Ten writers for children. All with something to say.


Finding Solitude and Community

As I write this, I am beginning a weekend retreat with twelve other writers near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. I am hoping for (and needing) the perfect mix of solitude and community--a solitary nook for thinking/creating/revising without distraction and, when the time is right, a warm fire and an engaging discussion and sharing of our work. When it's time for a break or mulling over ideas, the C & O Canal Path along the Potomac River beckons.

Everyone came supplied with enough snacks and bottles of wine to keep us going far into the night. Our organic meals will be delivered by the owner of the retreat house, so no excuses for not getting any work done! After traveling for several weeks, I have hopes of finally getting back to my work-in-progress and making some in-roads over the course of the weekend.

And on the home front, where it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate my various roles, my husband is planning the "writing cabin" he will build me in the woods behind our house--small enough to be comfortable for one, rustic enough to give me an escape from the ever-present cyber world, and near enough for me to walk home for some company and a cup of tea.

Now, on to my retreat...

A Solitary Writer?

My husband tells me that I should go out more. But when I'm not traveling, I like to be home writing and reading, with my Lily Maltese on my lap and my husband upstairs working. He has a regular office, but I beg him to work from home. I am downstairs; he is upstairs--yet I know he's there and that makes me feel good. Lily and I growl when he leaves for his office, then we realize that we have each other and all those characters in my head talking at the same time, competing for my attention. I'm never alone.

I have a wonderful writing group: Ellen Howard, David Gifaldi, Pamela Smith Hill, Susan Fletcher, Nancy Coffelt, Eric Kimmel, Winifred Morris. Unlike other people, I take rough drafts to them. What they have to say guides me--even though at first, my mind growls. It takes me a few days to digest their comments and Voilá! I finally get it. I wouldn't be published today if I had belong to writing groups. Objective readers can catch issues that I don't.

All of my editors I have met at conferences. I was ignorant enough to follow Robert Warren (Harper & Row--please don't count the years) at a Willamette Writers conference in Portland, Oregon. He had to smoke, and we were outside when I told him the first story of my Juan Bobo. He asked me if I could write it as an I Can Read. I said yes, but I had no idea what and easy-to-read was. At home I studied Frog and Toad, Amelia Bedelia, you name it, and Robert bought the manuscript.

I met Harold Underdown and Margery Cuyler at Oregon SCBWI retreats. Harold had a group critique. My manuscript was on top. Still, when he said, "She even researched the photos!" I took it as saying "How she dared when this book is so far from ready." When the session was over, I told him that I had received an SCBWI grant to go to Puerto Rico, and while I was there I took advantage to find photos. He looked at me and said, "I want to buy this book." That was my first biography. Little did I know that I was going to write six more with Margery Cuyler at Marshall Cavendish Book for Children.

So, I recommend solitude to write, writing groups to revise, and conferences to be published.


A few words on isolation and creating

Like Christy, I find my critique groups to be a wonderful source of feedback, encouragement, and guidance. Without my critique groups (one which was formed from the members of a writing class I was in, just as Christy noted) I know I would have never completed my first novel, nor would I be as productive as I am. I've been in one group over ten years, and the other just slightly less, and the other members have become more than critiquers, but good friends, like fellow spud John Coy.

And while I greatly appreciate the community of other creators that I find in my critique groups, I also agree with Christy that I don't feel lonely at all when I am creating. Sometimes I'm frustrated, and sometimes I'm discouraged, but I never feel lonely. And when the writing or illustrating is going well, then I feel simply joyous...and very content.

Striking the Balance

Christy's post yesterday about balancing the at-home work with the out-in-the-world work really got me thinking. For my first several books, the internet did not exist. If I wasn't out doing school visits or speaking elsewhere, I was just home, disconnected from the publishing world. But now, the publishing world is in my inbox and at my fingertips every day. And I find it dangerous.
For the past year, I have battled with the balance. I found myself on two "supportive" web boards for writers. But I found, more often than not, that I was becoming consumed and obsessed by them. And each time, I logged off feeling more and more unsupported, and less and less confident of my skills as a writer.
I swore off both sites about 45 days ago. ( Yes, I'm counting.) They were like an unhealthy addiction, nothing more than a distraction to the work I'm trying to accomplish. Does my finger still automatically want to click on the Favorites? Not so much with each passing day, and the urge becomes less and less every day I stay off those sites.
Do we need outside support as we sit at home and work? Yes. But it is all about finding the appropriate kind that nourishes our creative soul, rather than extinguishes it... and I'm grateful to have the Spuds, who do that for me every day:)


Aloneness (not loneliness), community, and making the internal external

Monday is the day I reclaim solitude. I love my family and friends, but I love my work too. Isolation is essential for focus. Being self-employed allows me flexibility for coffee and lunch-dates, however I rarely schedule purely social daytime meetings, and particularly loathe planning any kind of appointment on Mondays. The hours while my daughter is at school are few, and those hours constitute my main work time. Plus, I need daylight to see my art properly.

The “loneliness” of writers and artists is a lot of hooey. I do not feel lonely when I am alone. Years ago I read The Shape of Content by painter Ben Shahn, a series of lectures he delivered at Harvard. Shahn discusses the act of painting as a dialogue between creator and creation. The work takes on its own life. This rings true! When I am creating I am deep in conversation. Most creators would agree that few dialogues are as satisfying

I do willingly attend two daytime monthly critique groups. I’ve been a member of a local writers group for several years. Most members are focused on middle grade, YA and even adult works. This group has astute, thoughtful writers with good ears and great advice. Last month I added a second daytime critique group in San Francisco. All the members are picture book authors AND illustrators. The new group skews more toward illustration critiques and is so delightful that I’ve even agreed to meet on Mondays. I am lucky for this wealth of support.

A critique venue is essential for creators. Regularly scheduled meetings serve as deadlines to motivate writing and sketching. “Crits” were my favorite part of art school. They helped me learn to distance myself from my work. Now in writers groups, reading aloud to others makes me hear my work in a new way. It is quickly evident whether the work is met with confusion, boredom, or enthusiasm. Suggestions often unlock problem areas. Affirmations and guidance can make the difference of whether or not a work-in-progress is brought to completion.

For those looking to connect with other writers, consider enrolling in a writing class. Class workshops have helped me develop manuscripts that were subsequently acquired. I’ve known class groups to continue meeting after the class has officially ended. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) has chapters all over the world now. There are newsletters and lists that help members connect with others looking to form critique groups. Even meeting with one other committed author is valuable. I have a couple friends in the field with whom I meet for this kind of exchange.

Authors now need to be marketers. Social networking, attending conferences, speaking engagements and presentations connect the creator to their public. I have not figured out the balance between being the private creator and the public promoter. Each role seems to demand more and more time. Something tells me that I will wrestle with this until I’m horizontal for good.


A Different Kind of Conference

This month I was invited to attend a conference in Washington, DC called The Emergence and Legacy of African American Basketball. The organizers contacted me because I've done workshops on basketball and poetry in conjunction with the picture book STRONG TO THE HOOP. I was interested but unsure what to expect. The conference was fantastic. The first day, William Rhoden of the New York Times had a fascinating discussion with Mayor Dave Bing of Detroit and Earl Lloyd (pictured above), the first African-American to play in the NBA. I sat and listened and absorbed as much as I could.

Saturday, the events took place at Howard University and one interesting speaker after another presented to the group. I led a workshop on basketball and poetry and was thrilled to be among people who were even more passionate about the game and its legacy than I was. I came back from the conference energized and full of ideas, which is always the sign of a successful conference.