Sunday, January 21, 2007

One Writer's Process: Jane Yolen

"There are writers who believe that writing is agony, and that's the best anyone can say of it," writes award-winning author Jane Yolen, whose combination of humor and wisdom make her book on writing, Take Joy, a rare treat for writers struggling to put words on paper.

"Gene Fowler's famous words are quoted all the time," Yolen continues. "'Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.' Or Red Smith's infamous screed: 'There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.' "

"But by God," Yolen insists, "that's a messy way of working. And blood is extremely hard to get off of white paper. "

One of America's most beloved authors, Jane Yolen has charmed children and adults with her remarkable wit, humor, and imagination ever since publishing her first book in the early 1960's.

Since then, she's written more than 270 books, including the Caldecott Award winning picture book Owl Moon; Nebula Award winning short story "Sister Emily's Lightship" and novella "Lost Girls;" Sydney Taylor Award winner The Devil's Arithmetic; and Christopher Medal winners The Seeing Stick and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight.

Over the years, Yolen has earned enough awards to paper the interior of a small castle in Scotland, though it's to her seven-room Scottish house that she often goes to seek respite from the hectic schedule resulting from her many productive years of writing. But despite the many awards, she retains the delight of a young author discovering the magic of words as they tumble onto the page.

Ms. Yolen was kind enough to put down her pen for a few moments to share her thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: If writing is like do you get into the water each day?

Yolen: Some days it’s one toe at a time, then, before I decide it is too cold, I go off to do something else—talk to friends, play with grandbabies, read a book. Other days I plunge in, whatever the weather, and stay in till my lips turn blue.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat... for short work?

Yolen: I actually love writing, feel more alive when writing than when doing practically anything else. Short work (stories, poems, picture books)--when things are going well--has a wonderful quick reward at the end. Once I can see the entire thing, I am not just afloat, I am skimming over the waves. Of course, by the time you count all the revisions, I probably take as long on them as I do on novels. But I don’t count that way.

Wordswimmer: For longer work?

Yolen: You need to grease up your body and settle in for the long slog. Kick the sharks out of your lane. Swim a bit on your back. Reach up for a bottle of water or Gatorade from your accompanying trainer. And maybe, if you are lucky, you will get to the other side of the British Channel in time. (Doncha just love metaphors?)

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Yolen: The only dry spell I have ever had was this winter when I was caring for my beloved husband, dying of cancer. And even then I wrote poetry, though it was all about him and the end of the life we had had together. Swimming (i.e., writing) is how I deal with life, not evade it.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Yolen: Sharks. Fishermen. Flotsam. Jetsam. Large liners and speed boats. Or as we say in the non-metaphoric world: movie folk, editors, rejected books, celebrities and people who want to enter the field to make money. The writing is the fun part. The rest is business.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Yolen: Alone? I am never alone. I have all those character yapping away at me in my head, arguing for me to spend time with their stories.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

Yolen: Sitting with the laptop or computer in front of me and watching a story-- something new and never seen or heard before--come tumbling out. Stories, poems, leaking from my fingertips. My fingertips. It’s a magic trick, something astonishing I can do. Again and again and again. There is simply nothing like it, except perhaps another art—music or painting.

For more interviews with Jane Yolen, check out these sites:

And for more information about Jane Yolen and her insights into the writing process, visit her website at, as well as her blog at


eisha said...

Wow, what an insightful interview. Thanks, I really enjoyed that!

Jack said...

I often get a sense of the blog guest's personality and writing energy from the way he/she handles the writing/swimming metaphor. An enjoyable interview of Yolen, and I also enjoyed her interview on the first link given. Lots of practical observations about our world of writing.

Elaine Magliaro said...


Thanks for the interview with Jane Yolen. She has written so many wonderful books for young people.
I own most of her poetry books. She writes great historical fiction. I loved GIRL IN A CAGE and LETTING SWIFT RIVER GO.

Anne said...

What fun! I saw the link on Kelly's blog and I'm glad I, er, plunged right in. Wonderful interview, thanks.