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 Hill Long

July 18th, 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.

_________________________

Susan Hill LongSusan Hill Long writes:

So much clanging and bellowing, so much horrible noise. As citizens, we can’t hole up and quit listening. But let’s listen, as well, to the stories of people who have imagined and who continue to imagine a way and a world that makes sense. Ursula K. Le Guin writes, in her essay The Operating Instructions, “Reading is a way of listening.” For lots of us, so is writing. Maybe listening (reading, writing) requires precisely what it seems we can’t afford—solitude, dream-time, head-space, nature, time for thoughts to flow without judgment. Maybe it seems indulgent to while away an hour in dreamy imagining. But imagining is not a small thing. It isn’t frivolous. Le Guin writes, “…the imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human.” I like that a lot. That helps me.

This little note-to-self helps, too. It’s nothing much, the title of a poem. (Doesn’t Mary Oliver often step in to say the exact right thing?) When I saw the words, wherever I saw them, a shy bell chimed in my heart, and so I made a note and Scotch-taped it to my monitor: To be a writer is to have The Chance to Love Everything.

That’s encouragement enough for me. For you, too?

_________________________

Susan Hill Long

Susan Hill Long is a children’s book author. Her recent books include The Magic Mirror: Concerning a Lonely Princess, A Foundling Girl, a Scheming Pig, and a Pickpocket Squirrel, and the middle grade novel Whistle in the Dark, named a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. Her awards include Bank Street Best Books, Oregon Book Award—the Eloise Jarvis McGraw Award for Children’s Literature—and the Katherine Paterson Prize. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two daughters.