Tag Archives: writing process

Time to Play

There comes a time in most creative lives when the joy gets lost. The doing of your art—your poetry, your books, your drawings, your cooking, your sewing, your teaching—becomes a chore.

I’ve gone through this cycle a number of times—the loss and the rediscovery of the spark that set me on my journey to be a writer. In a recent Zoom presentation for SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), author Laurel Snyder had some great observations about this same process for her.

She discovered that as the publishing of her work became easier, the writing became harder. As an eight-year-old, she had loved to create stories for no other reason than it was fun; it was exciting. It was play. I remember feeling like that, too, at eight and nine and ten. I loved inhabiting my imaginary world; I loved playing with it; I loved changing things to my exact desires.

But, as I did, Snyder found she lost the joyful need to tell a story somewhere in developing her ability to crank out a book. 

“I needed to find the play again,” she said.

For the first step, she suggested a really difficult thing: 

Step Away from Rewards

 “We do the things we’re good at which are typically some version of the things we’ve been good at for a long time because we will gain respect or appreciation, because we get a boost when somebody compliments us.”

Often that thing we get good at, becomes the thing we need to do to make a living “otherwise they come and take away the house or the car or there’s no food in the fridge.” 

Bottom line is we end up avoiding activities that don’t seem to advance the thing we’ve learned to do well and that we now need to do to make a living.

To get back to play, “you need to step away from the idea of utility and you need to step away from the idea of external appreciation, compliments and rewards”.

She acknowledged that this was the hardest thing we can do. “It’s a gigantic emotional leap.” But without it we won’t really get into true play.

“You aren’t going to do [these] things…because they will help your book…you’re going to do them because they feel good. And it will be awesome if your book improves…but you [want to] find a way to enjoy them so much that it doesn’t matter what happens to the book.”

Learning to disconnect from rewards won’t get your book written, but it will help you make a better book and keep you writing for life.”

Notice that important qualifier at the end—keep you writing for life. Because if you can’t keep the joy, if what once was play is now a chore, you’ll stall out. Maybe you can slog along if there’s a sure paycheck or retirement account at the end, but that’s rarely the case with your creative outlet. 

So if you want to keep doing that thing you love, how do you get back to that feeling of joy and fun?

Turn off the lights

Not to sleep but to daydream, to muse, to imagine, to dwell in the world you’re building in your book (or painting or poem or classroom). What Snyder started doing was to go into her room, turn out the lights and daydream about her book world for about an hour.

Mostly, she said, she moved around inside the world she was creating and imagined the details. You’re not going to record any of this, Snyder said. You’re not going to write it down or add it to your notes on your phone. But a lot of the things you imagine will probably make it into your book and your story world will come alive.

I remember so well how I did exactly this as a child. How much I simply adored lying there and pretending that I was in whatever magical land I wanted to be in. I remember how I lovingly crafted the details–going over and over exactly how my princess bedroom would be furnished, how that dragonfly carriage looked, exactly what my flower petal fairy dress looked like. Usually the plot of the story I was imagining wouldn’t advance one mote, but I knew in my heart what the dungeon looked like.

I don’t think I can do this for an hour, but I’d like to try 15-20 minutes where I simply daydream and allow myself to explore what my world looks like and feels like. I want to enjoy the sheer imagining of the beauty or the devastation I’m creating.

Develop the other side of your brain 

For those of us who are primarily writers that means drawing, painting, sketching our story world. 

“It’s been without question the most successful tool for my own purposes and yet it took me decades to discover, largely because I was stuck, as most of us are, in a grown-up mindset.”

Since she wasn’t any good at drawing, Snyder started with something that didn’t require a lot of skill. A map. In this case it was a map of an island she was imagining—an island where only orphaned children lived—which became the basis of her book, Orphan Island–A National Book Award Longlist title, recipient of starred reviews and, now, a future movie.

Of course, it’s rather ironic to mention that success up against the dictum to step away from rewards. But regardless of any external success allowing yourself to play creatively should give you a better book. You will have given your world the love and attention it deserves to truly come alive for you and the reader.

For those who already use the right (drawing) side of the brain (supposedly, since it’s turning out it’s not really as simple as that), maybe you could discover some way to play more with words that expand your story world for you: poems about your world, rhymes, skip-rope songs, bits of dialog, bits of dialect. Even if they won’t end up in the work, you will know better how that character moves, looks, expresses themselves.

