February 6, 2018
Part 1: David
Talent -- being capable of producing a publishable manuscript -- is the basic ingredient for writing and illustrating success. Sandy Asher and I have talked about numerous other topics in past series of WRITERS AT WORK. But in this set, which we’ll post each Tuesday this month, we want to talk about “Rule 1: Show Up.” Another title for this topic might be, “Help Make Your Own Breaks.” Either way, we’re talking about the merits of taking positive action. We never know what might happen when we place ourselves in “fate’s way,” but odds of something good happening in our careers improve when we do.
My first picture book, THE BOY WITH A DRUM, was published in 1969 by Western Publishing in Racine, Wisconsin. My editor was Betty Ren Wright. Not long after that I decided I wanted to meet my editor so I flew from Kansas City (our home at the time) to Racine for a visit with Betty Ren and other Golden Book and Wee Wisdom editors, one of whom was Dorothy (Dee) Haas.
When Dee moved to Chicago to become a Childcraft editor at Rand McNally, she stayed in touch. I flew to Chicago on Hallmark business but made a date with Dee while I was in town and left with an assignment to write the first 95 pages of the annual issue called, ABOUT ME; which led to CHILDREN EVERYWHERE (1973), a 62-page nonfiction book about children growing up in twelve countries; which led to writing two stories for THE WITCH BOOK anthology (1976); which led to WHAT DO YOU KNOW? (1981) a 255 page book of questions and answers about questions asked by upper elementary students.
Another editor I met in Racine was Kathleen Daly, who subsequently moved to American Heritage Press in New York City. Within a few months of my trip to Chicago I was in NYC to negotiate a contract and interview writers for Hallmark so I made an appointment with Kathleen. I left her office with an agreement that I would send her some ideas for stories about giants. I did. She liked them. THE BOOK OF GIANT STORIES (1972) won a Christopher Award.
Sandy, these books all came about the same way. I had previous publishing experiences with each of the editors. And in each instance I took advantage of a trip already planned for other reasons to “show up.” But there are other ways of applying Rule 1.
On a vacation trip up the Amazon River in Peru, I took hundreds of notes. Not because I meant to write a book but because writers take notes and fill journals. We never know when something might develop. Three years after that trip, sure enough I began thinking about a book of poetry. I fished out my notes, which ran 86 pages when typed, and eventually SOUNDS OF RAIN was published. Seventeen years after the trip the same thorough notes produced material for another story, a middle grade novel. Who knew that showing up on a river in the rain forest would result in two new projects?
Sandy, at times there may be a fine line between “showing up” and “finding ideas,” but to me, Rule 1 involves some sort of action on the part of the writer or illustrator that goes beyond the norm. It means an act we do on purpose that may lead serendipitously to something positive we don’t anticipate. Whether we “show up” metaphorically or with suitcase in hand, it pays to place ourselves in fate’s way. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about Rule 1.
February 13, 2018
Part 2: Sandy
All kinds of ways to show up, David, and, yes, I've managed more than a few: I attend, present at, and often develop workshops and conferences. I do programs at bookstores, libraries, and festivals. I submit work to contests and publishers. I visit schools occasionally as a guest author and weekly as the nearly invisible human being at the other end of Gracie the Reading Dog's leash. I adjudicate contests. I started and maintained for years the American Alliance for Theatre and Education's Directory of Award-winning Plays and its New Plays by Members List. I speak up at professional meetings and in discussions even when I'm not on the panel. And, on March 1 of this year, I helped launch American Theatre for the Very Young: A Digital Festival as founder and co-chair, showcasing children's plays coast-to-coast, including my own. Oh, yeah, and you and I have done reading-focused TV spots, David, and we ran the America Writes for Kids and USA Plays for Kids websites together. Oh, and we co-write this blog.
Though it doesn't always lead to publication, all of this showing up is related to career development, even being the largely ignored observer as first graders regale Gracie with their favorite books. Some of it is hard work; much of it is undeniably great fun. And every once in a while, it does lead to new ideas, a flurry of writing, and publication.
More often than not, such opportunities happen in ways that are totally unexpected, ways I could never even have imagined. "Life," John Lennon is said to have observed, "is what happens while we're busy making other plans." Indeed.
One example: While serving on the faculty of an SCBWI workshop some years ago, I was sitting in the audience with the other participants listening to editors talk about what they were looking for. It's always a good idea to show up at SCBWI workshops and listen to editors, agents, authors, and illustrators, but in this case, what one of the editors had to say really ticked me off. She raved on about how picture books used to run 1000-1500 words in length, but how nowadays 500 words is really the preferred limit, and 250 words would be even better.
That triggered a concern of mine: I think we are systematically depriving children of language at the very age -- 0 - 5 or so -- when they are programmed to soak up as much language as possible. They need it to think! They need it to speak! They need it to understand! They need it to read and write and reason! I could go on. I have gone on, in presentations and posts elsewhere. But for now, I'll just say that there was steam coming out of my ears as I listened. But I decided to use my fury as fuel. Okay, fine, I thought, you want books with very few words? I'll write a book with as few words as I can. With that impetus -- can I call it inspiration? -- CHICKEN STORY TIME happened, a process of elimination almost as much as it was a process of creation. The manuscript sold quickly, the book got published, and, since then, I've written a stage adaptation that's being performed around the country. Go figure!
Showing up is important, but it can be a bit of a challenge. Rising to the challenge -- ah, that makes all the difference.
