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 Fantasy: Will Alexander

For the next few weeks, in celebration of my new fantasy novel, Grayling’s Song, this space will feature a few of my favorite fantasy authors answering four questions about their own writing. First up, Will Alexander.

Will AlexanderQ: What is the hardest aspect of building a fantasy world for you?

A: Getting lost. I’m not sure that I build fantasy worlds so much as grow them in secret. Margaret Atwood compared writers to magpies. Or maybe ferrets. Both creatures collect shiny things. A pet ferret will hoard forks, coins, paper clips, and bits of foil underneath your couch.

My fantasy worlds start out as similar piles of strangely shiny ideas. I hoard them under the couch in the back of my mind. Each pile grows until it becomes a place, and then I go exploring. It’s a fun process, but inefficient. Sometimes I get lost.

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: I can only guess! None of my fiction is realistic. My brain lacks the knack for realism. Goblins and/or ghosts will show up no matter what kind of story I set out to tell.

I do believe that there is a significant overlap between fantasy, history, and the two sets of fiction that use either (or both) as raw material. Ursula K. Le Guin describes that overlapping territory in her introduction to Tales from Earthsea, so I’ll defer to her wisdom:

The way one does research into nonexistent history is to tell the story and find out what happened. I believe this isn’t very different from what historians of the so-called real world do. Even if we are present at some historical event, do we comprehend it–can we even remember it—until we can tell it as a story? And for events in times or places outside our own experience, we have nothing to go on but the stories other people tell us… When you construct or reconstruct a world that never existed, a wholly fictional history, the research is of a somewhat different order, but the basic impulse and techniques are much the same. (xiv)

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

A: Lots. Endlessly. Especially when I was eleven. The books we read at that age change everything—maybe because we’re about to change ourselves. We can see puberty coming, and we’re justifiably scared, so we need to gather resources, explore possibilities, and explore impossibilities to figure out the sort of person we want to become.

When I was eleven I read Ursula K. Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander, Jane Yolen, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Susan Cooper. I don’t think I can choose any one favorite from that magnificent pile of books, but I will say that Le Guin’s Earthsea taught me the most about the grownup that I wanted to turn into.

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. Semele the goblin playwright. I suspect that we would swap backstage ghost stories. Maybe she knows why all theaters are haunted. I’ve often wondered.

Thank you, Will, for sharing your thoughts with my readers. I hope you’ll read all of Will’s masterful books but especially his most recent, Nomad, and his National Book Award-winning Goblin Secrets. Learn more about Will on his website.


bk_grayling_180pxGrayling’s Song will be available on June 7th from Clarion Books and your favorite bookseller. Kirkus Reviews gave it a star, “The eventual revelation of just who unleashed the destructive power manages to be simultaneously unexpected, plausible, and thought-provoking. Despite her self-doubt, Grayling is cut from the same cloth as the author’s other sturdy heroines, but she is also an entirely original and endearing character that readers will cheer on as she seeks to save her mother and return her world to rights.”