Today I joined colleagues who teach in the MFA in Writing for Children Program at Simmons speaking at a Children’s Literature Association Conference at the Boston Campus. We each had been asked to read some and talk about our lives as authors and teachers.
Anna Staniszewski read from her first novel, My Very UnFairy Tale Life, and spoke about moving between writing this funny, upbeat book and a novel that was more wrenching. Ellen Wittlinger read from her novel set in the cold war, This Means War, and spoke about the writing process, which so often switches between our beautiful dreams and the harsh reality of seeing the long way we have before we reach that initial, gorgeous vision. I spoke about my grandmother’s attic as the place in which I learned to research, and read three poems from Borrowed Names. Anita Silvey spoke about her most recent work of narrative nonfiction, The Plant Hunters, which tells the history of scientists who risked their lives collecting plants which both expanded our knowledge of the world and, because of their medical use, saved lives. Anita spoke of how she located primary sources, sometimes choosing her subjects because of pictures and artifacts such as plant collecting cases that were available for her to see firsthand. She also told us how she spends about six months developing a proposal, rather than waste three or four years researching and writing without a clear direction.
Here is Anita, Ellen, Anna, and me in a photo taken by the program director, Cathie Mercier.
Perhaps since the audience was one largely of scholars, we were asked by more than one person about how one reconciles putting forward great books as teachers, setting high standards, and … just writing, which for me and many starts as writing badly. All of us counseled separating the creator from the critic as much as possible, using whatever tricks one could, such as finding a name for that inner critic, and saying whatever must be said to get her or him off our shoulders and waiting quietly for a turn. I hope we didn’t sound glib, because we understand this can be truly painful. Reading, and gently tearing things apart to understand how a book is constructed, is useful, but really has to be pushed to the back of one’s mind as one writes.
The final question was from an academic who loves children’s literature, and worries about its survival in a climate in which good books go unpublished or get neglected. As authors, we share her concern, but Anita left us leave with hope, speaking of signs of an upturn and the possibilities of new avenues of publishing. I was happy to leave with a short list of books to read, and to have looked into the faces of people who care about good words.