. I had a fledgling illustration career started—this was the whole reason I'd gone to NYC; I knew a full time art director position would not allow sufficient left-over time for my own work. I have been freelance art directing/designing and illustrating/writing since the mid-90s. When I have a lot of work lined up into the future (stockpiles from hunting) is when I'm most productive; only then am I not agitated about finances. When work is scarce, I need to devote more energy to foraging, less to reaping. Foraging seems to scatter my energies. I try to cover too much ground. I'm considering part time employment again to address this issue. If I can be still enough, centered in one place, then I can harvest.
Playing out this analogy, it also helps to have great farmers—trusted writers groups, an editor who knows how to fertilize what is best and weed out the worst, makes for the heartiest crop. My best work comes when I have this community of support.
As a person who’s had a few publication credits but has not published a novel (yet!), I haven't done any traveling for school presentations. However, like others on this blog I have certainly traveled to do research for my work, whether it be hiking in the alpine backcountry of Rainier National Park in search of pikas and marmots to star in a middle grade novel, or visiting Fairbanks to reconnect with the town where I spent my formative years.
I don’t have much advice regarding trips of this nature, other than to say remember to check your supplies a few times before you depart! Once, on a trip to Rainier, I drove 3 hours to the park, hiked two miles (uphill!) off the road, came upon a family of marmots playing just a few yards off the trail – and then realized that amongst the various notebooks, snacks, and water bottles in my backpack I had forgotten to bring my camera!! Although I stayed for a few hours and had fun watching the pudgy little critters going about their lives, I sure would have liked to take some pictures. Luckily, I made several trips researching this particular project and so I had other opportunities to photo-document my discoveries. (A picture from one of these later trips accompanies this post. If you look on the boulder near the pine tree in the lower right corner, you might be able to see a marmot lounging in the sun, admiring the view. Though I took most pictures at closer range, I couldn’t help but take this long-view picture, thinking, “That marmot sure has a nice view from her front stoop!”)
I have traveled to several writing conferences as well. When I think back on these experiences, no real advice comes to mind except to remind everyone never to book a hotel room over the internet without talking directly to the hotel in question. I learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago when I visited Portland, Oregon, to attend a book festival. I arrived at my hotel, checked in, and went to my room—only to find that I had been assigned a smoking unit with two double beds instead of the non-smoking room with king bed I had reserved. The gal at the desk, though sympathetic to my predicament, could not accommodate a room change because there were no vacancies. When I told her I had made a reservation weeks in advance, she asked if I had spoken directly to the hotel. I had not, and that’s when she told me that many online reservation sites do not actually guarantee you will receive the room you reserve. Most if not all of you probably already know this, but I add my little tale as a warning for those who may not!
Boo to you!
By Elissa Gershowitz
Halloween’s not just for little boys and ghouls. Here are some funny, eerie, and downright creepy titles to scare up readers of all ages.
The goofiest of the group is David LaRochelle’s picture book The Haunted Hamburger and Other Ghostly Stories. Ghost siblings Franny and Frankie demand a story before bed. Of course, one is never enough, and Father Ghost is persuaded to tell three. The humor is freewheeling and perfectly calibrated—diapers! lipsticky smooches! yuck!—for the book’s audience. Paul Meisel’s illustrations lend an exaggerated tongue-in-cheek quality. Perfect for Halloween (but too good not to read all year round). (6–8 years)
I am travelling very little for my books right now, although I do get to make a quick trip up to Forest Falls to a one room school house at the end of this week. I am hoping to see the trees changing colors and feel a bit of winter up there. We've been in the 80's here lately and while I love the warmth, I do feel a little jealous of those with snow and fall colors.
I loved Christy's blog about finding things to write about wherever she travels, and as I commented on her post, my husband and I are doing a great deal of travelling to Salt Lake City to visit our son and his girlfriend. In following this pathway, I see that I could write about the national parks or the salt flats that we visit on our way to his apartment. They also have a gigantic copper mine that can be seen from space. The possibilities are endless, and thanks to this new way of viewing my travels, perhaps some new stories will be born. Thanks Christy! Happy travels to all potatoes.
We collaborated on a whaling story set in Hawaii and submitted a dummy to Rosemary Brosnan at Lodestar Books. I worked with Rosemary in my first publishing job at Dutton and she had been pestering me since to show her my portfolio. The whaling story was not acquired, but Rosemary saw something she liked in my work and offered me my first picture book to illustrate, Juan Bobo and the Pig retold by Felix Pitre. At tax time the whaling story covered the Hawaii part of our honeymoon. My husband and I also came up with stories set in New Zealand. Perhaps some day I'll dust off my Maori story, A Paddle for Mokopuna, and I should definitely polish my dummy for my husband's funny kiwi story, Lester's Bug Hunt Goes Bad.
Whenever I travel, even within the U.S., I make sure there is some way I can make the experience meaningful for my work life (nudge, nudge, wink, wink—write it off!) When I moved to California after living eighteen years in NYC, I was thrilled to have research that took me back "home." Sky Dancers is about Mohawk high steel workers building the Empire State Building. I spent extensive time researching in the NY Public library as well as the ESB, and as a bonus got to reunite with dear friends, too. I enjoyed traveling to many Noguchi exhibits in New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles when I researched The East-West House, and recently gave a presentation at a Noguchi exhibition in Laguna Beach. All of these trips combined business and pleasure.
