On Creativity: Susan Fletcher

My question to several writers I admire: “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?”

I have received thoughtful and inspirational answers. I’m happy to share them with you here over the summer. I’m posting them in a random order, as I received their responses. If you have your own thoughts about these questions, I hope you’ll comment.

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Susan FletcherSusan Fletcher writes:

I find it both harder and easier to be a writer in days like these.

Harder, because the “hate, trauma, and tragedy” feel so intense right now, and it’s right there in our faces all day long. It seems difficult—and maybe even irresponsible—to turn away from the suffering and crises of our times to cocoon myself in my writing room and in the worlds of my books.

That said, I’ve found in the past that when there is tragedy in my personal life, writing can be a refuge. I can dive down into a book I’m writing and live in another place for a while every day. Right now, it’s 13th century England, in the menagerie at the Tower of London. In times past I have time-traveled to medieval Persia, Renaissance Venice, and places that never were. Writing gives me a break from the relentlessness of seemingly intractable 21st century problems. When I emerge from my writing room, the “real world” comes rushing back, but I am somehow better able to face it.

What’s more, writing offers a kind of sideways wisdom into the very difficulties I am facing. I’ve found that the crisis from which I am “escaping” by writing about a different world … seeps into the world of my book in altered form and lets me see it from different perspectives—at a distance from the intensity of emotion. Indirectly and through fiction, I gradually blunder my way to a better grasp of my thoughts and feelings … and then I can give them voice.

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Susan Fletcher is the author of a dozen books for children and young adults, including Dragon’s Milk, Shadow Spinner, and Alphabet of Dreams. Visit her website.

 

On Creativity: William Alexander

My question to several writers I admire: “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?”

I have received thoughtful and inspirational answers. I’m happy to share them with you here over the summer. I’m posting them in a random order, as I received their responses. If you have your own thoughts about these questions, I hope you’ll comment.

_________________________

William Alexander writes:

William Alexander

I read the news every morning. Please don’t do this if you can possibly avoid it. I can’t avoid it. I am addicted to staring into that particular abyss. The headlines alone create a flailing, sputtering, inarticulate mess of frustration and rage that writhes inside me for the rest of the day. This makes it almost impossible to productively focus on anything else. It feels irresponsible and decadent to carry on and keep writing goofball stories about haunted Renaissance festivals and aliens masquerading as kumquats. Neither has the opposite strategy worked; I’ve tried to confront these feelings, to channel their subject matter into some sort of art, and it doesn’t go well. The mess is too raw and immediate. It won’t listen to discipline or allow itself to be shaped by craft. Molten lava can’t be sculpted. We just burn ourselves if we try.

Music does help, though.

Every day I drink my coffee, put on headphones, and listen to a single piece of angry, eviscerating music. This offers catharsis that I desperately need and can’t find a way to directly express. But I don’t have to. Others have been here before me. Others are here with me now. I’m not alone. The music shifts my panicked, racing pulse into the rhythm and momentum of a protest march.

Small rituals like this have always helped me structure my writing time. Just as brushing teeth gives shape to the day and thereby resists chaos and entropy—or at least keeps chaos and entropy away from our teeth–any small action can become a ritual that shapes our writing time. Tea, coffee, votive candles, angry music, a five-minute dance party in the privacy of an otherwise empty apartment, or reading a random paragraph of a favorite book out loud will, if consistently repeated, transform into an act of devotion to the muse. Sing in me, coffee, and through me.

I also try to remind myself that we need fiction—especially fantastical, historical, defamiliarizing fiction—to foster the understanding that the world could be otherwise, that it has been otherwise, and that it will continue to change. But positive, transformative changes are impossible if they remains unimaginable. Mental muscles need to be stretched. Haunted Renaissance festivals and alien kumquats will hopefully stretch them.

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that “The literature of imagination, even when tragic, is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort, but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore offers hope.”

Susan Cooper said at the CLNE conference last November that, “It is possible to fight your way to the horizon without seeing it. None of us is secure. Ever. We can’t give children security, but we can give them this one true defense against despair.” Then she quoted Phillip Pullman: “It is our duty to hope.”

