“I’m a manipulative observer—a bit like Shakespeare’s Puck.”
JAMES GOUGH has been an actor and is an artist. In addition, his debut novel, CLOAK, was recently published by WiDō Publishing.
MEREDITH: When you sit down to write, are you in charge? What I mean is this: are you the scribe or the master creator? Both? Neither?
JAMES: I’m a manipulative observer—a bit like Shakespeare’s Puck. To me, the characters have always existed, but for some reason they’ve wandered into my woods—this little area where I pull the strings. I can’t make them act contrary to their nature or take away their will, but I can mess with them—and I do. It’s kind of like a kid discovering an anthill and dropping sticks into the hole to see what will happen. (Not that I’ve ever done such a thing.)
I love dropping plot twists on the characters and watching them scurry. That’s when they prove their mettle. Some of my favorite characters fail miserably when tested. I’m still upset with one of them. He really screwed things up. I took him off my Christmas list.
My main character showed me more chutzpah then I ever thought he had. I’m honestly proud of him. I’m always cheering, crying for and chastising the people on the page. Sometimes I’m not quiet about it and my kids will run in to see what’s going on. You try explaining to a seven-year-old why daddy is beaming at the computer with tears in his eyes.
MEREDITH: Some people refer to their creations as their children. I see our creations more as an extension of our own biology. In other words, our words are who we are, expressed in an alternate form (kind of like how water freezes to ice and then melts and flows again). How do you view your creations?
JAMES: I’m not sure I see a novel as my creation at all. It’s more like something behind a dusty door in the back of my brain that’s been knocking for years. When stupidly I opened it—massive chaos. Ever seen what happens when chickens in a coup panic? The feathers, noise and smell are unbelievable. That’s nothing compared to what came flying out of that door in my brain. I’ve spent the last three years trying to catch squawking brain chickens and clean up the mess. That’s how novels are born for me. An innocent tap, then wham! Chicken rodeo.
My part in the insanity is to catch the ideas, pin them down and put them in some semblance of order. There is an amazing satisfaction at seeing my wrangling efforts pay off, then the next ideas start knocking and I stupidly reach for the door.
MEREDITH: When it comes to writing would you describe your mind as a friend or a foe?
JAMES: My mind is only a foe when I try to force it in a direction it doesn’t want to go. It’s sounds strange, but my mind has a mind of its own. When it comes to being creative, I just get out of its way and follow at a distance with a loose grip. Every once in a while I have to tug on the leash if it’s wandering off, but for the most part, my brain and I get along well. We respect each other’s space. I don’t feed it math or daytime television and it doesn’t play the theme song to the Andy Griffith show while I’m trying to write.
MEREDITH: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck?
JAMES: I think this question ties into the brain question. We try too hard to force creativity. If it’s natural, it’s unpredictable. I’ve known writers who try to bend their brain into submission to produce great creative work. They fail. You can discipline and train your brain to perform, but overtraining is deadly. It kills the natural state of creativity and breaks its will. Over-trained brains are great for creating spreadsheets, but are roadblocks waiting to happen.
If I ever sense my brain and I are about to get bogged down, I just take off the leash and let my mind run. Mental blocks are just your brain’s way of saying it feels tied down. Let it do its own thing.
MEREDITH: Do you make any promises to yourself before you sit down to write and blog? Any deals?
JAMES: My promises are usually to stop writing after a certain period of time. I become obsessive. Once, I went on a fourteen-hour writing binge. It wasn’t pretty.
Writing is my escape. If I’m not careful I can disappear for days. The danger is that reality has a way of getting backed up if you don’t participate in it of extended periods of time.
My kids are the greatest antidotes for obsessive writing syndrome. They’re also the reason I write YA and middle-grade fiction. Keeping promises to not over-write usually means more family time, which helps fill my creative reservoirs, which inspires new directions, which improves my writing. It’s the great circle of creativity. Life begets creativity. Creativity begets life.
JAMES adds: “I’m the offspring of a well-grounded hippie and an all-American Jock with a passion for musical theater. That explains why I’m a walking oxy-moron. I was the athletic drama kid, the singing artist and the visual writer. I even earned a duel scholarship to college—half theater/half discus. If you want to experience humility, try showing up to a track meet in stage makeup.” Visit his website and view his amazing book trailer by clicking here.
The author talks about what she likes best about fiction writing, being a planner and how she gains perspective on rejection—the inner and the outer kind.
VALERIE HOBBS is the author of several books including Defiance, which was a Kirkus Reviews Editor’s Choice and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Back in 1991, she was Publisher’s Weekly “Flying Start” author after the publication of her first novel for young adults, How Far Would You Have Gotten If I Hadn’t Called You Back. Since then her books have consistently been honored with numerous awards (California Young Reader Medal, School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, Junior Library Guild Choice, to name a few). Valerie’s newest, the coming-of-age novel The Last Best Days of Summer, was published in 2010 by Farrar Straus Giroux.
Meredith: How do you balance the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation? Or do you experience them as unified?
VALERIE: I don’t balance them very well, I’m afraid. My sluggish left brain doesn’t do promotion very well. It would rather work on plot structure, although that’s hard work. My right brain is always alive and happy and ready to play.
Meredith: Is voice, to you, a constant? Has yours as a writer evolved over the years? Or have you just gotten more confident in using what was always there?
VALERIE: Yes, pretty much a constant. Confidence about voice (though not necessarily other things) was there from the beginning. I can sense when the voice is wrong for a character and I know I won’t get it “right” if I just push forward. Characters seem to bring their voices with them, but of course it’s all my voice. It’s what I like best about fiction writing.
Meredith: Are you a planner-outer by nature or more of a someone who takes life moment by moment? Now answer this: Do you plot your books or do they take you on a meandering path? Tell us the good, the bad and the everything.
VALERIE: I am a planner in real life and in my fiction writing. I’m not confident enough to follow an unplanned story and I worry about “wasting time”. Honestly, I’d like to be more of a meanderer (I was a true meanderer as a child) and often promise myself that the next book will be done in a more spontaneous way, but I have to know the ending of a story and that leads to all the other stops along the way and the plot is more or less done. I envy those who meander and find surprises along the way.
Meredith: What purpose does rejection serve—or how do you view it in such a way so it best serves (rather than dis-serves) you? (Oh, by the way, I’m talking about rejection from an outer source [editor, publisher] and also from yourself.)
VALERIE: I’ve gotten much better about dealing with rejection over the years—outer rejection, that is. My editor, Frances Foster, is such a perceptive and wise (and kind) editor that I learn a lot from whatever she rejects. When I first started writing novel, though, I was despondent over rejections and cried for days. Now my own rejection of my own stuff—that’s the worst of all and I still do it. Not a lot, and less as time goes by so there’s hope!
Meredith: Some people refer to their creations as their children. I see our creations more as an extension of our own biology. In other words, our words are who we are, expressed in an alternate form (kind of like how water freezes to ice and then melts and flows again). How do you view your creations?
VALERIE: [Love-this alert:] They’re all me or hitherto unexplored parts of me, even the boys. I don’t believe we really ever know anybody else; the only person we understand (as best we can) is our own selves.
Valerie lives in Santa Barbara, California, with her husband, Jack, a high school teacher, and is an Emeritus Lecturer in the Writing Program at the University of California Santa Barbara. When I asked Val to tell me something quirky about herself she said, “I don’t know how quirky this is but I was once a drag racer, Also jumped (once) out of a plane. And brushed my teeth (once) by mistake with Preparation H.”
The writer muses on finding opportunities when you’re stuck, the work it takes to move beyond inspiration and letting go at the right time.
Meredith: The Talmud says that “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’” Do you have a personal interpretation for what this means to you as a writer?
