Sunday, April 12, 2009

One Writer’s Process: Laura Purdie Salas

“Writing poetry is like jumping off a high dive,” writes Laura Purdie Salas, author of more than 65 books for children and whose first trade poetry picture book collection, Stampede: Poems to Celebrate the Wild Side of School (Clarion), was released earlier this month.

For Salas, who is passionate about all kinds of writing but especially poetry, leaping off a high dive is part of her daily process, an act of faith that keeps her alert and open to possible subjects for new poems.

“You close your eyes, hold your breath, and jump,” she explains. “Then you take the words that have splashed out, and play with them until they sparkle in the best possible design.”

Salas’ words do, indeed, sparkle on the page, whether she’s writing her well-researched non-fiction books, such as Charles Drew: Pioneer in Medicine (Capstone), or the many poetry collections that she’s penned over the years.

For as long as she can remember, Salas has spent her life splashing in words, beginning as a young girl when her three older sisters taught her to read while growing up in Florida.

She found work as a magazine editor after graduating from college, then submitted stories as a freelance writer, and ultimately returned to school–this time as an 8th grade teacher–which is how she rediscovered her love of children’s literature.

Since then she’s carved a path for herself writing for children and says she’s “never looked back.”

Salas lives in Minnesota with two daughters, who give her plenty of ideas for stories, and her husband, who provides her with the support and encouragement to keep writing.

Recently, Salas, who teaches a number of online courses--writing for the educational market, writing poetry, and a special course on how writers can market their manuscripts to editors--took time from her many works-in-progress to talk about her writing process with Wordswimmer.

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

Salas: Usually, I step carefully and steadily into the water. I get up at 5:15 and spend an hour blogging, reading five poems aloud, and writing my daily poem (often pure dreck, but a fun exercise). I check my e-mail and make my to-do list for the day. Then from 6:15 to 7:30, I'm fixing breakfast and helping my kids get off to school and my husband head out to work.

By 7:30, I am chomping at the bit to write. It feels like I've been chained to the ladder at the edge of the pool, and I can't wait to push off and get to the deep end. I start with my real writing--usually poetry, because otherwise teaching online classes, working my part-time job, completing marketing/promotion tasks, and updating my website can eat away my entire day. So I immerse myself in my poetry or other writing first, and it's wonderful! Like eating dessert first.

That said, many years of writing whenever I can snatch 10 minutes of time has trained me to be ready to dive straight into the ocean with no warming-up period. It might be a little chilly at first, but acclimation is quick!

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

Salas: For short work, the words themselves keep me afloat. I love poems and picture book manuscripts because I can spend 30 minutes, even 15, on a draft and turn it into something entirely new. (Whether it's an improvement or not is another matter!) But the transformation happens so fast, it's fascinating to watch.

For longer work, the shoreline can feel awfully far away (thus explaining my novel rough draft sitting untouched for more than a year). I need mile markers (how's that for a mixed metaphor!) to help me feel like I'm making progress. So I'm queen of the list. Plans, schedules, little boxes to check off, charts to make--any or all of these things help keep me going on longer projects. Plus the promise of a reward, like a day off or a pedicure, doesn't hurt, either!

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Salas: I don't really have dry spells. My problem is too many ideas and not enough time. I might work on too many projects at once, scattering my focus, and not doing my best work on any of them. That's what I really struggle with.

Sometimes, though, like right now, I have so many work-for-hire (I write many nonfiction books for the educational market) deadlines that I don't have any time or creative energy left over for the projects I'm really dying to work on. That's been the case the past couple of months. So it's not a writer's block kind of dry spell, but a schedule-forced dry spell.

What keeps me going during those spells is making the effort to keep at least one pinky toe in the water. For the poetry collection I wish I had time to work on, for instance, I've been trying to revise one or two poems a week for the past six weeks. The revisions may be total trash. I don't know because I don't have enough energy and focus to see them clearly. But even just that tiny effort helps me feel connected to the project overall. That way, when I do have time to return to it in a more meaningful way, I'll be able to jump right back in without having to get used to the water all over again.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Salas: The hardest part for me is that swimming isn't enough. You can love the water, enjoy the perfect stroke, the feel of water across your arms, bask in the weightlessness of it, but it's not enough. To really do this, you have to connect with people on shore, very far away. You have to sell your manuscripts to an editor, and then help sell your books to readers. You have to make your own swimming relevant to their lives somehow. I think that's both the magic and the curse of writing!

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

Salas: Swimming alone? What's that? Seriously, although I'm alone when I do my actual writing, I never feel alone. I am so connected to bazillions of wonderful writers, readers, and resources. I connect with my critique groups, bloggers, people on Facebook, etc. I attend conferences, teach and take classes, and belong to e-mail lists. I have never been more connected in my entire life, in fact. The ocean might even be getting a little crowded with all of us in here.

When I need someone to interpret an editorial letter for me, share in my book offer, or hug me after a hard rejection, I never feel alone. I just turn to this fabulous children's writers community! And my family's very supportive, too, especially on the happy dances or the heartfelt hugs.

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

Salas: Oh, to answer this one I'll share a real-life swimming experience. When I was probably 9 or 10, my family was at the beach. (I grew up in Florida.) I was swimming with my dad and one or two of my older sisters. We drifted far out from shore, but I felt safe...probably because I didn't realize how far out we were!

Anyway, we eventually came to a sandbar, where we could actually stand up, and the water only came to my waist. Before that, the water was quite deep. We stood there, looking at the distant shore, and a flash of silver streaked past. A pod of dolphins swam by the far side of the sandbar, probably less than 15 feet away. We were mesmerized. Every childhood fantasy I'd ever had about riding on a dolphin was answered, just being in their presence in the wild like that.

When I write something and I'm really into it, sometimes I'll come up for air and discover I'm swimming with dolphins. Magical words are swimming around me, words I've conjured up by wanting them so badly. And that's the part of swimming I love most. Going away from the safety of shore and losing yourself in the joy of words as they streak by.

If you’d like to read more interviews with Laura Purdie Salas, visit:

And for more information about Laura, visit her website:
or her blog:

Note: You are welcome to attend an on-line launch party for Stampede throughout April. The party will feature stories, book excerpts, photos, and more.


Sara said...

Writing as swimming with dolphins . . . no wonder Laura writes so beautifully.

Great interview. See you in the ocean, Laura!

Kelly Fineman said...

What a great interview - I love the answer to the "swimming alone" question in particular.

laurasalas said...

Thank you, Sara!

Liz in Ink said...

What a lovely interview! Thank heavens for sandbars...

laurasalas said...

Thanks, Kelly. Bruce's questions really made me think.

Elaine Magliaro said...


Thanks for this wonderful interview with one of my favorite poet bloggers. From my own experience, I can tell you that Laura is very supportive of other bloggers who also write poetry for children. I am so impressed with her work ethic and daily routine.

I hope Laura has great success with her new poetry book STAMPEDE!

Bruce Black said...

Thanks to all for stopping by to share your thoughts... and to Laura for inspiring us to dive into the water and keep swimming.