What else might spark you that you rarely do now that you’re a mature creator. Dance out a character, a scene? Make up a song? Play with your kids stuffed animals or action toys? Make a paper mâché model of something in your book?

It doesn’t have to be any good!

What you do doesn’t have to be presentable at all. No one is grading you, no one is looking over your shoulder, no one ever has to see it. No one expects you to be any good. You’re a kid. You’re only playing.

In all, Snyder offered 8 different steps that helped her get back to play. I’ll list a few more of them in a future blog.

Laurel Snyder is the author of six novels for children, “Orphan Island,” “Bigger than a Bread Box,” “Penny Dreadful,” “Any Which Wall,” “Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains OR The Search for a Suitable Princess,” and “Seven Stories Up.” She has also written many picture books, including “Charlie and Mouse,” “The Forever Garden,” “The King of Too Many Things,” “Swan, the Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova,” “Inside the Slidy Diner,” Good night, laila tov,” “Nosh, Schlep, Schluff,” “The Longest Night,” “Camp Wonderful Wild,” and “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher.”

Snyder has published work in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, the Utne Reader, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Revealer, Salon, The Iowa Review, American Letters and Commentary, and elsewhere. She is an occasional commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, and she teaches in the MFAC program at Hamline University, and also in the creative writing department at Emory University.

Creative Writing 101

My youngest daughter just finished her first year of a Creative Writing/English Literature degree at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. She returned to Seattle this week and I was interested to hear what they teach about the craft of writing these days, so I invited her to take my spot writing this week’s post on Books Around The Table.

Introducing Clare Chodos-Irvine

I only have ¼ of a university degree, but after nine months of studying literature and attending writing workshops, this is what I’ve learned about writing:

  1. 90% of the time, avoid adverbs. I have a classmate who, throughout the five submissions I made over the course of a year, never failed to circle my unnecessary adverbs. I didn’t realize that I used so many until he pointed it out. More often than not, an image, sentence or metaphor is stronger without the use of an adverb. Usually, it stops you from repeating yourself. There’s no reason to say, “She ran quickly,” because if she was running, one would hope it would be quick.
  2. Classmates and teachers are there to help you. I’m lucky to have had professors in my first year who were constantly supportive. My classmates are all so talented, and having a group of people to bounce creative ideas off of is extremely helpful, even if you’re not a creative writing student.
  3. Pretty much anything can inspire you. I took a survey of British literature from the beginning of time until 1660, and although the course didn’t leave me a lot of time to read for pleasure, I was inspired by the alliteration in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and the complicated rhyme scheme in Beowulf. I read things I would never have read otherwise, thanks to my teachers’ thoughtful planning of the course reading lists. A story I have been sitting on for three years went from a fantasy/romance piece to a feminist werewolf story thanks to Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” , and my fiction workshop classmates. I was inspired by my classmates constantly. They often found meaning in my writing that I hadn’t discovered myself. For example, they saw a woman chipping paint off her wall as an extended metaphor reflecting her decaying relationship. Being surrounded by a large group of creative individuals is electrifying because, for the first time in my life, the majority of the people I am around share my passion for writing.
  4. There is no such thing as children’s writing. If a children’s book or a YA novel is well written, anyone can enjoy it. This was emphasized frequently by my fiction professor, and is proven true by writers like Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket) or Roald Dahl.
  5. Don’t get rid of anything. I discovered this year that some of my pieces that were unsuccessful as short stories work very well as poems. I disliked poetry until I turned sixteen. Even after I liked reading poetry, I didn’t think I should write poetry. My poems sounded too confessional. But when I rewrote some of my short stories as poems, they worked much better. Fiction can work as poetry, and vice versa.

Lastly, I learned that creativity takes work, and it hurts and it’s scary to put a piece of yourself out there. But as intimidating as writing is, it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. I am eager to learn as much as I can about the past, present and future of the craft. I can’t wait to earn the next ¾ of my degree.

 

What Writers Really Do

Author George Saunders

“What does an artist mostly do? She tweaks that which she’s already done.” So says George Saunders in his brilliant essay on writing published March 2017 in The Guardian newspaper. For me, it captures the process of writing, the feeling of writing, like no other essay I’ve read.*

Saunders discusses many wonderful things in “What writers really do when they write,” including how he developed his acclaimed first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. (Saunders usually writes short stories.)

One thing that jumped out at me is his description of how he revises his work; what he does mentally.

