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: Jen Bryant

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.


Jen Bryant

Jen Bryant writes:

Dear Karen (with gratitude for bringing us all together in this conversation):

Where to begin, where to begin . . . ??? How is it possible to keep putting one foot in front of the other—one word after the last word—one breath after the next one? I think perhaps the answer is different for each of us, just as the flow of writing flows from very different sources in each of us.

For me, the words of those I admire, of those I’ve looked up to and have been mentored by—provide comfort. They comfort because even though the November election left me in an unprecedented state of disbelief, disappointment, and just plain disgust, I have faith in the goodness of ordinary people. I have no idea why this is true, but I think it has something to do with my chosen profession as a children’s author and poet. Children represent hope; poetry (inasmuch as it is singing from the soul) represents survival.

I have MANY quotes from writers past and present taped up on my desk and on the walls of my writing room. On the really bad days (when the best thing I can find in my morning’s New York Times is that Congress has adjourned for the weekend . . .) I pause to read as many of those quotes as I can before I sit down and begin to work. Today, I lingered over this one by my friends and long-time mentors Jerry and Eileen Spinelli. It’s the final page of their collaborative book Today I Will: A Year of Quotes, Notes, and Promises to Myself (Random House Children’s Books, 2009), which I highly recommend:

“I understand that some things are beyond my control. I also understand that my view of life depends on choices I make. I hereby choose to view the cookie as half remaining rather than half gone. When life challenges me, I shall turn to my resources the healing love of friends when I am hurt, the promise of new opportunity when I am rejected, my own common sense when I am afraid, confidence in myself when I am alone. I hereby choose to believe that life is good.”

It’s not always easy in times like these, but in the end, the only thing we REALLY control is our attitude. Therefore, we need to believe that life is, indeed, good—and do our small part, each day, to make it so.


Jen Bryant writes picture books, novels, and poems for readers of all ages. Her three biographies illustrated by Melissa Sweet—A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, and The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus—have earned Caldecott Honors, a Sibert Medal, and the Schneider Award from ALA and the Orbis Pictus Award from NCTE. SIX DOTS: A Story of Young Louis Braille, illustrated by Boris Kulikov, won the Schneider Family Award for Young Readers this year. Jen’s historical novels in verse include The Trial, Ringside 1925, Pieces of Georgia, and Kaleidoscope Eyes. Jen lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Visit her on Facebook or on the Web.