Saint Augustine insisted that “Hope has two beautiful daughters named Anger and Courage—anger at the way things are, and courage to make sure that they do not remain the way they are.”

It may be our duty to hope, but that sense of obligation will not necessarily tame volcanic responses to current events. But small rituals help, and so does music. The story that we are in has a soundtrack. Listen to it. This will not scry out the future, or tell us how the story ends, but it will help us march.

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William Alexander won the National Book Award in 2012 for his first book, Goblin Secrets, and the Earphones Award for his narration of the audiobook. He has since written three more novels for Middle Grade audiences: Ghoulish Song, Ambassador, and Nomad. Will studied theater and folklore at Oberlin College, English at the University of Vermont, and creative writing at the Clarion Workshop. He currently teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Visit his website.

On Creativity: Dorothy Love

My question to several writers I admire: “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?”

I have received thoughtful and inspirational answers. I’m happy to share them with you here over the summer. I’m posting them in a random order, as I received their responses. If you have your own thoughts about these questions, I hope you’ll comment.

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Dorothy Love writes:

Dorothy Love

Would it help you to think of writing as a form of resistance to the toxic miasma that’s engulfing us all? Most of my friends are desperate to do something to counteract the current White House occupant, but lack the power of the pen.

I’ve never subscribed to the idea that literature for young readers ought to ” teach a lesson” —ye gads!!! but perhaps your characters can embody the best of our shared humanity as an example to those readers who will one day be in charge of this poor old planet.

Fire up your computer and tell your story as an act of defiance against all that has gone so horribly wrong in our country.

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Dorothy Love, the author of Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray, A Respectable Actress, Every Perfect Gift, and several other historical fiction novels told with mystery and romance, is highly respected for her storytelling and her research. She enjoys traveling with her husband, collecting antique ephemera, and playing Frisbee with Jake, the couple’s golden retriever. A native Southerner, she currently lives in the Texas hill country. Visit her website.

 

On Creativity: Nikki Grimes

My question to several writers I admire: “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?”

I have received thoughtful and inspirational answers. I’m happy to share them with you here over the summer. I’m posting them in a random order, as I received their responses. If you have your own thoughts about these questions, I hope you’ll comment.

_________________________

Nikki Grimes writes:

Nikki GrimesLove in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is a powerful title. It comes to me now as I consider the challenge of creating art in the diseased social and political environment in which we currently find ourselves.

For me, the answer is largely a matter of balance. As a citizen, I have a responsibility to keep myself informed of what’s going on so that I am positioned to take action, accordingly. As an artist, though, I bear a responsibility to my work. By setting limits on the former, I’m able to create a space of positivity in which I can successfully attend to the latter.

We live in a 24-hour-news-cycle kind of world, but that doesn’t mean I have to ingest news 24:7. Once or twice a day is more than enough, especially given that much of the hourly news is a regurgitation of earlier posts, anyway. Like medicine, I mind my doses of information. A certain amount is necessary for the health of my citizen-self. An overdose, however, is neither required nor recommended.

In addition to monitoring my intake of daily news, so much of it negative, I’m careful to balance it out with positive actions and affirmations. I spend time in my garden, draw in the fresh air and the heady scent of roses. I enjoy the laughter of children. I celebrate the birthdays, baby showers, and weddings of friends. I visit art museums and botanical gardens and intentionally spend time giving myself over to beauty. Above all, I remind myself that I believe in a God who has already written the end of the story, and—spoiler alert—the just prevail.

Trust me, I am not naive. I know we have a pretty deep ditch to dig ourselves out of. Will the road be rocky? Absolutely. But we will reach the end of it. In the meantime, my job is to use my gift as a source of help, healing, and inspiration, which are so desperately needed, right now.

Literature and art are powerful tools. With them, we can promote peace, plant seeds of empathy and compassion, and encourage right action. As such, this is not the time for those of us who are creative to sit back, or allow ourselves to become paralyzed. This is precisely the time that we must engage.

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New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2017 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include the much-honored books One Last WordGarvey’s Choice, ALA Notable book What is Goodbye?, Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade, and Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Jazmin’s Notebook, Talkin’ About Bessie, Dark Sons, Words with Wings, and The Road to Paris. Creator of the popular Meet Danitra Brown, Ms. Grimes lives in Corona, California.. Visit Nikki Grimes’ website.

 

On Creativity: Marion Dane Bauer

My question to several writers I admire: “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?”

I have received thoughtful and inspirational answers. I’m happy to share them with you here over the summer. I’m posting them in a random order, as I received their responses. If you have your own thoughts about these questions, I hope you’ll comment.

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Marion Dane Bauer writes:

Marion Dane BauerWhat is the Point?

Mary Oliver: I also believed and still believe, with more alarm as the years go by, that we are destroying the Earth.

Krista Tippett: And you don’t write about that.

Mary Oliver: No. Simply that I think you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. And there are some poets who pound on that theme until you really can’t take any more. And I think that my way of doing it, saying this is what we have, let’s keep it, because it’s beautiful and wonderful and wondrous might work better. Though probably it’s not going to work either. We’re in deep trouble with the environment I believe. And nobody’s going to stop this business of … of business, of making money, the amassing of things that will vanish for us as we vanish. I’ll leave a few poems behind . . . but not much cash.

                   Unedited interview, On Being, October 15, 2015

So … Mary Oliver, from whom so many of us draw hope for our precious, struggling world, for our precious, struggling lives, despairs, too. How painful to hear!

And yet when I listened to that interview I only nodded and thought, Of course. That’s the way it is, isn’t it? We despair and, at the same time, we write about wonders.

Because what is the point of writing anything else? The wondrous, after all, still exists. The wondrous in the natural world that surrounds us, the wondrous in human relationships, the wondrous that flows from the human mind … art, science, even technology. All worthy of honor.

I feel a powerful aversion to the message I’ve heard too often handed to young people, “We adults have failed. The world is yours now. Fix it!”

If I were young today I can’t imagine much that would fill me with more disdain … or more anger.

So I have recently spent intensive months first researching then writing and rewriting and rewriting a picture book text called EarthSong. I don’t say one word in it about our collapsing climate. I only celebrate. A hymn, not a sermon. My theory is that if I can fill a young child—and perhaps that young child’s caretaker, too—with wonder at our Earth, they will be more ready to take care than if I preach the fire and brimstone I can too easily see gathering at our feet.

And if, as I suspect, taking care in our individual lives is no longer enough to make a difference, then at least my words will bring my readers to the kind of deep appreciation that can change us today.

Of course, climate chaos isn’t the only threat I, and many others, see gathering around us. We stand on the brink of war, war we can no longer simply export to other lands and pretend is not ours. Our own society is collapsing under the burden of inequality, of a neglected infrastructure, of short-sighted and greedy economic policies. Politics—all of it, not just the too-easy-to-name newcomers—has become a travesty, focused on power rather than the common good.

There are days when my most optimistic thought is that I’m old. If I’m lucky, I will come in nature’s unerring way to that final exit before the collapse.

But then I have grandchildren.

I have grandchildren.

And young readers.

And the only answer I can find when I speak to them is to combine honesty with a deep honoring of the good, of the beautiful, of the holy.

Because it isn’t just that “you catch more flies with honey.” That’s true, of course. But what’s even more true is that we need, all of us, young and old, to live in that good, beautiful, holy place. Otherwise, what is the point?

And if we need to live in it, then I need to write in it, too.

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Marion Dane Bauer is the author of the Newbery Honor book On My Honor, as well as many cherished picture books, early readers, nonfiction books, middle grade novels, young adult fiction, and books about writing. She was the editor of Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence, a collection of original short stories on gay and lesbian themes by well-known children’s writers. Her most recent books are Little Cat’s Luck and Jump, Little Wood Ducks. Marion was one of the founding faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ master’s degree in writing for children and young adults. Visit Marion Dane Bauer’s website.

 

On Creativity: Gennifer Choldenko

My question to several writers I admire: “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?”

I have received thoughtful and inspirational answers. I’m happy to share them with you here over the summer. I’m posting them in a random order, as I received their responses. If you have your own thoughts about these questions, I hope you’ll comment.

