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: Susan Cooper

July 6th, 2017

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 Cooper writes:

Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper (photo: Tsar Fedorsky)

Dear Karen, dear Anywriter,

This is certainly an awful time, but I’m old enough to remember other awful times: the terror of nuclear confrontation over the Soviet bases in Cuba; the fury that sent us thronging the streets about the Vietnam war and the million-plus deaths it caused. We survived those as writers and we’ll survive this one, if we can avoid despair.

How? We’re writers, we have always led a double life. The writer’s mind has always been split between the rational life in the real world, and the story life that he/she creates. Times like today, we have to work harder at the first so we can escape from it into the second.

Here’s the only advice I can give to myself, and to you: First, focus hard on real life, on yourself as citizen. Do what you can to change or protest our present dangers: march, write, spend money, beg, nag, implore, shout. However little you achieve, you’re taking positive action, which releases pressure, lessens guilt—and frees the imagination.

Then the imagination, which made us all writers in the first place, will be waiting.  It’s fed by real life, by that compost heap that’s made of everything and everybody we have met or done or read or thought, but it has an absolutely separate life of its own. We know that. Our stories come out of it, and they reach out to the imagination of the reader, and the two connect. Those of us whose stories connect with children probably have the same quality of imagination that we had when we were children ourselves. (“It seems my child-self is alive and well,” said Maurice Sendak.) The imagination is the place where we live. Half the time.

Go there, the way you always do when you’re between books and don’t know what to write next: go there, do nothing, listen to wordless music, walk to nowhere, read something, anything. Real life has not gone away, but it is a noise in the background. The imagination wants you to write, it will tell you what to write. It will take some of us into the past, some into a future dystopia, some into fantasy. It is the antidote to despair—especially if you are published for children, because the one thing your book must not offer that young connecting imagination is despair.

Hang on to hope. Write.

love, Susan

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Susan Cooper is the author of the classic five-book sequence The Dark is Rising, which won a Newbery Medal, a Newbery Honor Award, and two Carnegie Honor Awards. Born in England, she was a reporter and feature writer for the London Sunday Times before coming to live in the United States. Her writing includes books for children and adults, a Broadway play, films, and Emmy-nominated screenplays. Her most recent books for children are Ghost HawkKing of Shadows and Victory, and for adults a portrait of Revels founder Jack Langstaff called The Magic Maker. In 2012, Susan was given the Margaret A. Edwards Award and in 2013 she received the World Fantasy Award for life achievement.Susan lives and writes in Marshfield, Massachusetts. Visit her website.

On Fantasy: Susan Cooper

Susan CooperFor the next few weeks, in celebration of my new fantasy novel, Grayling’s Song, this blog is featuring a few of my favorite fantasy authors answering four questions about their own writing. Today, you can read Susan Cooper’s answers. She’s the author of many fine books, including the Newbery Medal-winning The Grey King.

Q: What was (is) the hardest aspect of building a fantasy world for you?

A: On the whole, it’s American writers who build a fantasy world; the British ones (including me) tend instead to bring fantasy into the real world.  Maybe it’s because we grew up in time-haunted islands full of mysterious reminders of 3,000 years of ancestors; if you visit Stonehenge in the middle of the night, as I once did, you can believe almost anything could happen there. The hard thing—but also the most fun—is to make your reader believe that the real world can also contain magic.

Q: What do you feel is different for you, particularly, as a writer about creating a fantasy novel rather than writing a realistic or historical novel?

A: I seem to be incapable of writing a realistic novel. I began life as a newspaper reporter, and I’ve written biographies and other non-fiction books, but whenever I write fiction, my imagination gives me fantasy—even in books set in the historical past, like King of Shadows and Victory. The only exception was Dawn of Fear, a book about World War 2,  but that wasn’t truly fiction because it was almost totally autobiographical.

The Dark is RIsingQ: Did you read fantasy novels before you wrote your books? If so, what’s your favorite fantasy novel and why?

A: I was born a loooong time ago, so I grew up reading myth and legend and folktale rather than fantasy novels, and I don’t have a favorite. But I remember E. Nesbit’s books, like The Phoenix and the Carpet, and two fantasies by the English poet John Masefield, called The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights. I read Tolkien when I was at university; he lectured to us on Beowulf, and after a lovely shout of the poem’s first two lines in Anglo-Saxon, he mumbled. C.S.Lewis gave lectures too (on Renaissance literature) and was much easier to hear, because he boomed. I read his adult science fiction novels, but not the Narnia books.

Q: Is there a character in one of your fantasy novels that you wish you could invite over for dinner? What would you talk about?

A: Since you have to think yourself inside the head of every character you invent, you know most of them as well as you know yourself. The only exception for me is Merriman Lyon, in the Dark is Rising sequence: he’s mysterious, remote, perhaps unknowable. But I’d never have the courage to invite him to dinner.

Thank you, Susan, for sharing your experiences and insight. I encourage you to read all of Susan Cooper’s books, including The Dark is Rising Sequence and Green Boy, as well as the others she mentions. Learn more about Susan Cooper on her website.

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bk_grayling_180pxGrayling’s Song will be available on June 7th from Clarion Books and your favorite bookseller. The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books said “The language gives the book the atmospheric flavor of historical fiction, and the land itself is wild and mysterious, exactly the type of place where magic could happen, children could wander around trying to fix the world, and tiny mice could shapeshift into mighty protectors if fed the right potion.”

On Fantasy: Will Alexander

For the next few weeks, in celebration of my new fantasy novel, Grayling’s Song, this space will feature a few of my favorite fantasy authors answering four questions about their own writing. First up, Will Alexander.

Will AlexanderQ: What is the hardest aspect of building a fantasy world for you?

A: Getting lost. I’m not sure that I build fantasy worlds so much as grow them in secret. Margaret Atwood compared writers to magpies. Or maybe ferrets. Both creatures collect shiny things. A pet ferret will hoard forks, coins, paper clips, and bits of foil underneath your couch.

My fantasy worlds start out as similar piles of strangely shiny ideas. I hoard them under the couch in the back of my mind. Each pile grows until it becomes a place, and then I go exploring. It’s a fun process, but inefficient. Sometimes I get lost.

Q: What do you feel is different for you, particularly, as a writer about creating a fantasy novel rather than writing a realistic or historical novel?

A: I can only guess! None of my fiction is realistic. My brain lacks the knack for realism. Goblins and/or ghosts will show up no matter what kind of story I set out to tell.

I do believe that there is a significant overlap between fantasy, history, and the two sets of fiction that use either (or both) as raw material. Ursula K. Le Guin describes that overlapping territory in her introduction to Tales from Earthsea, so I’ll defer to her wisdom:

The way one does research into nonexistent history is to tell the story and find out what happened. I believe this isn’t very different from what historians of the so-called real world do. Even if we are present at some historical event, do we comprehend it–can we even remember it—until we can tell it as a story? And for events in times or places outside our own experience, we have nothing to go on but the stories other people tell us… When you construct or reconstruct a world that never existed, a wholly fictional history, the research is of a somewhat different order, but the basic impulse and techniques are much the same. (xiv)

NomadQ: Did you read fantasy novels before you wrote your book? If so, what’s your favorite fantasy novel and why?

A: Lots. Endlessly. Especially when I was eleven. The books we read at that age change everything—maybe because we’re about to change ourselves. We can see puberty coming, and we’re justifiably scared, so we need to gather resources, explore possibilities, and explore impossibilities to figure out the sort of person we want to become.

When I was eleven I read Ursula K. Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander, Jane Yolen, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Susan Cooper. I don’t think I can choose any one favorite from that magnificent pile of books, but I will say that Le Guin’s Earthsea taught me the most about the grownup that I wanted to turn into.

Q. Is there a character in one of your fantasy novels that you wish you could invite over for dinner? What would you talk about?

A. Semele the goblin playwright. I suspect that we would swap backstage ghost stories. Maybe she knows why all theaters are haunted. I’ve often wondered.

Thank you, Will, for sharing your thoughts with my readers. I hope you’ll read all of Will’s masterful books but especially his most recent, Nomad, and his National Book Award-winning Goblin Secrets. Learn more about Will on his website.

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bk_grayling_180pxGrayling’s Song will be available on June 7th from Clarion Books and your favorite bookseller. Kirkus Reviews gave it a star, “The eventual revelation of just who unleashed the destructive power manages to be simultaneously unexpected, plausible, and thought-provoking. Despite her self-doubt, Grayling is cut from the same cloth as the author’s other sturdy heroines, but she is also an entirely original and endearing character that readers will cheer on as she seeks to save her mother and return her world to rights.”