Sunday, May 13, 2012

One Writer's Process: Marilyn Singer

“Some kids like to play baseball, some prefer playing house, and more than a few enjoy both,” says Marilyn Singer, the author of over ninety books for children and young adults. “I was a kid who liked to play with words. I was fascinated not only by their sounds and their definitions, but by their shades of meaning. I would take my paper dolls and concoct elaborate descriptions of their costumes.”

As a child, Singer used to go into her parents’ bathroom with a flashlight and shine the beam on the ceiling to pretend she was a lightening bug. “My parents thought I had an imaginary playmate,” Singer says. “I knew it was actually a flashlight beam and that I was making up stories.  When I wrote down those stories so many years later, it was fun and exciting and it made me want to write more stories.”

When her first published book, The Dog Who Insisted He Wasn't, was accepted by an editor, she thought, “Wow!  I guess I’m an author!  And that’s been my career ever since.  It’s had ups and downs–some years I’ve sold a lot of manuscripts to publishers, other years none–but I wouldn’t trade it for another.”

She recalls her parents reading to her as a young girl and singing her to sleep with songs whose lyrics were written by such greats as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Yip Harburg. “The wit and style of those songs influenced me a lot,” Singer says. “So, poetry and lyrics attracted me when I was very young. I started writing my own poems in first grade. Writing good poems came somewhat later.”

Usually, Singer says, she writes on yellow legal pads or on scraps of paper, and can write anywhere —“and I do mean anywhere.” She may pen several poems each day, but much of the time is often spent staring into space or playing with language. “Or, as my husband puts it, ‘poetizing’,” says Singer. “It’s a pleasant state to be in, but most particularly when I’m sitting outdoors in the country on warm days with few distractions.”
Her time spent “poetizing” led Singer to create reverso poems, a form inspired by a doll that she once owned as a young girl. The doll, a Rags-to-Riches doll, came with “a patched skirt, a shawl, and a kerchief,  and she was barefoot.  But when you took off the shawl and pulled down the skirt, presto, she had on a ball gown!  Under the kerchief was a tiara.  And to complete the costume, you slipped on her high-heeled shoes.  She was a reversible doll and I’m sure that, unconsciously, she inspired the reversos.”

Singer writes her reverso poems on a computer. That way, she finds, she can easily move around words and  lines. “I start with the story I want to write about and make sure that I can create several points-of-view–whether from one character or from two.  The reverso has to say something different when you flip the words, or else it’s what one person called a 'same-o.' ... Yes, they are time consuming, but also fun–creating a puzzle and also solving one!"

Currently, Singer lives in Brooklyn, NY and Washington, CT with her husband Steve, their standard poodle Oggi, cat named Ninotchka, two collared doves (named Jubilee and Holiday), and a starling named Darling. Her newest books include A Stick is an Excellent Thing (Clarion), illustrated by LeUyen Pham; Every Day's a Dog's Day (Dial), illustrated by Miki Sakamoto; The Boy Who Cried Alien (Hyperion), illustrated by Brian Biggs; and Tallulah's Solo (Clarion), illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. Later this year she'll have more books coming out, including The Superheroes Employment Agency (Clarion), illustrated by Noah Z. Jones, and A Strange Place to Call Home (Chronicle), illustrated by Ed Young.

She was kind enough to take a break from her works-in-progress to share her thoughts on writing with wordswimmer

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

Singer: I am much more comfortable writing than I am swimming.  For me, swimming is always just splashing around and cooling off.  While writing often starts that way, it gets serious pretty soon thereafter—and I have much more stamina for it and I’d say better technique.

When I seize on a theme, let’s say for poetry, my brain’s right side seems to take over and come up with all kinds of stuff—lines, images, ideas, etc. for poems based on that theme.  So the problem isn’t “getting into the water,” it’s getting out of the water.  I can’t stop writing!

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

Singer: What keeps me afloat for all work is based on something that happened to me in elementary school.  I got a report card in which a teacher said, “Doesn’t always finish what she starts.”  I was so troubled by that (and I must’ve been all of 6 or 7) that I determined there and then I would always finish things.  Well, that hasn’t happened 100 % of the time—I recall a hunk of fabric in a drawer that I was sure I’d turn into a skirt (ha!) and I still haven’t made the Chinese tea eggs from the recipe for which I purchased a cookbook—but when it comes to my writing, I’m pretty much a stickler for finishing projects that I start and that I believe have legs.  Sea legs?

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells? 

Singer: My dry spells have more to do with not selling any of the manuscripts I’ve written.  My husband Steve Aronson’s encouragement (and salary) keep us both afloat.  Positive words from other writers and librarians also give me moral support.

I’m lucky in that I don’t usually have dry spells re:  writing.  I’m interested in many things, so there’s always something to write about.  Also, I write in many genres, and that’s fortunate.  If nobody wants poetry, I can work on nonfiction.  If nobody wants nonfiction, I’ll fiddle with a chapter book.  And so on.

Wordswimmer:  What's the hardest part of swimming?

Singer: Well, swimming doesn’t come easily to me.  I’m buoyant, but I’ve never been able to coordinate arms, legs, head, breathing very well, and I don’t have stamina in the water.  I’m a far better dancer than swimmer.  I guess I coordinate better on land.

I also coordinate better on paper.  The hardest part of writing?  Each project has its problems, from character and plot development (Where is this character going?  Where am I going with this character?) to the difficulty of working in a form such as the reverso (two poems—one reverso: read the first down and it’s one thing; read it back up with changes only in punctuation and capitalization, and it’s another).  But I’d say the hardest part is not giving up when there are many rejections.  A huge part of a writing career is persistence.  

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

I like writing alone (swimming, too), but when it comes to writing problems, I talk with my husband, my editors, my friends, my agent—people I respect and who will offer good advice.  I don’t suffer in silence!

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

Singer: We live in Brooklyn, NY and Washington, CT.  In Washington, we have a house with a pond, where we swim in summer.  My favorite thing about swimming the pond is traveling slowly around the perimeter and seeing what’s on the edges—plants, fish, frogs, insects, and, best of all, bird nests, sometimes with eggs and chicks.  When I write, I feel that I’m discovering things as I travel, answering questions I’ve posed, uncovering information and magic as I traverse the external and internal landscapes.  I love that most of all.
If you want to learn more about Marilyn Singer and her work, visit her website:

For more interviews with Singer, take a look at:


Leslie Bulion said...

So happy to hear Marilyn's voice shine through in this lovely interview!

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, Leslie, for stopping by. Hope you're enjoying the water and that your work is going well.

Zantippy Skiphop said...

WOW the reverso poem thing is blowing me away!!! Guess what I'm doing tonight!

Bruce Black said...

Great. Good luck!