Write-or-wrong-o-meter

“I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the results without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

I do something similar, but I have never made it as concrete as a forehead meter. It’s a gut thing for me. But I think we all know what Saunders is talking about. That knowing that we like it, that it works, or that niggle that we desperately want to ignore that tells us “this could be better.”

It did take me awhile to recognize that gut feeling–to trust that this did need changing or that this really did make the story better. So, if you find it hard to tell where the meter is, other than perhaps permanently stuck in “this is crap,” focus on the niggle part. The thing that catches at you but that makes you want to say, “Maybe this doesn’t matter” or “Maybe the reader won’t notice.”

In other words, start with what you don’t want to be true.

Still I like that he asks only that the needle move into the ‘P’ zone. Not that it top the charts. At least, my zones would not be one fixed point of ‘P’ or ‘N’, but rather exactly that—zones. A band. Of course, you would want to move the needle as far into “Positive” as possible but I’m not sure you could hit the top of the zone with every sentence, every passage.

In fact, I worry that the work would become stilted and brittle if you attempted that. I don’t think perfection is a good standard to set for art.

And that’s not the standard that Saunders sets, although I think he thinks that you’ll get close if you just do this: “Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose… through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.”

I also love what he has to say about how this process respects the reader.

“We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader.”

The changes Saunders makes are based on the idea that “if it’s better for me over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.”

But rather than a clumsy place where you pull ropes and your reader lurches, Saunders says you’ll end up in a “rarefied place. (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties—the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off)…”

Oh, don’t we all have those bits of craft and serendipity in our writing that so please the artist in us? And according to Saunders they will be pleasing to the reader, too.

Illustration by Noemi Villamuza

“She can’t believe that you believe in her that much… This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you… you revise your reader up…with every pass… ’No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose of easy notion.’

And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up, too.”

There is a lot more in Saunders’ essay worth mulling over for any artist. You can check it out here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write

And if you haven’t read Saunder’s short stories—get yourself to a library or bookstore soon. I think you’ll find your reader’s needle is well into the “P” zone.

*Thanks to Wendy Wahlman for handing me a copy recently. It was just what I needed at that moment.

 

 

The Top Four Lists of Writing Tips

 

Okay, I lied. These are great tips, but not necessarily the top four, but numbered lists are pretty irresistible. For some reason we love them—Top Six Beauty Tips, the Ten Best Eats in Portland, Eight New Looks for You, 13 Reasons Why.

Maybe we like the promise of something simple, definitive, brief—condensed wisdom. The other day I started browsing through a compilation of writing advice put together by the amazing Maria Popova, who writes the blog Brain Pickings. It’s a guide to 117 columns she’s written over the years on authors and their advice to other writers.

It’s well worth checking out all 117 essays for inspiration and entertainment, but I focused on the ones that promised to be simple lists, like Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments of Writing or Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

And then I rather randomly picked four that I liked because it was fun to see them all together. It’s interesting how practical most of the tips are. Writers, it seems, do not want to talk high-faluting artsy stuff when it comes to advice to other writers. Even Henry Miller’s list was surprising mundane, mostly counsel to himself bordering on “don’t forget to buy milk.”

I suspect as writers we know that we only hope to catch lightning in a bottle—it’s not something we have much control over. So the best we can offer is “here’s my bottle.”

KURT VONNEGUT

Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

JOHN STEINBECK

John Steinbeck

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

MARGARET ATWOOD

Margaret Atwood

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­ization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

JOYCE CAROL OATES

Joyce Carol Oates

  1. Write your heart out.
  2. The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.
  3. You are writing for your contemporaries — not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.
  4. Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
  5. When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice, not mine. I would not try this.)
  6. Unless you are experimenting with form — gnarled, snarled & obscure — be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
  7. Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
  8. Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.
  9. Read, observe, listen intensely! — as if your life depended upon it.
  10. Write your heart out.

I was thinking, as I wrote this, that I might comment on some of the advice—maybe something from my own experience or somesuch. But as I looked over the lists, I realized the other thing that maybe we like about lists–they don’t offer a lot of context. Instead, you, the reader, bring the context. You fill in the blanks with your own experience and decide if it rings true for you or not.

I’d love to know: did any of these tips strike you?

 

 

 

Flutter and Hum, Aleteo y Zumbido

I have a new book out! Flutter and Hum, Aleteo y Zumbido.Flutter Hum coverI am not a poet and I my Spanish is awkward, but somehow I wrote a book of poems in Spanish and English. Here’s how it came about.

In 2009 I illustrated a biography of Neruda written by Monica Brown. In order to understand and illustrate Neruda I needed to learn Spanish, so I started classes right away. I loved learning Spanish. I loved the structure of the language and the sound of the words. I illustrated Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People using pictures and words. The words, which are integrated into the art, are in Spanish and English and were influenced by the words of his poems.PabloNerudaWhile I worked on this book I swam in the Spanish language and in the poems of Neruda. That experience changed my life.Paschkis neruda by seaSince then I have taken many more Spanish classes including immersion classes in Guatemala and in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I have visited Chile, Guatemala, Oaxaca, Morelia, Cuernavaca, Mexico City and Spain. I would like to return to all of those places! I continue to study and read and write. My vocabulary is large and I understand the grammatical structures, but my speech is slow and simple.Flutter&Hum snake But in a strange way, my awkwardness with Spanish is what allowed me to write these poems.
When I hear a word in English my mind leaps right to the meaning of the word, bypassing the sound. I am ABLE to hear the sound but I have to make myself listen.Paschkis word birdWhen I hear a word in Spanish I notice the sound and feel of the word first, and then my mind gropes for the meaning.palabra

For example the word PALABRA (which means word), sounds like a shape to me. I hear the beauty of the word before the meaning. I see a shape like this:finialThe poems in this book often started with me rolling a word around in my mouth. The word for moth is polilla – such a soft word. And the word for lightbulb is bombilla. Bombastic! I put together words and ideas in Spanish until I had the beginning of a poem. That is how I began all of the poems. I always started in Spanish. Then I would work back and forth in Spanish and in English until I had a poem that I liked in both languages. I threw myself at the light – sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.Flutter&Hum mothWhen I painted the illustrations for the book I had another chance to play with words in both languages – to pick words in Spanish and English that bounced off of each other and added shades of meaning and emotion.

I submitted the poems to Noa Wheeler who was then an editor at Henry Holt. She liked them, and Holt offered to publish them. It was a leap of faith on her part and I am grateful.
We eliminated some poems and I wrote some new ones. We tried to keep them juicy.Flutter&Hum fresa copyI showed the poems to Marta Seymour, my first Spanish teacher (who is from Costa Rica) and to my friend Fernando Larios (who is originally from Mexico and is married to Julie Larios). They read the poems and pointed out my most egregious errors. Ingrid Paredes also proofread the poems for Henry Holt and offered specific and helpful criticism. The book is dedicated to Marta, for igniting my love of Spanish and for her generosity in reviewing the poems.Marta Seymour

My joy in creating this book was playing with language in Spanish and English, and in painting with words and images. My hope is that the poems and paintings will encourage others to approach both languages playfully and with pleasure, whatever their native tongue.Flutter&Hum parrotIn Spanish you would say that I am a principiante. A princess? No – a beginner.

Flutter&Hum heronP.S. If you are in Seattle please come to a signing for the book at the Seattle Art Museum book store (SAM Books) on September 26th from 1-3. Some of the original art from the book will on display at the SAM Gallery Shop, along with paintings by my husband Joe Max Emminger and some drawings that we did together. There will be a reception for the show from 3-5. And the museum is free that day! The show will be up until October 16th.

P.S. Here is a review of the book by Julie Danielson at Kirkus., and here is a review from Deborah Stevenson at the BCCB . (The Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books).

Musing on the Muse

Illustration by Fred Callieri

Illustration by Fred Callieri

What’s your muse like?

Here’s Shakespeare on the subject: “O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.”

And here’s Stephen King: “My muse is here. It’s a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all.”

I’m not sure what my muse is like. I think perhaps it’s a scholarly girl with big glasses reading in an easy chair, glancing up once in awhile to send me a smile.

Whoever or whatever your muse is, chances are you struggle like all creative people to tap into its powers. Sometimes the words and images flow, sometimes it’s like pulling teeth.

About four weeks ago, I wrote about our birthright as creative beings and the idea of inspiration. This week I wanted to talk a little bit about what science has to say about inspiration.

Science has renamed the muse our subconscious and discovered some interesting things about that “scruffy little mutt.” For one thing, our muse may not necessarily visit from above—a rare gift from the gods–but be built into us.

Take a look at these two images for a second.

donkey sunflower.009

According to David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, odds are good that as you look your brain is beginning to construct a narrative, a story, a reason why these two images go together.

And it isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could be related, but according to Linden you will automatically start figuring out a narrative even if I show you this.

rhino teeth.010

No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection. Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories. It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in as we work to make sense of what’s happening around us.

Our brains are putting together a causal link: this is happening because that happened and that happened because of that other thing. And isn’t that the essence of story–connecting one action and to another exploring actions and their consequences?

Another interesting thing about our brain is it often seems to know things before we do. I can remember writing stories where I’d put in what seemed an incidental detail—the white rose on the dresser—in the beginning of a story only to discover that this seemingly arbitrary detail was perfect for my ending. It’s an experience familiar to many writers.

It’s as if some part of our brain knows our story before we do.

And according to science your brain literally does know things before you consciously do. In a study where participants were asked to solve a puzzle, scientists could tell before the participants consciously knew it that they had solved the puzzle. How? They could see that the brain started to form alpha waves. Sometimes they could predict as much as eight seconds ahead of time that a person was going to have an insight.

Human head silhouette

There are two types of brain waves associated with subconscious creativity. Alpha waves are a function of deep relaxation. In alpha, we begin to access the creativity-that lies just below our conscious awareness – it is the gateway, the entry-point that leads into deeper states of consciousness.

That deeper state of consciousness is signaled by theta waves. The theta wave state is also known as the twilight state something which we normally only experience fleetingly as we rise up out of sleep, or drift off to sleep, although theta waves are abundant in experienced meditators.

It’s these relaxed brain wave states that give us access to our unconscious thoughts and images. And there are ways to encourage them. For one thing, those alpha and theta waves like what Emily Dickenson calls it “reverie.”

You no longer need to feel guilty for staring off into space, doodling aimlessly or watching a fly crawl across the ceiling. Next time family or friends look at you accusingly as you sit there chewing on your pencil eraser with a dreamy look on your face, you can tell them it has been scientifically proven that you are working. Even Einstein agrees.

“Creativity is the residue of wasted time,” he said.

One last bit of science: it is still a bit speculative, but there’s a scientific theory that the human brain has a tendency to change its dominant wave frequency towards the frequency of a dominant external stimulus.

Basically what that means is that your brain waves will tend to fall in with a dominant rhythm in your environment: a drumbeat, a heart beat, the fall of your footsteps—they call it entrainment.

So the creative muse likes rhythmic activities: music, walking, chopping vegetables, riding along in a vehicle.

Beautiful women in the hammock on the beach

As Mozart said, “When I am traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that ideas flow best and most abundantly.”

The way I first heard it described years ago was “bed, bath and bus.” Do something mindless, repetitive and meditative. In other words, allow yourself to muse.

Getting Bear to the Library

Those who have followed the adventures of Mouse and Bear may have noticed that Bear has never left his cozy Tudor cottage. He’s barely set even a claw out that front door.

The trouble with Bear is he’s a recluse.

He likes his peace and quiet. He likes his privacy and he likes his cottage and pretty much sees no reason to leave it.

The dynamic is much the same in each book. Bear is a grouchy loner who is reluctantly drawn into life and its various celebrations by exuberant Mouse.

The latest book, A LIBRARY BOOK FOR BEAR is the fifth book in the Mouse and Bear series. The trouble with writing sequels about a character who’s a recluse is how to get your character out and about and into different adventures.

I wanted to talk a little in this blog about how I got Bear into the bigger world and about the challenge of writing sequels.

In some ways sequels are easy:

You know your characters and for a picture book it’s easy to follow a fairly similar story arc once you’ve set one up. The young reader is looking for the familiar and so is the editor. So it’s tempting to deliver the same story over and over with minor variations.

Writing each book is, in some ways, as simple as asking myself “what fresh hell can I create for Bear.”

Fortunately I’ve never had any trouble figuring out different ways to bug Bear. I grew up with five siblings, which pretty much makes one an expert on bugging people.

So I’ve had Bear have to deal with this mouse who won’t go away and with the horror of having a birthday party and with a first ever sleep-over with a guest who isn’t as quiet as Bear requires. Bear gets sick and has to deal with the much too cheerful ministrations of Mouse.

But how do you keep the familiar from turning into a formula? How do you keep it fresh, not only for your readers, but for yourself. I didn’t want Bear to simply be bugged and to respond the same way time after time. I hope to move his relationship with Mouse forward bit by bit through the series. And for Bear to change just a little.