Barbara: Even a blade of grass is so significant that an Angel sees its divine potential and encourages it to grow. Every thing, every being that exists has a divine purpose. I may feel my voice doesn’t matter – that others are more eloquent, more worthy of being heard. But in a divine sense, everything counts and is unique unto itself – even a blade of grass. The challenge is to be like the blade of grass, listen to the hushed tone of the Angel, bend with its breath, dance to its rhythm and grow, grow.
Meredith: Do your stories create the characters or do the characters create the story?
Barbara: Initially I have a story idea and create characters that will tell the story for me. Once I start writing, the characters begin to take shape and they decide which way the story will go.
Meredith: Does inspiration feel like something particular or specific to you? For example, do ideas come to you in words or images, sounds or something else?
Barbara: Ideas tend to come to me in images, which I turn into words. I often have a visceral sense of what I want to create – I can see it in my mind and feel it in my heart, but finding the perfect words to translate the image is the most trying part of the writing process. I know what I feel, but will I be able to project the emotion so a reader can feel it?
The writer talks about relaxation as the path to inspiration, messy blocks of words and being a big picture creator.
JUNE SOBEL is the author of three books for children: B is for Bulldozer (Gulliver Books Harcourt), Shiver Me Letters (Harcourt) and The Goodnight Train (Harcourt). She received her MFA in painting at Stanford University and an individual grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Over the years she has created artwork for the gift industry, toy companies and advertising agencies.
Meredith: Does inspiration feel like something particular or specific to you?
JUNE: I know I am inspired when the voice inside me says, “Quick grab a pen and get that down on paper.” My inspiration has an urgent voice. I am often hit with inspiration at inopportune times like when I am driving on the winding road of Malibu Canyon and it is too dangerous to take one hand off the wheel to write it down. Inspiration finds its way into my head when my mind is still and relaxed such as when I am laying on the floor in Shavasana after a vigorous yoga class. I admit to spending this meditative time working out passages in my work that have been problematic. I find the inspiration of an “Ah-ha” moment to be one of the most exciting parts of the creative process.
Meredith: As an artist and writer, does your creative mind naturally think/do/feel/create in images or words first? In other words, do ideas come to you in words or images, sounds or something else? Talk process for a bit.
JUNE: My background is in visual arts, which I think has helped me become a better writer. I naturally create in words first. Creating a story for me is analogous to working on a clay sculpture. I mound together a big messy block of words that I tear down and build up until I have something to edit and refine. Being a picture book writer, I am very conscious of the sensory details of my work especially how the words sound to the reader and the listener. Every word must delight the ear as well as move the story along.
Meredith: Are you a “big picture” writer, or do you take the Anne Lamott Bird by Bird approach? Can you tell us about it?
JUNE: I am definitely a “big picture” writer. [I dig-this-too, alert:] I consider knowing the end of a story before I begin to be the greatest gift. I would rather fill in the story line than write down word-by-word and see where I end up down the road. The editing process is my favorite part of writing. Once my “big picture” has a shape, I love going back tweaking the story, playing with words, re-structuring sentences. That’s the fun part.
Meredith: Is voice, to you, a constant? Has yours as a writer evolved over the years? Or have you just gotten more confident in using it?
JUNE: Yes, voice is a constant. An authentic voice sings through a story. I think my voice has become more confident over the years. I think a good writer should also have an authoritative voice that conveys to the reader no doubt about the veracity of the tale being told. I am currently co-authoring, Goat Head Soup, the story of the first woman to become a Maasai warrior. The biggest challenge has to preserve the voice and personality of the woman who survived this adventure. I am writing in a voice that is not my own since it is written in first-person narrative. This has brought up the question for me of whether or not a writer can create an original voice to tell a character’s story.
Meredith: Why is telling stories so much fun? I ask because I believe we all have stories inside us waiting to be told and that finally telling them satisfies a need we all have to connect with others—and ourselves. How about you?
