Even though Dianne Ochiltree has written for years and published ten picture books, she’s the first to admit she doesn’t always get her stories right the first time that she sits down to pen them. “I have to write them again and again,” she says. “My editors are my teachers: they ask me to re-write things sometimes because they want me to be the very best writer I can be.”
Ochiltree, whose work has received recognition from Bank Street College’s children’s literature committee, comes from a family of storytellers. Her aunts, uncles, and cousins used to gather on Sundays for dinner, and she loved sitting on the steps of her grandparents’ Ohio house listening to the grownups inside telling jokes or sharing their stories of growing up.
“Writing stories and poems was a way I could say things I couldn't say out loud to a real person,” says Ochiltree, recalling her teenage years when she was especially shy. “My characters could say and do things I just couldn't in real life. Writing a story is a good way to deal with disappointment or frustration, I guess. I would start my story with a real situation, and make up my own ending: the way I'd like it to turn out, not necessarily the way it did turn out.”
What Ochiltree says she loves most about writing, aside from the miraculous way it lets her connect with people across barriers of time and space, is that it’s a process that lets her communicate “ideas from the head and emotions from the heart.” Plus, Ochiltree explains, she loves the way “words capture the ‘stuff” of life and hold it there, for as long as the ink lasts.”
Usually Ochiltree has three writing projects going at the same time—a story that she’s planning or beginning to research; a completed work that she’s editing or revising; and a manuscript that she’s writing. And like other writers, she submits work often and finds rejection slips regularly in her mailbox.
Does she have any advice to offer other writers? “The best and briefest advice: write whatever you can, every day. Please don't wait for the perfect moment to start your story! Even if you only have one-half hour daily to devote to your writing projects, doing this will help you improve your craft, find your own stylistic ‘voice,’ and maintain your creative momentum.”
Recently, Ochiltree was kind enough to take a break from her current works-in-process (and from her extensive yoga practice) to share thoughts on writing with wordswimmer:
Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming...how do you get into the water each day?
Ochiltree: The best way to get into the swim of writing is to dive in! Leave self-doubt and self-judgment at the edge of the pool. Just as you swim laps stroke by stroke, let your writing unfold word by word. Remember it’s exercise you’re after, not an Olympic medal. Focus on the work itself and let the story you're telling come to the surface without any concern about eventual publication.
Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?
Ochiltree: No matter the length of the work, short or long format, the ‘floatie’ strapped around my waist is my passion for the story and what I believe the reader will gain from reading it. My original vision for a story acts as a bright, bobbing buoy, a marker for me to swim toward in that narrative ocean of first drafts.
Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?
Ochiltree: That’s a tough challenge, like doing the breast stroke in a sandbox: it can be slow going! My task during writer’s block is to “just write” whether it’s “just right” or not. I remind myself that often I need to write something wrong a few times before I find what works. It’s my process to write multiple drafts anyway. Failure ultimately opens the door to success.
Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?
Ochiltree: Keeping all the pool equipment and inflatable toys out of the lap lane. Distraction is my biggest writing enemy. It’s imperative to slip on the water goggles, and ear plugs when diving into my writing time.
Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?
Ochiltree: My invisible life guards are many: critique partners and other writing friends with whom I may share the early draft I’m writing; the reader with whom I hope to eventually connect should my words be granted publication; my mentors, the authors whose work continue to inspire me as I read and re-read the pieces of their hearts they have placed on the page.
Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?
Ochiltree: When I swam laps at the YMCA as my daily exercise, my favorite part was the satisfaction and pleasure felt as I climbed out of the pool at the end…and so it is with writing. “Having written” my daily dose of words gives me the sense that I have done my job, the thing I was put on earth to do. I believe no one actually chooses to be a writer. It’s something that chooses you early in life, and you don’t feel 100% unless you write a bit each day. It's a mission and a passion. It lets you splash in the kiddie pool and have fun, too!
For more information about Dianne Ochiltree and her work, visit her website: http://www.ochiltreebooks.com
To read about her most recent picture book, Molly by Golly, visit: http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20120826/ARCHIVES/208261005
And to read more interviews with her, check out: