Few of David L. Harrison’s fans would suspect that the author of more than seventy-seven titles for children (which have sold more than fifteen million copies, earned numerous awards, and been translated into twelve languages) struggled for years to find his niche and a publisher.
“I received sixty-seven rejections in a row before anything was published,” he says.
How did he face so many years of rejection and still continue to write?
“It wasn’t a decision,” he explains. “It was a commitment. I had to write. To quit was unthinkable.”
Even so, Harrison still didn’t know what he should be writing. During those years of frustration, he wrote novels and short stories, primarily for adult markets. Little by little he was learning his craft but the going was slow.
Harrison hadn’t set out to become a writer. With a bedroom full of turtle shells, snake skins, coins, fossils, arrowheads, and butterflies, his first love was science.
But while working as a pharmacologist after graduating from college, he thought that the laboratory environment “stymied his creative thinking” and recalled a professor’s suggestion that he try his hand at writing. He applied to a number of companies and was hired by Hallmark as an editor of cards for children.
During his ten-year career at Hallmark–where he rose to become editorial manager–Harrison continued to write at night and eventually sold his first book, The Boy With a Drum (1969), to Golden Books (where it ended up selling more than two million copies). Today he looks back at the publication of that first book for children as a turning point in his life.
“That was when I finally figured out who I was,” he says, because the experience helped him understand that while he enjoyed writing for adults, he loved writing for children.
He lives with his wife, Sandy, in Springfield, MO. Recently, he took a few minutes from his current project to share some of his thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.
Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming... how do you get into the water each day?
DLH: Usually, the last thing I do as I drift off at night is decide how I will start the next morning. When the alarm goes off at 6:00, I’m ready for coffee and a quick look at overnight incoming e-mails and blog comments. By the second cup I’m generally into my day. Instead of splashing around wondering which way to swim, I enjoy the sense of purpose and direction that come with a little pre-planning. Last night I knew that our interview was at the top of my list this morning, and I awakened looking forward to responding to your questions.
Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?
DLH: I love the word game. Anyone can draft a rough copy. I could be a sculptor if all I had to do was knock the edges off a block of granite and call it a dog. Just so, a draft merely knocks the edges off an idea to expose its potential substance and shape. Writing comes after. Writing is the process of giving the dog a nose to read the wind, curious eyes to track grasshoppers in the garden, a busy tail to sweep flowers off coffee tables. If I’ve revised eight times, on the ninth I’ll notice hair on the sofa where the dog never goes, a detail that thought to sneak past me.
On short pieces, such as a collection of poems, I keep my interest afloat by rereading from the beginning each time I return to the growing manuscript. This gives me a sense of accomplishment, a chance to note quick fixes as I go, puts me back in the place where I left the pool yesterday, and stimulates new ideas for the collection. On longer work I reread the chapter or section I’m in and make notes on spots that need more attention. Sometime during that work session I may return to those notes unless they’re going to require major surgery and will need considerable time of their own.
I often carry manuscripts in progress with me on trips even when I know I won’t have time to write. Keeping my work close probably mimics some sort of parental pride and caution. Somehow I need to protect this fledgling and stay near in case, well, just in case.
Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?
DLH: The only dry spell I’ve had lasted from 1982 – 1988. I let myself get too busy and my writing tanked. During that six year period I wrote only one book worth remembering, Wake Up, Sun! That one has sold more than 1 million copies for Random House so I take pleasure in it, but the rest of the period was desert in every direction and as far as I could see. No swimmers allowed!
What snapped me out of my doldrums was poetry. I gave up some volunteering (my school board term expired) and concentrated for the next three years on learning more about poetry. Today I write poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, work with half a dozen publishers, and divide my time between writing for young readers and working on books with and for teachers. Having a dry spell is not an option. I usually keep five or six projects bobbing about the pool at once so my problem isn’t finding ideas; it’s finding time to work on the ones I have.
Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?
DLH: Writers must combine creative talent with business acumen. A good many writers rely on their agents to take care of the business side so they can focus on what they do best – create the product. Even so, few writers escape the need to spend a considerable amount of their time presenting themselves and their work to the public. The dream may be to sit at home with a pad on the lap or fingertips on the keyboard. The reality is we have to climb out of the water, put on our shoes, and go to conferences, schools, and literature festivals to see and be seen.
This isn’t at all unpleasant. I’ve formed many friendships on the road and my life is richer because of them. Speaking in public is addictive. Some writers become camp followers who show up wherever the doors open and chicken is served at another conference. That’s why the issue of pacing oneself is a serious concern for a writer. Staying out of the pool too long to tell people how much fun it is to swim becomes counterproductive.
Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?
DLH: Writers do indeed swim alone much of the time. We often complain that our mates don’t understand our needs. What’s to understand? When your mate holes up in his den for hours on end, or you see only the top of his head as he bends over his work, and he would, if left alone, forget to eat or take out the trash or change a light bulb, you know what you need to know about a writer. When you ask a writer how his day went and he complains that he spent three hours looking for the right word to describe how trees sound in a sandstorm, you understand a writer even if you don’t feel like commiserating about his desperate plight.
When you ask a writer at a party if he’s working on anything and his eye-roll informs you that your ignorance is nearly more than he can bear, say no more. When you ask a writer a question worth about a ten-word response and twenty minutes later he’s still in the prologue, finish your drink in a gulp and think twice before offering another writer anything more encouraging than a handshake.
Who wants to give someone like that a break? Just about anything in the real world is more important than whatever it is the writer, obsessed by his petty whining for silence, may or may not be doing. In short, the writer is on his own. In his world, writing comes near the top of his priorities. In everyone else’s it falls much closer to the bottom of the list. With the exception, perhaps, of hermits, overcoming obstacles – mate, job, children, obligations – is part of the life of a writer. It may be a valuable part because time stolen is sweetest and treasures dearly bought most cherished.
Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?
DLH: Trying to get it right. Pleasing others can wait. Convincing an editor to offer a contract comes later. Knowing that thousands of other writers, hundreds of thousands, millions, are equally determined to get it right is an invigorating challenge. I’ve not been in a more frustrating, difficult industry than publishing. On days when I feel like yelling and my wife asks why I stick with such a demanding and often disappointing job, I become tongue-tied for a quick answer.
Sure, I love to see my name on a new book when it arrives and I wag it around the house from room to room, introducing the new beauty to its home. Of course I like the checks when they arrive, the invitations to stand before audiences and talk about my work and passions about literacy, and it’s nice, sitting here now, looking up at forty-one years of my books on the shelf above my head. But I’ve decided, after considerable thought, that the best thing about swimming in literary waters is the magic idea that someday I will sit back with my hands in my lap, smile to myself, and know that I got it right.
For more about David L. Harrison and his work, visit his homepage: http://www.davidlharrison.com/ and his blog: http://davidlharrison.wordpress.com/
For more interviews with Harrison, visit: