Surrender

When asked if they have any regrets, some wise people will say that they do not. All of their experiences have made them who they are.

Our experiences, good or bad, influence us as people. As writers, our experiences can also shape the characters, settings, themes, and mood of our stories.

Specifically as children’s writers, we draw from many places. A memory of a warm, loving childhood. Or a not so great one. A book we read. A movie we loved (or hated). A place we visited full of rich culture and surroundings. We may have even observed a child, doing or saying something innocent, loving, heartbreaking, or brave.

I have recently been reading Awakened by the Moon, the biography of Margaret Wise Brown by Leonard S. Marcus. Brown is best known as the author of the timeless Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny. In addition to observing the children that she worked with, Margaret believed that “memory {was} the ultimate source of her creative work.” She said that, “as you write, memory will come out in its true form.”

Everything informs our memories, whether we know it or not.

Material for our stories can come from an infinite number of places. You need only open yourself to it. Surrender. Let the memories wash over you. Truly open your eyes, heart, and mind, and see what comes.

You may find that the laugh and broad smile of an old friend makes its way into one of your stories. You may set a story on an unspoiled beach where you once stood as your cousin got married. You may remember some advice you once gave, and try to find a way to give better advice in your written world.

“Write what you know,” has been said to writers for many years. If we are brave enough, we may realize we know more than we think we do.

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The Lesson of Mulberry Street

27. Maybe 28.

That’s how many times Theodor Geisel’s first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected before ultimately being picked up by Vanguard. Geisel is better known as Dr. Seuss.

My childhood memories long gone, I have read Seuss’s books countless times as an adult. The Lorax was a staple in my work as an environmental educator. And now my son has started to enjoy Seuss’s early wordplay books such as Hop on Pop and Green Eggs and Ham. It’s hard to imagine that at one point his brilliance was rejected. 27 times. At least.

Rejection is on my mind these days. Or perhaps a better word to use is declination. That was recommended to me as a kinder word for what amounts to someone saying, “You’re not good enough.”

Yes, that’s harsh. But who among you hasn’t felt exactly that?

Try as I might, a tiny voice—negative and persistent—whispers in my ear each time I’ve sent my manuscript out. Of course, another voice—encouraging and hopeful—is also whispering, but you can guess which one maintains a slight edge.

As a writer, I’m a neophyte. I started writing two years ago, am pre-published—another nicety I learned at a conference—and have only sent out my manuscript 15 times, all within the past four months. I’ve gotten 10 rejections. Dr. Seuss claims he almost burned that first manuscript, and I can relate to the urge. But I’m holding on.

At the NYC conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), Jane Yolen admitted that she herself had a desk full of manuscripts that had been repeatedly rejected. If you’re not familiar with her work, rectify that immediately! She’s written over 300 books, including the popular picture books Owl Moon and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? As with Seuss, it’s hard to imagine someone that prolific and successful ever having their work rejected. On her webpage, Yolen admits, “A writer never gets used to rejections.” I suppose that’s true, though I’ll have to stick with this much longer to appreciate Yolen’s experience.

I’m not sure how she deals with it. As for me, my current critique group is one of the main reasons I’m still writing. (If not, THE.) Sure, my parents and husband are ardent supporters, but that’s kind of written into their contracts, isn’t it? For now, I trust that my critiquers will tell me to shelve a project when I’ve worked it as much as I can or when more opportunities to keep revising remain. Luckily, I still have a bank of stories that I’m yearning to write and share.  I am learning to write just for me, and oh how slow the learning curve is, but if I can allow my love of storytelling to drive my writing, then I will write until my story bank is dried up.

And so I carrying on, like Dr. Seuss did, not fully trusting that I’ll find that right agent, but hoping, deeply hoping to find a match for my manuscript and my career.

How do you keep going in the face of rejection? What are your criteria for putting a project aside? How do know when to make a work extinct versus dormant?

