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 Fletcher

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 FletcherSusan Fletcher writes:

I find it both harder and easier to be a writer in days like these.

Harder, because the “hate, trauma, and tragedy” feel so intense right now, and it’s right there in our faces all day long. It seems difficult—and maybe even irresponsible—to turn away from the suffering and crises of our times to cocoon myself in my writing room and in the worlds of my books.

That said, I’ve found in the past that when there is tragedy in my personal life, writing can be a refuge. I can dive down into a book I’m writing and live in another place for a while every day. Right now, it’s 13th century England, in the menagerie at the Tower of London. In times past I have time-traveled to medieval Persia, Renaissance Venice, and places that never were. Writing gives me a break from the relentlessness of seemingly intractable 21st century problems. When I emerge from my writing room, the “real world” comes rushing back, but I am somehow better able to face it.

What’s more, writing offers a kind of sideways wisdom into the very difficulties I am facing. I’ve found that the crisis from which I am “escaping” by writing about a different world … seeps into the world of my book in altered form and lets me see it from different perspectives—at a distance from the intensity of emotion. Indirectly and through fiction, I gradually blunder my way to a better grasp of my thoughts and feelings … and then I can give them voice.


Susan Fletcher is the author of a dozen books for children and young adults, including Dragon’s Milk, Shadow Spinner, and Alphabet of Dreams. Visit her website.


On Fantasy: Susan Fletcher

Susan FletcherFor a few weeks, in celebration of my new fantasy novel, Grayling’s Song, this blog is featuring a few of my favorite fantasy authors answering four questions about their own writing. Today, you can read Susan Fletcher’s answers. She’s the author of many fine books, including Alphabet of Dreams.

Q: What was (is) the hardest aspect of building a fantasy world for you?

A: Some fantasy writers revel in the details of the geography, costume, politics, technology and architecture of their made-up worlds. Me? Not so much. I love fantasy, but what come naturally to me are character, dialog, language—things like that. Designing an entire fantasy world from whole cloth is really daunting to me.

Flight of the Dragon KynSo I pick up great whole chunks of the “real” world for use in my fantasy novels. Elythia in my dragon books is based on the country Wales. (Loosely.) Kragrom is medieval Scandinavia. (Sort of.) Eric Kimmel loaned me a beautiful coffee table book on the Vikings, and I borrowed liberally from that.  There are three caves in my dragon books, and each is based on a real cave that I have visited. Dragon’s Milk‘s cave is a lava tube in central Oregon. Flight of the Dragon Kyn‘s cave is a huge cavern in southern Oregon. Sign of the Dove‘s cave is a sea cave on the Oregon coast. The draclings (not coincidentally) resemble my old cat Nimbus, the way they thrum in their throats and knead Kaeldra’s legs with their talons.

I pilfer—steal—so liberally from the real world partly because my imagination is not up to the task of creating a whole world all by itself, and partly because I believe that connecting my fantasy worlds to this one helps to make them feel real.

For me, world creation in fantasy is not so very different from world creation in historical fiction. In both cases, you fashion your fictional worlds from a combination of research, imagination, and alchemy!

Q: What do you feel is different for you, particularly, as a writer about creating a fantasy novel rather than writing a realistic or historical novel?

A: In fantasy, you have the advantage of freedom; you can design your fictional worlds to fit the needs of your characters and their stories. In my dragon novels, for instance, I didn’t have to research medieval politics or ship building techniques in a particular time and place. By contrast, the historical novel I am writing now takes place specifically in 1252 A.D., and I have to know exactly who was the king of where, and what languages were spoken in the various locales where my characters find themselves, and whether, on a ship voyage, passengers would sleep above or below decks.

But the freedom of writing fantasy comes with a price. And the price is that your fantasy world has to make sense on its own terms. And part of what this entails is a coherent magic system. You have to create the rules—and stick to them. Rules in which the magic is internally logical, has clear limits, and has a significant price.

Q: Did you read fantasy novels before you wrote your book? If so, what’s your favorite fantasy novel and why?

The MoorchildI read a bit of fantasy as a child but began to delve into it seriously later on, when I began writing for kids and young adults. Some of my early favorites were Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a masterpiece I have loved ever since the first time I read it, when I was in college. The books of David Almond and Philip Pullman were later favorites. But I think that the fantasy novel I love most is Eloise McGraw’s The Moorchild. Eloise was a friend, and in Moorchild she was writing at the peak of her considerable powers. Saaski, the protagonist, is half-human and half-folk, and doesn’t really belong in either world. The Moorchild is about being different from those around us—something we’ve all felt. It is about the difficulty and necessity of finding one’s place in the world, and living with integrity—all of which speak to me.

Q: Is there a character in one of your fantasy novels that you wish you could invite over for dinner? What would you talk about?

A: Oh, definitely: Shahrazad! I didn’t invent her; she is the heroine of the legend on which I based my novel Shadow Spinner. But what a wonderful character she is! Shahrazad is probably the most famous storyteller of all time, so I would talk with her about the art of telling stories. Because she told stories in order to save her own life, I would ask her about capturing the interest of listeners (or readers), keeping them engaged, and designing compelling cliffhangers. Because she had to come up with something new to tell for 1001 consecutive nights, I would talk to her about generating new ideas, being prolific, and meeting deadlines. Because she was telling stories in order to reform the character of a wicked king, I would talk to her about the conundrum of writing a “moral story,” a story that articulates meaning in a significant way without hitting listeners (or readers) over the head with a preachy moral. And then we would toss down some sharbat and just generally dish the dirt.

Thank you, Susan, for sharing your thoughts about fantasy as well as your book recommendations. I encourage you to read all of Susan books, including her most recent, Falcon in the Glass. She’s a wonderful story spinner. Learn more about Susan on her website.


bk_grayling_180pxGrayling’s Song was published June 7th and is available from Clarion Books, your favorite bookseller, and your local library. The BNKids blog said, “Readers who love taking their time to explore sometimes creepy, sometimes wonderfully magical fantasy worlds will be charmed. Grayling is one of the most relatable young heroines I’ve read about for ages. Give this one to a daydreamy nine or ten year old, who could use a bit of inspiration to set off with courage on their own perilous journey through adolescence!”

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Anniversary Greetings from Susan Fletcher

Susan Fletcher
Susan Fletcher

It’s hard to believe it’s been twenty years since Birdy burst upon the scene, tangling her yarn and scaring off suitors, bringing the fleas and rats and dirt of the 14th century into the family rooms of the 20th century, enchanting us with her indomitable spirit and making room in our hearts, as Karen Cushman says in her author’s note, for “all sorts of different people” who are in some ways vastly different from our modern selves. Bravo for Birdy! I imagine Birdy at twenty, perhaps a mother now herself, accomplished in the lady arts but fighting to stay authentically herself despite the expectations of her era, and inspiring us to do the same in ours. —Susan Fletcher

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