So for this sequel I went through a number of scenarios—Mouse and Bear bake a pie together; Mouse and Bear go on a picnic and Bear can’t settle until he finds the perfect spot. Or they could go fishing. I wasn’t sure yet what would bug Bear about fishing but I know enough about fishing to know there’d be plenty of frustration.

But these all felt like I would cover pretty familiar territory. I did get Bear out of the house in a few of these ideas, but it was still just him and Mouse interacting. I wanted to turn things on their head a bit.

Then I remembered one of Bear’s main characteristics. In every story, he is inevitably driven to bellow out his frustration, rather like Donald Duck working up into one of his tantrums.

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And that inevitable process gave me an idea. What if Bear were in a situation where quiet was required. A church, some solemn occasion… I was half-tempted to try out Bear at a funeral. I would love to see him bellowing mid-funeral (ideally about some annoyance he had with the corpse.)

But really what better quiet place than a library? And a library would get Bear out of his house and interacting with at least a few other animals

There was a problem with that idea, however, because I love libraries and books. What could Bear possible be grouchy about?

I grew up in a household with hundreds and hundreds of books. There were bookshelves in virtually every room. One room was a library with shelves from floor to ceiling. Even with all of that, we went to the library once a week and I would walk out with books up to my chin.

Libraries have always had a special place in my life. I still remember being the school library aide when I was in the fourth grade. How I loved to turn the numbers on the rubber date stamp to the correct date and decisively stamp the checkout cards.

My mother was on the Wenatchee, WA library board. My siblings and I even created our own library at home taking all the kids books we had and numbering and labeling them and creating library check out card for each.

So how could Bear not be interested in the library!? Fortunately, Bear is so persnickety and stubborn that he was convinced he already had all the books he needed right at home: he had three about honeybees, three about kings and queens and one about pickles. Who could ask for more?

Of course, Mouse knew you could ask for a whole lot more. He just needs to convince Bear of that. Eventually he does (with the help of a friendly librarian and pickles) and Bear goes home with seven new books. And I’m sure with more visits to the library in his future.

I’m glad I got Bear to go to the library. The book is already in its third printing. (It came out in July.) It’s been reviewed in the Wall St. Journal and Huffington Post, along with the usual children’s book review sources.  It received a starred review from the School Library Journal and was selected as an autumn must-read by Scholastic’s Instructor Magazine.

It will be on the cover of American Booksellers Children’s book holiday catalog. Some 275,000 copies will be printed and distributed to independent bookstores nationwide.

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What’s next for Mouse and Bear? Having gotten Bear into the frying pan, I’m putting him into the fire next time with A HALLOWEEN FOR BEAR. Imagine how much he’s going to love having all kinds of animals come to his house demanding candy!

 

 

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” E.B White

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Painting by Karen Hollingsworth

About a week ago I sat down with Julie and Julie and Margaret and Laura for the first time. A new writing group. A group of women I know from the writing community: some I know pretty well, some I’m just getting to know. All I could think was how lucky I was to be among them.

As a group they’ve published dozens of wonderful books; each is dedicated to her craft; each has high standards for her work. They all know how hard it is to write the short form—poetry, picture books, early readers. And I need them for that. I need their exacting standards, their critical eye.

But I need them for something else. Companionship in this difficult career. I need their clucks of commiseration, their murmurs of agreement. Their encouragement. Their industry gossip. Their inside jokes. Their book recommendations. Their ups and downs with husbands, children and editors.

I’m greedy. This is my second writing group. I have another long-standing group with friends, Dia Calhoun and Kathryn Galbraith. They are true-blue buddies and writing companions. So why two groups?

The creative life is uneven. There are times of great production and times when nothing seems to come. Sometimes an entire group can go stale. Sometimes a group gets shaky because of illness or a personal life crisis takes up so much of a member’s mind and time. Someone leaves. Things fall apart. Or at least grind to a crawl. Maybe I’m hoping that when one group falters, the other will be perking up.

And you can become familiar with each other’s work. It’s easy to fall into a pattern—a familiar call and response in terms of the feedback you get and the feedback you give. It was startling and fun, last week, to hear new and different voices chime in on my work.

So, I’m buying insurance, I guess. I can’t imagine functioning without a writing group. I’ve never failed to get an important insight from a critique. I’ve never failed to get a boost out of talking with people facing the same challenges, frustrations, goals and hopes that I am.

