Sunday, September 04, 2011

One Writer's Process: Leslea Newman

Lesléa Newman admits that she is happier writing than not writing, even when the work isn’t going well.

“I think the reason I still love writing and being a writer is that I’m really in love with language,” writes Newman, , the award-winning author of more than sixty books, including A Letter to Harvey Milk, Nobody's Mother, Hachiko Waits, Write from the Heart, The Boy Who Cried Fabulous, The Best Cat in the World, and Heather Has Two Mommies. “Nothing pleases me more than coming up with a phrase or image that moves me in some way.... This is what I live for, the joy of discovery, or what a writer friend of mine calls the daily miracle.”

Since publishing her first poem in Seventeen Magazine, Newman’s received numerous literary awards for her poetry, as well as for her books for children and adults. “Each genre informs the others,” she says. “For example, I believe that being a poet has made my fiction more lyrical; being a fiction writer has helped me write narrative poems. I always encourage writers to think of themselves expansively—there’s no limit to one’s imagination!”

The former poet laureate of Northhampton, MA, where she now makes her home, says she tries to write every morning. “I never plan ahead; when I sit down to write, I stare at a blank page and pray some words will come along to fill it.”

The more one writes, she says, the better one gets. “The only thing that’s a guarantee is that if you don’t pick up your pen (or turn on your computer) nothing will happen on the page that day.”

Indeed, she has her share of days when nothing much happens on the page, days that occur more often than she’d like to admit. “Then one day something interesting will emerge. If that happens on day #42, I know the 41 days that preceded that writing were absolutely necessary. It’s all part of the process.”

It isn’t easy to keep taking risks as a writer, she confides to the students whom she's given lectures to at schools like Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Oregon, Bryn Mawr College, Smith College, the University of Judaism, and Spalding University, where she’s currently a faculty mentor in the MFA in Writing program. But that’s the job of a writer.

“One has to be willing to take risks,” she says. “One has to give one’s all, 100% of the time. One has to accept failure as well as success. One has to be in it for the long haul. One must be humble. And of course,” she insists, “one has to do one’s best writing.”

Recently, Newman completed October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, which tells the story of Matthew Shepard's murder and its aftermath in a cycle of 68 poems and which will be published by Candlewick Press in 2012. She was kind enough to take some time from her current work-in-progress to share thoughts on writing with wordswimmer’s readers.

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

Newman: I dip in slowly, one toe at a time. I wait until I'm used to the temperature and then inch my way in. Once I'm in up to my waist, I take the plunge and immerse myself completely. Often I stay in the water for hours and someone has to remind me to come out!

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

Newman: What keeps me afloat is curiosity. I never know what's going to happen next and I'm eager to find out. Also, once I have something on the page, I love love love to rewrite, and I will pester a piece until I'm satisfied. This can take hours, days, weeks, months, years.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Newman: I know that one gets better at any activity by practicing. So I do laps around the page in hopes that something will take. Also, I remind myself that there is no guarantee but this one: if I don't show up and dive onto the page, nothing will happen. But if I do show up, anything might happen.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Newman: The hardest part of swimming is conquering fear. There may be some dark places in the water, and I may wind up being in over my head, but still, one has to be fearless and dive right in.

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

Newman: I actually believe in the buddy system, and though I may start out alone, I have many buddies to call on: my spouse, the members of my writing group, my agent, etc. If I'm not sure where to go, one of them can always point me in the right direction.

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

Newman: Diving into the unknown.

For more about Leslea Newman and her work, visit her website:

And for additional interviews with Newman, visit:

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