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: Margi Preus

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.


Margi Preus (Shirleen Hieb Photography)

Margi Preus writes:

Here’s how bad it is: I can barely muster up the wherewithal to write a blog post, much less a novel. I’m just too busy reading the news feed on my phone.

Back when I used to write, I wrote mostly historical fiction. I noticed, as Avi pointed out in a June 8 post in this blog, that there are “many moments in history which echo today’s world.” That’s for sure. If there’s one thing you get confronted by when you write historical fiction is how this has all happened before, and how bad it has been—worse, lots of times. Lots worse. But then you find stories of people who have dug themselves out, have risen like phoenixes from the ashes, or somehow shone a light or shown a way forward. Or who, in spite of everything, just kept valiantly moving forward. One foot in front of the other.

While writing my first novel, Heart of a Samurai, a lot of me was deeply despondent about the Iraq War and some hateful rhetoric of the times. Writing about a friendship between a Japanese boy and an American sea captain might seem far away from that reality, but for me, their friendship—two people from countries deeply antagonistic toward each other–was solace. I was reminded that individuals, one at a time, could steer their way out of antagonism. I was also reminded, every day, that this single friendship helped pave the way for a peaceful resolution to what could have been a deadly encounter between east and west. For me, writing that story became my daily prayer.

Excuse me while I check my news feed.

Okay, I’m back. Where was I? Ah, yes. I guess the only way is forward. I guess the only way, in these backward times, is to lean into the headwind and no matter how much the wind pushes us back, just keep inching forward.

How? I don’t know, but once in awhile, during a slow news moments, I put pen to paper. The movement of the pen—forward—feels positive. The filling of the page feels like something is getting accomplished. Turning the notebook page to the next feels like forward motion. There’s the soft, nonjudgemental whisper of pen on paper. Words are being set down. Witness is being borne. Light is being shone into dark corners. One word in front of the other.


Margi Preus

Margi Preus is the Newbery Honor winning author of Heart of a Samurai and other books for young readers, including West of the Moon, Enchantment Lake, Shadow on the Mountain, and The Bamboo Sword. Her books have won multiple awards, landed on many “best of” lists, been honored as ALA/ALSC Notables, selected as an NPR Backseat Book Club pick, chosen for community reads, and translated into many languages. The latest, The Clue in the Trees, the second in the Enchantment Lake mystery series, is due out in September.

A Wedge in Her Subconscious

Margi PreusCatherine, Called Birdy blew my mind. It might have been the first time it occurred to me that history was stories and not just dates and proper names. That story wedged its way into my subconscious and I am sure had no small role to play when I set out to write my first story based on history. Karen Cushman showed the way. I’ll just say it, I think she’s a genius.

Thank you, Karen Cushman!

Margi Preus

What’s Gnu?

Minnesota in AprilPhilip and I were just in Minnesota where I spoke at the Spotlight on Books Conference. Here’s a view out our window of April in northern Minnesota. The conference was fun and the snow was lovely.

Afterwards we were driven to Minneapolis where the splendid Margi Preus (Heart of a Samurai and Shadow on the Mountain) invited us to sit at her table with Steve and Vicki Palmquist of the Children’s Literature Network for the Minnesota Book Awards gala. Here we are, looking a little weary after a loooong day but having a great time.