Sunday, May 22, 2011

One Writer’s Process: Anne Ylvisaker

A writer with less determination, less confidence, and less imagination than Anne Ylvisaker might have decided to switch career paths when her writing teacher fell asleep while listening to Anne read an early draft of one of her stories.

But Ylvisaker wasn’t daunted by the experience. On the contrary, she considers herself fortunate because her teacher’s response saved her years of trying to figure out what wasn’t working in her story.

She stopped working on that novel immediately, she says, and by the next class had started another novel. It turned out to be the manuscript for Dear Papa, her first published novel, which went on to receive numerous accolades, including the honor of being named a Booklist Top Ten Youth First Novel.

Ylvisaker says her work often begins with a question. “Dear Papa grew out of two questions,” she says. “Why would a nine year old write a letter to her father after he'd died? And what would she say to him?”

Her second novel, Little Klein, which she completed while moving from Minnesota to Iowa and was selected as a Bank Street College Best Children's Book of the Year, followed a slightly different path. “Finding Little Klein’s story was more like following a series of hunches than having a lightning bolt of inspiration,” she says.

“I think I’ve been a writer since my mom put a notebook in my suitcase when I was six and said I had to keep a travel journal,” says Ylvisaker, recalling the family car rides from Minnesota to South Carolina’s coast every spring during her youth and the time she spent writing during those trips. “I have written compulsively ever since–letters, stories, and poems. I even love writing lists.”

Since then she’s written three novels which have brought her praise from reviewers for her “love of language and keen observations of human nature” (Children’s Literature Network), and for her “strongly realized, immediate characters and the delicacy and originality of the writing” (Hornbook).

The recipient of a McKnight Artist Fellowship/Loft Award in Children’s Literature, Anne grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In addition to her novels–Little Klein, Dear Papa, and her newest, The Luck of the Buttons–she’s written nineteen nonfiction books for young readers.

Until 2006, she spent her adult life teaching and writing in Saint Paul, MN. Now she lives in Monterey, California with her husband Dan and daughter Maria, and was kind enough to take a few minutes from her work-in-progress to share some thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer:

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

Ylvisaker: Even as a tadpole in swimming lessons, I was one of those kids who dipped a toe into the water before getting in the pool, never the all-at-once cannonball. It is the same with writing.

First I take pen and notebook and free-write several pages. I just empty whatever is in my head onto the paper. I write out my fears or hopes for the day’s work, get rid of distracting thoughts, experiment with ideas, or simply write out a poem I’ve memorized. It’s getting that physical sense of putting words on a page, much like doing laps in a pool.

Then I put my notebook aside and read a few pages of great writing. Recently, Polly Horvath, Richard Peck, Mark Twain. When nothing else will do, I reread Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. I lose myself in great storytelling until the rhythms of those writers well up in me, making me want to create, too; making me to want to tell a good story. Taking in an interesting piece of art or a striking piece of music can serve the same purpose.

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

Ylvisaker: If I can throw in another sport here, writing for me is a bit like golf. One great swing, one perfect putt, keeps me playing through dozens of mediocre holes. When I strike a vein with a character that sweeps me into the story, or come across just the right way to express a thought, I want more. I can put up with many pages of difficult writing after hitting one sweet spot.

Staying afloat for a longer project is difficult. Doubt creeps in and I feed it with procrastination. My first defense is a deadline. I need to be accountable to produce something to be placed in front of a reader such as my editor. I was terrified of going to the emotional place I needed to reach with the ending of my current project. I stalled and stalled until I had just three days until the draft was due. With the deadline looming, I spent twelve hours at a time in my chair and finally spit it all out. If it weren’t for that deadline I’d still be dithering over how to go about carrying that character over rough terrain.

Also, I am fortunate to have a support network of writers who are utterly honest with me. With a long project, it’s not practical to ask someone to read a manuscript overnight or even in a day or two (though I do have one reader who has done this for me on several occasions!), but being able to brainstorm and bounce ideas off others is essential.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Ylvisaker: Chasing an idea can be like trying to find something I’ve lost. The harder I look, the more elusive it becomes. Once I give up and distract my brain with some other task, the treasure appears. Brenda Ueland talks about “moodling,” doing all those things that don’t look like writing but which allow creativity to bubble up to the surface. For me, moodling involves activities like going to an art museum, walking, exploring, drawing, playing with ideas, playing the piano, listening to music, reading about subjects that capture my interest.

It was a spring picnic in a cemetery on the prairie that pulled me out of a long dry spell and led me to Tugs Button, the main character in The Luck of the Buttons. A picnic might not look like “work” but if I’d been sitting in my office trying to force an idea into being, I never would have found Tugs.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Ylvisaker: Getting wet is the hardest part of swimming. The blank page to me is like a bottomless pool to someone with a water phobia. It’s a confidence thing, I suppose. After getting in the water once and finding out I can float, you’d think the next trip to the pool would be easier, but it’s terrifying every time.

After a particularly grueling day of writing recently, I went to an evening yoga class, eager to unwind. The leader opened the relaxation part of our session by asking us to close our eyes and imagine a blank page. I went immediately tense. There is nothing about the blank page that relaxes me.

I think that the root of my fear of committing words to paper is exposure. I am a private person, and while I write fiction, there is no denying that the emotions I give my characters are emotions I’ve felt myself. It’s much more befitting of my Scandinavian genes to keep my emotions to myself.

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

Ylvisaker: I never feel entirely alone in the process when I am surrounded by books. Opening a favorite book to study how a trusted author has handled a particular situation gives me confidence to try varied tactics. If I am struggling with beginnings, I read the opening sentence in every chapter of a novel I love. If my prose is feeling stale, I go to a well-written cookbook and make a list of all the interesting verbs I can find. I read poetry out loud to immerse myself in the sounds and rhythms of language.

Music is another essential tool. Playing the piano helps sift and settle my brain and feel rhythm. The physical act of playing the piano works much like a hearty walk. It distracts me just enough to allow solutions to rise to the surface. Also, I make a music play list for each story I write in order to settle into a mood or era. Taj Mahal was a favorite while I was writing Little Klein, and for The Luck of the Buttons, I listened to a lot of 1920s music and the Blues.

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

I love being in the deep end of the pool – smack in the messy middle of a story, the part where I have discovered a character that intrigues me and possibility lies ahead. I never know when I begin how a story will end. The discoveries made along the way are exciting.

When I was struggling at the outset of writing The Luck of the Buttons, my editor said to me, “This is your story to tell.” I love that sentiment and I believe it wholeheartedly. Universal truths emerge, but no two stories are alike. We all find different ways to express our stories, whether in writing, drawing, music, gardening, what have you. Telling our stories is part of being human and it’s in the process of telling that we discover our own truth.

For more information about Anne, visit her website:

And take a look at her Facebook author page, too:


Barbara Watson said...

Thank you for this post! Hearing about writers' struggles, what helps them through, and what keeps them working is fascinating.

Anne, I especially love knowing you don't know the end when you begin. I thought not knowing how my story would end (but starting it anyway) meant I didn't know what I was doing. Period.

Everything here is so helpful for me - a writer just starting down writer's road. Thank you again.

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, Barbara. Hope you'll keep finding helpful guidance through the shoals of those moments of uncertainty.