February 20, 2018
Part 3: David
Of course nothing beats talent and we can all think of geniuses who famously stayed home and made fate come to them. But alas, Dickinsons and Salingers are rare. Most of us fall into the mere mortal range and must find our breaks by showing up where they tend to hang out.
In my own case an example is the time I showed up in Ronne Peltzman Randall’s office at Ladybird Books in Loughborough, England. Sandy and I were in London and I decided to buy a train ticket and go see my editor friend who was publishing a story of mine called LITTLE BOY SOUP. It was great fun to see Ronne and we have remained lifetime friends. She honors me by dropping by my blog now and then. Ronne took me down the hall to meet her editor-in-chief and that’s where I met Christine San Jose, also a visitor there that day. Christine was born twelve miles away in Leicester and was home for a visit. She had lived in America for a long time and worked for Kent Brown at Highlights.
For the previous three years I had been learning how to write poetry for children and didn’t know what to do with the one hundred poems I’d accumulated. When I mentioned this to Christine, she invited me to send my poems to her at Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Kent was creating a book division which included Wordsong, an imprint for children’s poetry. Editor-in-chief of Wordsong was Bernice (Bee) Cullinan, a professor at NYU and former president of International Reading Association.
When Christine received my poems, she handed them over to Bee. Bee got in touch to say how much she liked my work and wanted to publish me. Shortly after that, Kent called and invited me to Honesdale to talk. I flew to New York, hooked up with Bee, who lived there, and together we were driven to Honesdale where I sat down with Kent in his office.
When I left, Kent and I had a handshake agreement. I was free to continue publishing my other work anywhere I chose, but he wanted an exclusive on my poetry until such a time that either of us felt otherwise.
Bee went to work arranging my poems into categories: school, family, etc. We agreed to go with school first. SOMEBODY CATCH MY HOMEWORK was illustrated by Betsy Lewin and published in 1993 with a starred Kirkus review and went into its third printing within months. After that came thirty or so books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction with Boyds Mills. I currently have two more in process.
Sandy, this may fall in the “too much information” category, but my point is that my showing up in Loughborough, England to see Ronne started a chain reaction of fortunate circumstances that eventually led to my career as a poet, as well as the publication of numerous other books. Would I have become a poet anyway? I like to think that sooner or later I might have figured it all out and discovered the right editor, but who knows. I was green and didn’t know if my poetry was any good. I might have grown discouraged and quit without the encouragement of Christine San Jose, the enthusiasm of Bee Cullinan, and the handshake with Kent Brown.
Your turn, Sandy.
February 27, 2018
Part 4: Sandy
I can't tell you, David, how many times I've tried to make "showing up" work for me without reaching my intended goal. I network. I meet editors and directors. We talk about projects we might take on together. We may even assure one another that these projects are exciting and have enormous potential. Yes! Yes? No. We part company. Time passes. Aaaaand . . . nothing. Sometimes it feels like being the kid who can't get anyone to dance with her at a party. Everybody else is dancing (or so it seems from my forlorn perspective). What am I doing wrong? Am I trying too hard? Am I not trying hard enough?
Invitations to dance often seem to come out of the blue, out of left field, out of who-knows-where? Someplace I am simply not looking.
Still, I have to show up to receive them.
Case #1: I served on a panel at an American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE) conference. I also attended other presentations and spoke up during the discussion periods afterward. No agenda, just voicing opinions, sharing what I'd learned that seemed applicable to the topic at hand. Then a director I'd never met approached me and asked me to join her for coffee. Of course, I accepted. "I think you're someone I'd like to work with," she said, basing her conclusion on my comments in the sessions she'd attended earlier in the day. I never knew she was in those rooms or listening to me, but coffee led to a commission to adapt "Little Women" for her youth theater, and that led to a visit to Lancaster, PA, which soon became my home. Who knew? Who could possibly have known? But I was there, actively there, and the future found me.
Case #2: I attended the opening reception of a new art gallery in town and was stunned by the images on the walls and the journal entries that accompanied them. I approached the gallery owner, who was an acquaintance, and suggested the story conveyed by the exhibit deserved a wider audience. Might I read the journals and think about writing a play? Permission was granted, and the result became both a stage and film version of "Death Valley: A Love Story." I did not walk into the gallery intending any of that. It was waiting there for me to show up.
Case #3: My interest in TVY (Theatre for the Very Young) led me to the first meeting of AATE's special interest group dedicated to that topic. Which led to a conference call among members, during which someone bemoaned the fact that American TVY practitioners almost never get to see one another's work. In Scotland and Denmark, we'd heard, practitioners are able to visit one another's theatres and learn and grow together. We're separated by too much geography and too little affordable transportation. That casual phone comment gave me an idea: What about a digital festival? Fast forward: I gathered a steering committee, wrote a grant proposal, got the grant, and American Theatre for the Very Young: A Digital Festival debuted on Vimeo on March 1, 2018, with a first offering of 11 performances from around the country, including Pollyanna Theatre's production of my play based my own picture book, CHICKEN STORY TIME, and more to come.
Case #4: The Dramatists Guild announced the formation of an Institute that would offer various courses for playwrights. I sent the director (whom I'd never met) an email stating my hope that courses for playwrights working in theatre for young audiences would be included and pointing out that our field is not often given the attention it deserves. The director assured me such a course was under consideration and invited me to come in and to talk about it. I did. And guess what? I'll be teaching a "Weekend Warrior" course in writing plays for young audiences at the Guild offices in New York City on April 4 - 6, 2018.
A panel, a reception, a conference call, an email -- all ways to show up. And sometimes to join in the dance.