I can’t hear someone else’s words without suddenly feeling an eagerness to write my own words. I can’t help but take any feedback to anyone in the group back to my own work. Someone lands a great contract and I want that, too. Someone is frustrated that they haven’t heard from their editor and I get to tell my story about the three-year wait. Someone’s child has quietly grown up while we were busy making other plans.

Sure Virginia Woolf wrote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.”  But she also wrote: “Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends.”

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CALLING THE MUSE

Seattle hosted the national AWP (Assn. for Writers and Writing Programs) conference for four days last week. My fellow BATT-blogger Julie Larios and I were on a panel entitled, “Calling Your Muse,” along with authors Zu Vincent and Debby Dahl Edwardson who we know from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

For my part, I hoped to leave our listeners with an easy-to-follow, How to Call Your Muse list.

In our audience were over 100 writers. Surely these people had some ideas how to call a muse. If I’d known anything about crowd-sourcing, I could have crowd-sourced a good list.

Or I could have based my list on my experiences over the past 20 years, creating 17 picture books and a middle grade novel.

But I felt more research was needed.

So I imagined hiring George Clooney to lead an investigation. Yes, he looks hot in a lab coat, but this would be strictly scientific. He’d film me writing, then do a frame-by-frame analysis. Maybe the Muse would even be caught on camera?

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George’s research would reveal exactly how I do it: Eight Easy Ways to Call the Muse

    • Snuggle your dog
    • Nibble dark chocolate
    • Look out the window and squint
    • Tap out a few words.
    • Check your email
    • Sip tea
    • Google something, possibly related to the project
    • Scratch your ear

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On location for George Clooney film.

That’s it: snuggle, nibble, squint, tap, check, sip, google, scratch.

But the more I thought about it, I realized what’s actually happening when I SNSTCSGS is not only calling the Muse, but also answering the Muse’s call. Or maybe – more exactly – conversing with the Muse. It’s a two-way street. I gather the storybits and tools that call her. In turn, she calls to me, urges me to use all this stuff. That’s how the Muse works.

The 12,000+ writers who attended AWP have gone home but I’ve continued to muse on this muse thing. I’ve decided there must be more than one muse, that it takes a village –  well, at least a Swiss army knife of muses –  to get the work done. For starters:

THE ILLUMINATOR MUSE – How else to explain why a writer’s attention is drawn to stuff that is charged with story? She shines her light on ideas, objects, memories, experiences, words themselves, art materials, research, juicy bits of overheard dialogue. The list goes on and on. For instance, my attention is drawn to my #4 watercolor brush and naples yellow gouache and I want to paint something. It will be sunny. Oh, already a story starts to gather.

Making stories depends on assembling material and tools, on gathering quirky facts and notions, on laying seemingly disparate things side by side, on comparing, contrasting, connecting. Sometimes the Illuminator Muse carries a candle like Wee Willie Winkie, and other times she holds a Klieg light high above her head. “Pay attention,” she says, “And report back.”

GESTAPO MUSE – This one has a big glue pot and keeps me in my chair. I almost wish she’d carry a cattle prod, too, and deliver a jolt when my attention wanders.

MARSHALL McLUHAN MUSE – The Marshall McLuhan Muse calls with the seductive nature of the creative zone itself. The medium is the message. Work comes out of work. Or, as Julie Paschkis puts it, “Put in the drudgery and the alchemy happens.”

CRAFT MUSE – A practical gal, the Craft Muse inspires with conferences like AWP, classes, SCBWI talks, and, of course, through other people’s writing. I’m especially inspired to create books that become part of the circle of parent and child reading together, a circle I loved dearly.

I am sure a muse team assembles for each writer, offering skills as needed. For instance, a journalist friend reminded me about the Deadline Muse. How could I forget this muse that calls me every month when it’s time to post here?

What we were really talking about at our AWP panel was twofold: where do ideas come from and how do you sustain motivation?

Muse-assisted or not, my ideas come from paying attention, a habit of mulling, and from savoring stuff that amuses me. (Ah, “muse” is hidden there.) And why write? Writing’s how I figure out what I think. It makes sense of my world.

So I’ll stick with my snuggle, nibble, squint, tap, check, sip, google, and scratch.

But I wonder. Maybe we could sort of crowd-source with our BooksAroundThe Table readers. How do YOU call the Muse?