-Joanna

Creating Something New

My son and I read a sweet story last week: Lissy’s Friends written and illustrated by Grace Lin.

Cover of

Cover of Lissy’s Friends

It is the story of Lissy, the new girl at school. That probably sounds familiar. However, the twist in this story is that to deal with knowing no one, Lissy creates some friends – from origami paper. She starts with a bird fashioned from the school menu, which she appropriately names Menu. Lissy creates many more animal friends, until a playground mishap blows these paper friends away to Paris.

Other children have been watching, and they want to make origami too. Lissy makes new school friends by sharing a talent special to her – origami. She finds new friends on her own terms.

I know a little about origami. My father makes origami boxes and animals to delight his children and grandchildren. He has given me several origami kits over the years, which I have used to make some basic origami animals. See one of my son’s creations at the bottom of this post.

Origami reminds me of the creative process, as well as the revision process. Origami begins with just paper (albeit, colorful paper); paper that is two dimensional and flat. With a few folds, it is turned into something that has a life of its own. A story has similar potential. It can start with an idea, and grow into something that has a life of its own.

It can be scary to revise, especially if you consciously notice the story changing. But if you allow the process to take the story where it wants to go, the results can be amazing. Your story sometimes goes where you never thought it would, and it is a much richer, more interesting story after the journey.

How do you create something transformational in your writing, or in other creative pursuits?

I would also like to give a plug to the program that brought Lissy’s Friends to my family. Both of my children have participated in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. It is a program that brings a new, age-appropriate book to preschool children in their homes each month until they turn five. Our local United Way sponsors Imagination Library in our area, and my children love receiving a book in the mail addressed to them. They can’t wait to see what stories each new book has to tell!

Writing Tip #4,982 – Read the newspaper

Last January, Katie and I attended the NYC conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. As anyone who’s ever been to a conference of 1200+ people can imagine, it was a weekend of contagious energy, slightly numb rear-ends, and spinning minds. No doubt Katie and I could both write endlessly about all the things we thought about at the conference and have discovered since. Today I’d like to talk about ideas and where to find them.

Surely, lots of ideas come from our own experiences or people watching or imagining what-if situations. But Regina Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency gave me a new idea (though it may be old hat to you). She suggested writing about a current news headline from a child’s perspective. Now I scour the paper for ideas and have a clipping file.

Here’s a sampling from today’s Jackson Hole Daily, a local paper in my hometown:

Latin Resource Center rings in Cinco de Mayo

How ‘endocrine disrupter’ chemicals negatively affect us

4 students killed at Syrian university

Pepsi revives Michael Jackson promotion

and my personal favorite,

Inmates take on cats as pet project

What a range of topics — some political and disturbing, others emotional and heartfelt. And don’t forget, humorous. Think of all the places you could run with any of those headlines. Endocrine disruption could be sci-fi or dystopian. Pepsi and Michael Jackson might inspire a dance-off for a middle grade novel. A dual language book about a community Cinco de Mayo celebration would be fun as well as informative.

The recent news of student deaths in Syria is both shocking and severe, and I apologize if the inclusion of that headline seems to cross some invisible line. But to say that kids — albeit older young adults — wouldn’t be able to handle such a topic would do those readers a disservice. Writing about emotionally and intellectually charged books can be done tastefully and without judgement. Take, for example, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. The book details a teen’s journey during Stalin’s forced relocation of Lithuanians during World War II. Ms. Sepetys’s story is heartbreaking, but so important and eye-opening. So, do not be afraid.

I encourage you to experiment with headlines – for your writing, teaching, or whatever else you do. As for the headlines above, they’re fair game. Let’s see what you can come up with.

I’ve found that I love scouring the paper (and yes, it’s actual paper and not internews, and  yes, I do read the articles) and my clipping file is overflowing. So I say, Thank you, Regina!, and hope that someday I might do one of those headlines justice.

-Joanna