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: Virginia Euwer Wolff

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.


Virginia Euwer Wolff writes:

Virginia Euwer WolffDear Karen, whose invitation is urgent and eloquent,

My mother cried at the daily news during The War. Despite our War Bonds and our Victory Garden, the Nazis metastasized across Europe and Russia starved. After the War, with tears left over, she cried when our church erupted in vicious factions, both sides insisting that they were the real Christians. Looking back, I wonder how in the world she kept her composure on the organ bench on those Sunday mornings, playing all the right notes, bringing the gifts of Bach, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Rachmaninoff and the dullish hymns into the sullen sanctuary—with tears in her eyes.

About the War and about the incivility in our church, my mother had zero sense of humor. Such consuming despair locked the gate against laughter.

It’s no surprise that I cry at the evening news of 2017. Nor any surprise that my sense of humor left abruptly on November 8 of last year. Like many others, I spoke little, brooded much, insulated myself and lived on the groceries that were already in the house. I took months to emerge, and that happened when I was able to join a small nearby March on January 21.

I still rarely laugh at the jokes, taking weeks to learn the new slogans and punchlines.

And this admittedly odd behavior seems to have permitted me to go on with my work. Hobbled, of course, by frustration, grief, and rage, I haven’t lost the motivation to continue with a long (fairly exhaustive) writing project, and, surprisingly, my will is almost more steely than before.

With our ear for language and our deep-seated respect for the art and science of it, I daresay we authors are all pained in this nerve-rattling time by hearing language corrupted, trod upon with ugly disregard, squeezed and contorted with indifference at best, foul misprision at worst. It’s our job to try to counteract these mutilations and present to our young readers the healthiest abundance of constructive, responsible language we can manage. And it’s our job to do it while we honor the vast, deep, humbling blessing of laughter.   

Easy to say.

How do we restore our resilience?

We find ways. Mine are pretty simple. A daily poultice of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Ravel, and the long heritage of music. Daily adherence to my work routine: in this chair, inching along. Guarded attentiveness to world events. Donations to needy causes. My signature on many of the petitions that come to this screen. And always reading: ideas by wise and generous thinkers who surround us on the shelves.

I refuse to let the appallment of the current White House crush my spirit, deplete my energy, strangle my will to do good, as well as my lights will let me. I won’t let the Executive Branch’s narcissistic craziness win. Promise.



Virginia Euwer Wolff is the winner of the 2011 Phoenix Award for her 1991 novel The Mozart Season. Her 2001 novel True Believer won the National Book Award and her novel for young adults, This Full House (2009), is on the American Library Association’s Amelia Bloomer List. A long-time resident of Oregon, Virginia now makes her home in New York state. Visit her website.