JUNE: Stories are the fabric of our lives. There is a connection made by sharing stories that resonates with everyone. There are stories in the details of everyone’s lives. Stories are an affirmation of our being. Words are the magic that gives them life. Stories confirm our humanity.
JUNE lives in Westlake Village, California with her family. She blogs about book writing (and the book she is currently writing) and life in general right. You can read her entries by clicking right here.
The writer lets us in on trimming excess, cutting to the chase, pushing through weeds and the strange dichotomy of promotion.
Alexis O’Neill, a multi-award-winning author, is hard at work writing children’s books in every genre. With four picture books published (Loud Emily [about which Publisher’s Weekly (starred review) wrote: “O’Neill crafts a charmer…Emily’s quest to find her place in the world without altering herself in the process, will encourage anyone who has ever felt different from the crowd.”], Estela’s Swap, The Recess Queen and The Worst Best Friend), she’s one genre down and many more to go. Alexis is on the road a good portion of the year doing school visits all over the country, meeting and making fans. In addition to writing for children, she pens a column for the SCBWI Bulletin called, “The Truth About School Visits” and is regional advisor for SCBWI in the Ventura/Santa Barbara region of California.
The Writer’s Journey: Is voice, to you, a constant? Has yours as a writer evolved over the years? Or have you just gotten more confident in using it?
Alexis: To me, “voice” is the [I-get-it alert:] voice of the story that needs telling—not my own personal voice. My tall tale and folk tales have a different syntax and flavor than my contemporary picture books. My magazine articles, of course, are different still. But what has evolved over the years is my ability to cut to the chase of a story. Trimming excess is probably the most difficult part of writing for children—especially in picture books. I love words, but I have to think like a poet and choose the right words (the only words) that will unlock my story. My first drafts always are terribly overwritten. The fun comes in cutting and shaping.
The Writer’s Journey: Why is telling stories so much fun? I ask because I believe it satisfies a need we all have to connect with others. How about you?
Alexis: My family is Irish and Scottish. To us Celts, with a bardic tradition ingrained in our DNA, telling stories is the same as breathing. The memory of our culture depended on shaping facts and emotions through stories colored with sensory images and sharing those stories from village to village. Today the tradition lives in print. And what could be better than having others love your stories and pass them on?
The Writer’s Journey: Do you wait for the muse, or do you see writing as a job to be done whether the muse is in or not? By the way, what is your muse?
Alexis: My muse? She never sets her own alarm, and is very undependable. So, as a full-time working writer, I have to wake up my muse every single day and tell her to get busy!
The Writer’s Journey: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck?
Alexis: Wow. Who said creativity is “a natural state”? While I do think that we’re all born with creative sparks that can take many forms, I also believe that creativity is something that needs to be nurtured in order to grow and thrive. We need to try our hands at new forms and stretch out of comfortable habits. I think that the perfect antidote to “stuckness” is to take a class, try a new art form, put heads together with others to solve a puzzle, take a trip, or read a stimulating and challenging book. More than getting “stuck,” I think we get “stopped”—mostly from laziness or an unwillingness to push through the weeds of horrible drafts toward the meadow beyond. And there is always a meadow of green beyond—we just never know how long it’s going to take to get there and are tempted to give up short of the destination.
The Writer’s Journey: As a children’s book author with many books in print, how do you balance the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation? Or do you experience them as unified?
Alexis: Here’s the problem. Promotion is a monster that often sits on the heart of creation. Right now, I have countless projects I’m working on. When story creation is in full gear, I’m in the zone and on a high. My heart races. I write lines in a rush of “Yes! That’s it!” I’m excited. Pure joy! I lose track of time. I have lots to tell my husband at the end of the day. I can’t wait to get back to the story. But then as I reread my story, the promotion monster whispers in my ear, “Will it sell? What’s the hook? Who will buy this? It’s a nice story, but is it a necessary story?” That monster is always lurking. I know he’s necessary to the success of my works, but it doesn’t make me any happier to have to share a room with him. So I have to feed the monster a bit, then hush his voice and get back to story-making for the pure joy of it.
