Award-winning author Kathi Appelt was in the second grade when her aunt gave her a diary. It was “one of those locking diaries, the kind with a key,” says Appelt, “and I would say that having that very private place to write is what set me on the way. I wrote all kind of things in that diary. Even today I keep a journal.”
That diary did, indeed, set Appelt on her way. Now she is the author of more than thirty books for children and young adults, including her first novel, The Underneath, which became a Newbery Honor Book, as well as a National Book Award Finalist, and recently received the PEN USA Literature for Children Award.
“Perseverance is the key,” says Appelt, who began writing seriously for publication when her sons were young.
“I learned to write in five minute snatches of time,” she explains. “I didn’t wait to find those huge chunks of time that everyone is always searching for. In those early days, that would have been impossible. So, whenever I had five minutes, I grabbed my pencil and wrote. I still do that to a great extent.”
Even though she’s had enormous success with novels--Keeper, her newest novel, has received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and The Horn Book– as well as with her short story collection, Kissing Tennessee and Other Stories from the Stardust Dance--she says that picture books, like Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America and Bubba and Beau, Best Friends, are still her heart’s favorite. “I love to read them, and love to write them.”
In addition to writing, Appelt teaches in the MFA Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. “As you know,” she says, “writing is one of the most solitary professions and sometimes that can get downright claustrophobic. Teaching gives me a social circle, as well as a sense of ‘passing it on.’”
Her advice to her students and other writers: “Three things. First, read everything you can get your hands on. Second, if you intend to write for a child audience, find some kids to be around. And third, write every single day even if it's only your grocery list.”
A born storyteller, nonetheless she continues to work at her craft with a passion that leads her to a deeper understanding of her voice and the stories that she needs to write.
“I hope that my writing has become more "true," she says. “By that, I constantly work to let my own voice shine through. Calling on voice is in some ways like calling on the muse. It's a slippery thing, and not a little magical. I think it has to do with passion and whether or not the subject you're writing about calls to you from somewhere deep, some profound place that means everything to you.”
And she continues to struggle with questions about how best to tell her stories. “Isn't that what all of us have to figure out? How to tell our stories? For some of us it shows up as music, for others art, some of us express ourselves through science, math, engineering, dance. Our mission while we're here is to discover the vehicle that we need for telling our stories. That's when we tap into the most sacred parts of ourselves.”
No matter what obstacles a writer may meet on his or her journey into a story, she encourages writers not to let “anyone talk you out of it.”
“Write write like crazy,” exhorts Appelt. “Write all the time. Write your heart out.”
Appelt lives with her husband in College Station, TX with her two sons and four cats. Recently, she was kind enough to take a break from her work to share thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.
Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming...how do you get into the water each day?
Appelt: Twenty years ago, I made a commitment to a friend of mine that I would write every day for five minutes. Since then I have never let a day go by when I didn’t fulfill that commitment. I’ve had fleeting moments when I thought that maybe I should make it a ten-minute promise. But then I remind myself that there are times when five minutes is it, when that’s all I have.
The thing is, five minutes often turns into ten and then into twenty, etc. It’s the starting that’s hard. Once I’m in the pool, I usually stay there.
I’m also gentle with myself. I count every bit of writing as part of my five minutes. So, I count my grocery list, e-mail, journal, whatever. If words are coming out of my head and onto a page or a screen, that’s writing. Swimming is swimming. Writing is writing.
Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?
Appelt: Again, I think it’s the five-minute promise. I can write most of a page in five minutes, so I’m kind of like a tortoise. A page a day, a tiny bit of progress here and there, it all keeps me going. I may not be as prolific as the hare, but if I keep at it, I’ll eventually get there. And let’s face it, turtles are far better swimmers than rabbits.
I also have life-guards who keep an eye out for me, so that if I start sinking, they throw a rope. Good critiquers are handy, and my husband is the best.
Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?
Appelt: I tread a lot. I keep a journal. I do a lot of binge-reading. Recently I’ve read some terrific books, and each one makes me want to write “like that,” like Pam Munoz Ryan, like Rita Williams Garcia, like M.T. Anderson.
I want to swim like Esther Williams.
Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?
Appelt: For me, going to the deepest end of the pool, finding the most essential heart of the story, is what I grapple with. And even when I find it, the terrifying question is “can I dive deep enough to hold it in my palm?” Will my lungs burst? Will my heart burst? Can I push myself, and my characters, to that deep level without chickening out? That is always the struggle.
Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?
Appelt: I turn to cookies.
Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?
Appelt: I love the way the water sustains me. If I think about a story as a pool of water, then I think about how story is a life-sustaining force. I think about how, as humans, we’re the only ones who tell stories. In the darkest winter, we gather around fires and use our stories to keep us warm, to feed us. Stories are our very human way of making sense of the world; just as we would die without water, we would also die without stories.
For more information about Kathi Appelt, visit her website:
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