_________________________

Gennifer Choldenko writes:

Gennifer Choldenko

There’s no doubt we’re living in trying times. I’m still reeling from the shock of yesterday’s news, when a new affront, even more disastrous, pops up on my phone. If fiction writers concocted the events in today’s newspaper, the plot would be hair-brained, Gerry-rigged and completely unbelievable. The characters leading our country would be too simple, too clearly deranged. Readers would not suspend their disbelief.

But the question is … how do I write during these confusing and troubling times?

From an intellectual standpoint I could say we have to write because otherwise we’re allowing the evil to wrap its fingers around our hearts and our minds. The Boston Marathon has gone on every year since the bombing in 2013. Ariana Grande is planning a benefit concert for Manchester. Charlie Hebdo is publishing every Wednesday just as it did before 2015.

We have to write because otherwise we’re pushing the mute button on our muses. And it is our voices that will set us free. And though I believe this, that isn’t really why I’m writing well right now.

I’m writing well because the worse things get, the more important writing is for me. Writing is my refuge. It’s the place I go to hide from the world.

I write for years trying to deepen my understanding of the complex environment of my characters. And in the universe I create, my characters grapple with skewed or upside-down morality such as we are experiencing today.

But when I’ve gone through the rough and tumble, uncovered the secrets, fears, lies, and downright insanity of my stories at the end, there is hope. I write for that hope. I need it now more than ever.

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Gennifer Choldenko is the author of the Newbery Honor book Al Capone Does My Shirts and the two books that continue Moose and Natalie Flanagan’s story. She writes novels and picture books, the most recent of which is Dad and the Dinosaur, illustrated by Dan Santat. Visit Gennifer Choldenko’s website.

 

On Creativity: Avi

June 8th, 2017

A few weeks ago, I sent this question to several writers I admire. “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?”

I have received thoughtful and inspirational answers. I’m happy to share them with you here over the summer. I’m posting them in a random order, as I received their responses. If you have your own thoughts about these questions, I hope you’ll comment.

First, from Avi:

AviKaren, I have nothing but sympathy and shared feelings with you. That said, I am writing, not just because the domestic budget requires it, but I like to think I can take the world as it is today and make it part of what I write. Perhaps it is the historical fiction I write (and you write) that helps. There are, alas, many moments in history which echo today’s world. If you can write about such, and as does happen in history (not always) the highest qualities of human culture triumph, you can imbue your young readers with a sense of their potential triumphs that might be, could be, and should be. In other words, let your struggle be your story.

Avi is the author of many books for children and teens, including the popular True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Crispin: Cross of Lead, and Nothing But the Truth, each of which were honored by Newbery committees. Nothing But the Truth is being read in classrooms because of its connection with current events, much like The Loud Silence of Francine Green. Visit Avi’s website.

 

Glad You Asked, Q5

May 18th, 2017

 

I Love to ReadWhat did you study in college?

I entered college as an English major but quickly became enamored of the Classics department because it was much smaller and more interesting and they had sherry parties every Friday afternoon. My final major was double—Greek and English.

Fear, Propaganda, and Hysteria

The CrucibleOne of the most famous of plays written in the 1950s in the midst of McCarthyism and the “witch hunts” accusing artists, actors, musicians, and people in many walks of life of being Communists was Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. It uses the allegory of the Salem witch hunts to spotlight the effect fear, propaganda, and hysteria can have on a community. The Loud Silence of Francine Green is set in southern California, where the accusations and suspicions cut deeply into the community of the movie studios and the thousands of people who worked for them.

On PBS, American Masters aired Arthur Miller, Eliza Kazan and the Blacklist: None Without Sin (2003). There are resources on their site that would work well to accompany reading Francine Green and discussing the fear that arises when oppressive tactics are fomented by people in power.

Glad You Asked, Q4

May 4th, 2017
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Are there particular memories of growing up that, looking back, you see as leading you toward a writing career?

My first 17 or so years seemed to be leading me to a writing career.

I wrote all the time—poems, short stories, a 7-page novel, an epic poem cycle based on the life of Elvis.

A lot of what I wrote was involved with creating a world I’d like to live in starring a person I’d like to be.