Alexis lives in Simi Valley with her husband, David (an airplane-building, computer-savvy, good-natured writer and-cat-loving guy) and his very huge extended family (but not all in the same house or no writing at all would ever get done!). Act like family over here.
The writer gets deep on validation, active pursuit and not predicting the future.
Karma Wilson is a poet and children’s book author (Bear Snores On, Moose Tracks, Frog in the Bog, What’s the Weather Inside, Beautiful Babies). She is quick to add she’s also wife to a great guy and mother to three creative kids. And to confide that she writes in the midst of utter chaos–children screaming, people talking to her, TV blaring. “I am compulsive,” she says. “I can become obsessed with things like message boards and hobbies and I’ll pursue my compulsion until one day I get burnt out and drop it like an old toy.” (Though this doesn’t mean she won’t pick it up again with a renewed interest later.) Karma comes clean by admitting she is “messy, disorganized and procrastinates everything, including interviews.” [Except this one–it was right on time.]
The Writer’s Journey: Does your creative process come from a place of something that scares you or from a familiar place of strength?
Karma: My creative process is part of what validates me. So it’s a little of both. I mean, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Generally the things that cause us the most fear are also the things that make us the strongest in the long run. So, I often create with a fear of failure, but I always have a spark of hope and anticipation that what I am creating will resonate with somebody.
The Writer’s Journey: What does beginning feel like? Look like?
If you come to a dead end road,
you’ll take it if you’re smart.
For just past every end that’s dead,
is a fresh, alive new start.
That’s one of my poems from my book What’s the Weather Inside and I stand by it. Each ending is a new beginning, and work is cyclical, everything old is new again, yada yada. As for what a beginning feels like and looks like? That depends on what you’re beginning.
The Writer’s Journey: The refusal to be creative is self-will and is counter to our true nature. This is what Julia Cameron says in, The Artist’s Way. What’s your take?
Karma: Wow, that’s such a personal thing to be adamant about. Everybody’s “nature” shares similarities and differences with others, and what those may be varies with the individual. I’ve known some very pragmatic people who don’t consider themselves creative. They are still active, contributing members to society, very happy and perfectly content to not be creative. I guess I’d have to know the full context of the quote and what Julia construes as creativity. [love this, big-flashing-lights alert:] I think if you feel driven to create something and refuse you might be miserable. At least I am.
The Writer’s Journey: Do ideas come to you in words or images, sounds or something else? Has it always been this way for you?
Karma: My ideas come from active pursuit. I get an antsy feeling that I want to create and I pursue an idea through brainstorming. Sometimes I may be so sad or upset about something in life that I escape by creating. As for how ideas come to me–I think in words, I feel in words–I see words when I create, when I speak, when I sing….visible (in my mind) written words. I actually feel claustrophobic thinking about life as a baby before I could speak, or what it may be like to be an animal who has thought without language. Yes, images come, and sounds, smells, etc…but only after the words. The words bring them to being. Probably makes no sense. But for me “in the beginning was the word. ”
The Writer’s Journey: How and when do you know in your gut that an idea is viable and worth following? Is there a telling moment for you?
Karma: No. I’m a complete failure at determining which project I follow will be “viable”. Often what I feel certain will succeed fails, and what I believe might fail goes on to be a soaring success. All of it is worth pursuing because I learn something. And ultimately, some of my favorite creations have never sold. But they were worth pursuing for the feeling of pure joy I experienced during the creative process.
Karma lives in Montana where there is an abundance of trees, mountains and seasons, and a scarcity of people. She is addicted to coffee (Shot in the Dark, room for cream–or Redeye for you easterners) and that coffee must be rich, dark, slightly bitter and the aroma should force her to shut her eyes, breathe deeply and sigh. Have a cup with her right here.