What first drew you to writing? Why do you
I remember being fascinated by words early on. How much of this was inborn, I donít know, but my parents read to me, my grandparents told stories, and my mother played word games, all of which Iím sure contributed. I began writing because I loved poems -- the fact that words could cast an emotional spell -- and wanted to make some. As I made the transition from being an outgoing child to a fairly shy adolescent, writing offered an important way of expressing myself. It brought me delight and insight, comfort and hope. It still does. I write because itís my way of understanding and loving the world, of participating in the ongoing work of creation.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
I enjoy getting carried away. Willa Cather said, ďTo be dissolved into something whole and great, that is happiness,Ē and while what Iím writing may not be ďwhole and great,Ē the creative process is and I write for that joy. I also love the newness of it, the breathtaking moment when a piece of writing comes alive and you know it has something you couldnít give it.
How has your life influenced your writing?
Asking how my life has influenced my writing is like asking how rain and dirt and sunshine influence a garden. I donít mean that most things I write are autobiographical, just that I would not be the lens that I am if I had a different life.
Do you have a particular writing process that
you go through?
My ideal process, when Iím home and things are balanced, is to get up early and write a while before fixing breakfast & making lunch for my son. Those first words of the day are usually a poem draft, and I like to write in the living room by the window, rather than at my desk. This writing is close dream, which gives it a special quality. After Joey goes to school, I go upstairs to my writing room and work at my desk on whatever project is underway. Sometimes I begin by lighting a candle and saying or singing a prayer. Then I may need to reread work from the day before to get started. If so, I always read out loud so I can hear the voice. I write by hand and enjoy using different shades of ink. Morning is the best time for new writing, so I protect that time against phone calls and job-related work if at all possible. And Iíve learned not to check the e-mail. Itís so easy to lose concentration, to have my focus scatter like marbles dumped from a sack. Around mid-day I exercise --right now Iím doing yoga -- and after lunch I either go back to the morning project (revising if Iím ďwritten outĒ) or take on business work (such as this interview). Last year I had forty-seven jobs, so thatís a lot to prepare for and keep up with. Reading and journal writing come mostly in the evening, after school pick-up, housework, cooking, etc.
How is your writing process different when
writing poetry, novels, and childrenís books?
When Iím beginning a piece of creative writing (an essay would be different), the process is the same, regardless of what it genre Iím working in. At the outset, I may well not know what the genre is anyway. I sit with the page. I listen for a voice. I write WHATEVER comes into my head, no matter how nonsensical or confused, just to make way for whatever will emerge. My job is not to question or evaluate. If it wants short lines, I make short lines. If itís a one-sentence page, I let it go that way. I just try to keep the pen moving. Of course, a lot of this writing never results in a product. I just have to trust that it nurtures the process. If the voice which appears is a childís, and if the writing feels like a picture book, then eventually Iíll start thinking about page breaks, and Iíll make a 32-page dummy to see how the words fit in. If itís a poem, I may try different line breaks, which give different rhythms and emphasis, or I may see if what I have lends itself to a fixed form. If it feels like itís going to be a novel, then I generally try to write a new segment each day. These may or may not be in sequence or in the same voice. I donít lay out the plot or make a chapter outline. Iíve tried that and it was a mistake for me. It killed the book. But for some writers thatís the best way. Thereís no right way; thereís just the struggle to find what works for you. And that may change.
What do you hope to teach children with your
I hope to learn from children.
What do you enjoy most about working with children?
Paula Fox writes that ď[c]hildren are not a race apart but ourselves when new.Ē Itís that newness I love to be close to in working with chldren. Itís questions like ďDid you ever make a big mistake?Ē and ďHow can you tell if a rhinoceros likes you?Ē that let me know Iím in the right place when speaking to fifth graders (1st question) or kindergartners (2nd).
What advice do you have for young writers?
Advice: Read & write a lot. Be playful. Enjoy where words take you, what they show you. Donít worry about writing competitions or about publishing. Donít compare your work to anybody elseís. Just let it grow as you grow. Itís helped me to read biographies and autobiographies of other writers, to see how they developed. (Richard Owenís Meet-the-Author series is a good source for primary-aged readers.) It also helps to share your work with others who love the process. (My writers group, which meets once a month is still very important to me.)
In ďA Wordful Child,Ē you say, ďrevision is
what makes you a writer.Ē Any advice to make the process easier/more
Revision. First of all, read it out loud. Your ears may tell you things your eyes donít tell you. Second, look for ways to take yourself by surprise. For example, you might try listing the things you didnít say in a poem or story to see if any of them would improve what you have now. You might try changing the storyís point of view or beginning a poem with the last line and writing from there . . . you might put the original away and try to write at least the beginning without looking at it and see what you get. Or you could tell it to a friend and see if something new emerges. In writers group, revision often begins with a question someone asks after I read the piece in question. Maybe some part wasnít clear or maybe the listener liked it but wants more. Questions can shine light on the writing road.
In Catalpa, you tell stories through many different
voices. Do you do anything to prepare for each voice?
Voices. Well, I listen a lot all the time. I carry a little notebook in my pocketbook where I write down interesting things people say and/or interesting ways of speaking. So Iím developing my ear as well as my ability to transcribe that talk every day. Then when I come to the page, I listen. I donít know how to describe this, but itís sort of like watching a branch until a bird lands. You just sit there. You just be still. And when the voice ďlands,Ē I donít say ďThatís not good enoughĒ or ďI canít write that down.. It doesnít make sense,Ē any more than you would say, ďWrong bird!Ē to the cardinal or goldfinch or unfamiliar bird that hooked the branch in its feet. Itís your bird, whatever it is. Once itís there, you watch what it does. You follow it through your binoculars or whatever. So I do with the voice. I follow it and one thing leads to another. Whether it will lead to something anyone else will care to read, I have no idea. My job isnít to judge but to stay with it, to give my energy and time to what Iíve been given, despite the uncertainty.
How did you choose ďMystery of the Making PlaceĒ
for your residency theme? What does this phrase mean to you?
ďThe mystery of the making placeĒ comes from the closing lines of my picture book Who Came Down that Road? and I wanted to emphasize that this residency is not just about my writing but about a process thatís open to anybody. I believe that the ability to create is sacred, that it belongs to everybody, and I hope to invite those who come to each session into that process.
In A Wordful Child, you say that you
have over 60 journals. What does journal writing do for you?
Do you ever look back through your journals for inspiration?
Journal writing keeps me in touch with my inner life, my dreams and fears, my shadow as well as my playful side. And it helps me hold onto riches that would otherwise slip away: things my kids say, questions, moments of surprise or understanding, jokes, memories. And yes, I do go back to them for energy and insight (such as that writing a previous book also gave me fits!) and to recapture things Iíve forgotten.
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