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: Karen Blumenthal

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.


Karen Blumenthal

Karen Blumenthal writes:

The ugliness just kept coming: Attacks on Mexicans, Muslims, women, and the press. The constant drumbeat made my writing for kids seem insignificant. I felt an urgent need do to something more relevant, to put whatever skills I had to offer toward something with more direct impact.

I looked at jobs sites. The local ACLU needed a development person, and I had a little experience fundraising for nonprofits. But surely there were more qualified people.

Lawyers were needed to represent refugees and immigrants who just wanted a chance at a better life and suddenly, a career I rejected decades ago seemed worth considering. I looked up the public law schools nearby. I was qualified, but a degree would cost more than $100,000—and three years was just too long to wait.

As a life-long journalist, I had never protested or marched. But terrified of losing my health insurance, I called and wrote my representatives in Washington for the first time. It may have been important, but honestly, it wasn’t all that satisfying.

My little “a-ha” came on a trip with my husband. He writes about airlines and travel for a major newspaper, and he can get pretty cranked up when he sees airline or airport employees ignore their own rules.

I always have the same response for him: “Don’t get mad. Write about it!”

He usually does, and it usually makes a difference.

Of course, that was really my own best advice. I chose journalism over law school or Wall Street because I believe in the power of words to make a difference.  I have long said that my book-writing mission is to share stories that give teens context for a complicated world. The most obvious and meaningful thing to do was to channel my worries and frustration into my writing.

So my new project is about a women’s issue I care deeply about. I recently agreed to do a biography of an important woman. And I am trying to write a potential picture book that speaks to a current hot-button issue.

The best option for any of us is to use our individual gifts and passions to deliver our most effective response. If you sing, sing. If you draw, draw. And if you write, write. The accumulation of our unique voices will make a difference.


Karen Blumenthal is the author of seven nonfiction books for kids, including Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different; Hillary Rodham Clinton: A Woman Living History, and Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine and the Lawless Years of Prohibition. Before that, she was a reporter, editor and Dallas Bureau Chief at the Wall Street Journal for more than twenty years. Visit her website