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: Nikki Grimes

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.


Nikki Grimes writes:

Nikki GrimesLove in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is a powerful title. It comes to me now as I consider the challenge of creating art in the diseased social and political environment in which we currently find ourselves.

For me, the answer is largely a matter of balance. As a citizen, I have a responsibility to keep myself informed of what’s going on so that I am positioned to take action, accordingly. As an artist, though, I bear a responsibility to my work. By setting limits on the former, I’m able to create a space of positivity in which I can successfully attend to the latter.

We live in a 24-hour-news-cycle kind of world, but that doesn’t mean I have to ingest news 24:7. Once or twice a day is more than enough, especially given that much of the hourly news is a regurgitation of earlier posts, anyway. Like medicine, I mind my doses of information. A certain amount is necessary for the health of my citizen-self. An overdose, however, is neither required nor recommended.

In addition to monitoring my intake of daily news, so much of it negative, I’m careful to balance it out with positive actions and affirmations. I spend time in my garden, draw in the fresh air and the heady scent of roses. I enjoy the laughter of children. I celebrate the birthdays, baby showers, and weddings of friends. I visit art museums and botanical gardens and intentionally spend time giving myself over to beauty. Above all, I remind myself that I believe in a God who has already written the end of the story, and—spoiler alert—the just prevail.

Trust me, I am not naive. I know we have a pretty deep ditch to dig ourselves out of. Will the road be rocky? Absolutely. But we will reach the end of it. In the meantime, my job is to use my gift as a source of help, healing, and inspiration, which are so desperately needed, right now.

Literature and art are powerful tools. With them, we can promote peace, plant seeds of empathy and compassion, and encourage right action. As such, this is not the time for those of us who are creative to sit back, or allow ourselves to become paralyzed. This is precisely the time that we must engage.


New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2017 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, the 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include the much-honored books One Last WordGarvey’s Choice, ALA Notable book What is Goodbye?, Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade, and Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Jazmin’s Notebook, Talkin’ About Bessie, Dark Sons, Words with Wings, and The Road to Paris. Creator of the popular Meet Danitra Brown, Ms. Grimes lives in Corona, California.. Visit Nikki Grimes’ website.