When I leave home to speak at conferences, give presentations, meet with publishers or editors, I save all my correspondence documenting our plans, a calendar of my appointments, and any pertinent receipts. If I travel for recreation I make sure to come up with new story ideas set in that location. There is nothing really shady about this. I'm a storyteller—visually and verbally. I approach life finding the narrative around me.
Traveling is in my blood. My father's entire career was spent as a flight engineer with Pan American Airways. I began traveling as an infant, and throughout my childhood I had the good fortune to travel around the United States, to Europe, and to the Caribbean Islands, sometimes with my father as the crew member. I still have the journal I kept on a 6-week vacation through Europe when I was 14 years old. (See the photo above at Stonehenge, long before it was fenced off from tourists!) Since that time, I have made it a practice to keep a journal whenever I travel--jotting down detailed descriptions of the setting, including not only the scenery, but also the people, the food, the language, the way of life as I view it. I cannot imagine trying to write a story about a setting I have not actually visited.
In my career as an author, I have not made exotic trips to other countries, but I have made road trips to a handful of states: North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, Rhode Island, Maine, and, of course, my home state of Maryland. I always view these trips as an exciting adventure and love to visit schools in these various places--to look for the similarities and the differences in rural, urban, and suburban students. As David mentioned in his post, it's a thrill to walk into a school and see a sign welcoming me and a student waiting to escort me to a class!
Happy Travels to all my fellow spuds!
THIS IS LA MALAGUETA IN MALAGA, SPAIN
WHERE YOUNG PABLO PICASSO WENT TO WATCH THE BULLFIGHTS
As you know, I research as much as I can from home. Then I write the first and second draft of my book. By now I know where I have gaps. After I make as many appointments as I can from home, I travel with my questions.
WHO and WHERE:
César:¡Sí, se puede! Yes, We Can
Fresno, California and Independence, Oregon
I met farm workers and Dolores Huerta
Frida: ¡Viva la vida! Long Live Life
Mexico City, Mexico
*I took advantage and studied Diego Rivera during this trip
Diego: Bigger Than Life
I met his daughter Guadalupe Rivera
Sonia Sotomayor: Supreme Court Justice
Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, Bronx, New York, and Washington DC
I met her cousin, Tito Baéz
Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina
I met Alicia Alonso, her first husband, Fernando Alonso, and her husband, Pedro Simón
Pablo Picasso:Yo, el rey I, The King
Southern and Central France, Málaga and Barcelona
I met his grandson, Bernard Picasso
*I took advantage and studied Salvador Dali during this trip
To have the smells, the sounds, and the sights of the places, and eat the food so that I can write about them
To meet the experts in order to be able to contact them for questions and to check the manuscript.
To take photographs for possible illustrations and power-point presentations
To be able to speak about the places with some authority
Asking for bigger book advances
Writing grants: I've got a work-in-progress from the Society of Children's Book Writers and illustrators and a fellowship from Oregon Literary Arts
I keep every single receipt from the trip for tax purposes.
Good informational travels to you!
I like getting away from home, even for a few days. It's a treat to stay at a hotel where someone else makes my bed and I don't have to worry about doing dishes, taking out the garbage, or other household chores. Some authors get a lot of writing done on the road, but I don't. Instead, staying at a hotel allows me the luxury of an hour or two of reading in the evening, which I don't often take at home. I'll sometimes even turn on the television to see what the rest of the world is talking about as I don't have a working television in my apartment (so that's what "Dancing with the Stars" is all about!).
Visiting rural schools is especially rewarding, as those students don't have the opportunities kids from larger cities have, and they - and their teachers - are usually very appreciative. When I visited the small town of Sebeka last week, there was a student waiting for me at the school door to escort me to the office, the hallways were lined with bulletin board displays of my books, and I was given the honor of being celebrity judge for the fifth graders' pumpkin decorating contest. In the mail yesterday I received a thick packet of letters from the Sebeka students thanking me for my visit. These sorts of things make the long hours of driving well worthwhile.
Other highlights for me about traveling: visiting the local diner AND the bakery (don't miss the Moon Pies in Little Falls), listening to books on CD (which makes driving time fly by), and being able to soak in a hotel's whirlpool at the end of the day. And one of the most important things to pack to ensure happy travels: earplugs, just in case the hotel's walls are thinner than you'd wish.
I love autumn. I love the word autumn. It conjures a crispy excitement and colors I want to wrap myself up in as if I were jumping into a pile of leaves. This autumn has offered me an opportunity to teach creative writing at a New Orleans charter school. I am humbled by the trust and talent the young people have invested in our workshops and classes. This mix of trust and vulnerability, and deep creative work is a pure gift.
In that same spirit of trust, I’ve put some finishing touches on my own picture book and have fine-tuned a middle-grade novel, releasing both to the world. (Persistence beads on my forehead.)
I’ve also begun writing for The Times Picayune, the greater New Orleans newspaper. I write a column that runs each Sunday, and I write feature stories. Another delight that autumn has delivered is the premier publication of Citizen’s Together Magazine. I wrote the cover story, and was asked to speak at the launch celebration. It was held in an old neighborhood in New Orleans, at a corner church. The Zion Harmonizers, a well-known, gospel-singing group, sang and clapped and alleluiaed. My autumn has been rich.