Saturday, November 28, 2015

Writer's Block, Part Two

A week or so ago, I took myself to Union Station in Denver and spent a blissful morning curled up on a cozy couch in front of a friendly elf, sipping a vanilla steamer and getting unblocked on a new project. I wrote the first page of chapter one! I wrote the second page of chapter one! I wrote the whole darned chapter! The book was begun, and begun is everything in writing!

Well, not quite everything.

The next day I read over what I had written, eager to preserve my newfound momentum.

I didn't like what I had written.

I didn't like it at all.

My main character was whiny and victimized; she opened the chapter with a sigh, sighed twice more on the first page, and ended the chapter with a sigh huge enough to eclipse the previous three. Her mother was an overbearing cliche; it was unpleasant for a reader to have to be in her company. My poor character has no choice, it's her mom; but readers DO have a choice. So why wouldn't they make a choice to close this book and open one that is funny and fun? Did I have anything at all in this first chapter that was funny and fun? Nope. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

I didn't write for the next few days, because why throw good pages after bad? Why keep going on a project that is doomed from the get-go?

But then I re-read Elizabeth Gilbert's beautiful new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. She recommends the following strategy to take regarding writing, or any other creative activity: "My ultimate choice . . . is always to approach my work from a place of stubborn gladness." She said that she's held on to her "stubborn gladness" when her work is going badly, and when it's going well. She said she's learned to trust that inspiration "is sitting there right beside me, and it is trying. . . . Inspiration is always trying to work with me. So I sit there and I work, too. That's the deal. I trust it; it trusts me."

So yesterday, I got into bed with a mug of hot chocolate made more festive with two outsized dollops of leftover Cool Whip on top (I had to do something with it now that the pumpkin pie was all eaten). I sat there for hours scribbling notes about how to fix my fatally flawed chapter one - or, rather, how to put it aside, richer from all I learned in writing it, and write a completely different chapter one that will have fewer sighs, a more three-dimensional mom, and at least something in it that is funny and fun. I haven't written that chapter yet - it's number one on my to-do list for tomorrow-  but Elizabeth Gilbert reassures me that inspiration will be sitting beside me when I do.

I'm going to trust inspiration and be grateful that it trusts me. If this new chapter is still unusable, I'll write another one, and I have a hunch that one will be pretty darned good, or at least pretty darned okay. If I need more Cool Whip, I'll buy more. And I'll keep on writing.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

One Way to Cure Writer's Block

When I do author visits at elementary schools and it's time for Q & A, some of the more sophisticated kids like to ask me, "What do you do when you get writer's block?" My stock answer has always been: "I don't GET writer's block, because I write for a short, fixed amount of time every day, first thing when I get up. It's not an intimidating task to write one puny little page. And writing it first thing in the morning means that I don't even have time to arouse my resistance. My page is written before I'm even fully awake!"

But then this year, I got writer's block. Previously I had secretly doubted that any such thing existed. Now I actually had it. I hadn't written a page since my heroic revisions on two books last August, if you don't count the equally heroic work I did earlier this month revising my scholarly paper on Eleanor Estes's 1943 children's book Rufus M. And I don't count work that isn't creative work. So for the past three months, the queen of the hour-a-day writing system has written precisely nothing.

I think the biggest part of my block has to do with, not jealousy exactly, but awareness that a number of my writer friends have been getting extraordinary critical attention for their recent books: four starred reviews for one, an unheard-of five starred reviews for another. I want four starred reviews! I want five! I want six! And in order to get six starred reviews, I knew I had to write a different kind of book from the sweet little chapter books I've been writing. If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten. I needed to write a big book, a deep book, an important book. But I had no ideas for anything big, deep, or important. So instead I was writing nothing at all.

This had to change. Because if I don't write, I won't be a writer. And I love being a writer.

I started curing my writer's block by re-reading the scene in Maud Hart Lovelace's Heaven to Betsy, where Betsy has lost the freshman essay contest because she spent her winter in a doomed crush on Tony plus lots of parties with the Crowd where great quantities of fudge were made and consumed, rather than on essay preparation:

She looked back over the crowded winter. She did not regret it. But she should not have let its fun, its troubles, its excitement squeeze her writing out. 'If I treat my writing like that,' she told herself, 'it may go away entirely.' The thought appalled her. What would life be like without writing? Writing filled her life with beauty and mystery, gave it it purpose. . . and promise...

Then I made a plan, an excellent plan, if I do say so myself.

Yesterday I took myself on the bus to Denver, planning to spend the morning writing on a cozy couch at the legendary Tattered Cover bookstore, just steps away from Union Station. But when I got to Union Station, its cozy couches beckoned so powerfully that I ended up staying right there, on this couch in front of this holiday elf, which I decided must be a writing elf.

I bought myself a vanilla steamer and an unusually excellent muffin at a station coffee shop.

And then I wrote for two hours. I plunged right in, scribbling down the first page of a new book, which grew into the first chapter of a new book, not, I must say, a big, deep, important book, but one of my usual sweet little chapter books, in other words, the kind of book I love best to write.

So: if you have writer's block:

1. Give yourself Betsy's pep talk. Don't regret any of the things that have kept you from writing, but remind yourself that if you squeeze writing out of your life, you'll have a life without writing in it. Maybe that's okay for you. But if it isn't, you need to write.

2. Take yourself on some lovely writing adventure. Go someplace special, either with a writer friend or by yourself. For me, the place has to have couches and creamy hot beverages.

3. Then, well, write. You don't have to write a book that will get five starred reviews, or four, or any at all, or that will ever get published, or read by anyone else in the world. All you have to do is curl up, sip on your creamy hot beverage, take nibbles of a tasty muffin, and write something that you want to write. Remember, you like to write. You really do.

That's all. And if you can do it in front of the Christmas tree in Union Station, Denver, all the better.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


Last weekend I was lucky enough to be one of nine authors invited to take part in the first ever EpicFest, a "literary festival for kids of all ages" held at ImaginOn, an astonishing structure in downtown Charlotte, NC, which contains an enormous children's branch of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library plus two beautifully appointed performance spaces for the Children's Theatre of Charlotte.
Each author did two school visits on Friday. I had a lovely time at River Oaks Academy and Chantilly Montessori. On Saturday, the day of EpicFest itself, each author gave a talk, sold and signed a lot of books, and had the chance to hear some talks from our fellow presenters. If we had wanted to, we could also have built Lego creations, made all kinds of  crafts, and dipped apples in white chocolate and then covered them with sprinkles. My biggest regret of the festival: not finding time to dip that apple!

Here is the "book house" I saw at one branch of the library during my lunch break on Friday:

Here I am with new friend Sheila Turnage, whose debut novel, Three Times Lucky, was named a Newbery Honor Book. (Also pictured: Pete the Cat.)
And here is the "book mobile" made by my old friend Mark West, professor of children's literature at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. It hangs on the front porch of his home, books swinging gently in the Carolina breeze.

I came away from the festival thinking: I love being part of this world, the world of people who write books, read books, teach about books, love books. I want to be part of it in every way, forever.

Guess I'd better start writing my next book soon...