On Creativity: Karen Cushman

Karen CushmanA few months ago, I cried out for help. I was finding it profoundly difficult to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm were buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggled to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how might I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? How could I free myself to write during these confusing and troubling times?

In other words, I asked, as Anita Silvey did, “What difference does a children’s book make in the midst of all of this political calamity?” Feeling distraught and discouraged, I went where I so often go for guidance—to my fellow writers. And I received generous, loving, thoughtful, eloquent responses.

Will Alexander recommended music; Ginny Wolff, laughter; Susan Hill Long, imagination; and David LaRochelle, honesty and kindness. Susan Fletcher found “sideways wisdom” through her writing. Margi Preus reminded me just to put one word after another, and Anita Silvey, like the rest of us, does it for kids. Susan Cooper and Gennifer Choldenko wrote about hope and Marion Dane Bauer, wonder. Jen Bryant, Dorothy Love, Avi, Karen Blumenthal, and Nikki Grimes stressed the need for engagement and writing out of our struggles.

I now add them to my company of inspirations, people whose words keep me afloat, like Mary Oliver:

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Like Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer Prize winning poet, in her “Speech to the Young”:

Say to them,
say to the down-keepers
the sun-slappers,
the self-soilers,
the harmony-hushers,
“Even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night.”
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.

Like Berthold Brecht, poet and playwright whose words found me in this dark time:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

Yes, there will be singing about the dark times. With our voices and our words. In this dark time, whatever we may write will come from that place. And as the 1st/2nd century Mishnah sage, Rabbi Tarfon, whose quote is calligraphed and hanging on my wall, said: You are not required to complete the task. Neither are you free to abstain from it.

You must stay drunk on writing, said Ray Bradbury, who has so often said what I need to hear, so reality cannot destroy you.

The upshot is my despair and anger have not passed. Until we live in a perfect world, I imagine it won’t pass. But thanks to all who offered wisdom, compassion, and inspiration, I can write despite such feelings. Or maybe because of them. And because of you.

Now excuse me, I have a book to finish.

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.