Sunday, March 17, 2013

One Writer’s Process: Susan Campbell Bartoletti

When Susan Campbell Bartoletti embarks on a full-length nonfiction project, she knows it will take years and that she’ll have to summon all her strength.

“I know it's going to be frustrating and physically and emotionally exhausting,” says the Newbery Award winning author of more than a dozen books of nonfiction and fiction for young readers, as well as picture books, “but I also know there is going to be a great deal of satisfaction and pleasure.”

Indeed, the work takes over her life, and she thinks about her characters as if they were members of her own family. “I worry about them, puzzle over them, and argue with them even when I'm not working, even as I'm driving the car or doing dishes or hanging out laundry to dry. They are not always easy to get along with, and some are very ungrateful that you've been poking around, turning up secrets. Others, I think, are very grateful, even if they never offer to help with the dishes.”

Fortunately for her many readers and fans, she loves research, especially its haunting nature, “the way the people I'm researching begin to stalk me.”

The more that Bartoletti digs into their lives, piecing together the puzzles of their world in books like Growing Up in Coal Country, Black Potatoes, Hitler Youth, The Boy Who Dared, and They Called Themselves the KKK, the more life she can breathe into them and the more vivid will be the story that she can share with readers.

“As I ferret out the bits and fragments of their lives, as I put their lives together, I feel as though I'm breathing them back to life. Pretty soon, these people are up and about, walking and talking and telling me their stories.”

What sustains her through the challenging parts of the writing process, Bartoletti says, is her own stubbornness, as well as her belief in the necessity of whatever she’s writing. “Don’t get me wrong. Self-doubt is a part of the challenge, too. I just don't know how to quit. I used to run, and I remember the feeling of finding my wind. That's how it is with such books that require this sort of research: I love the feeling of finding my wind.”

Most of all, Bartoletti says, she loves “the chase, the hunt of looking for the sources, both primary and secondary. I enjoy the intellectual process and the physical process. I like fitting the pieces together, thinking in new ways. And I’ve learned to embrace self-doubt.”

Recently, she was kind enough to take a break from her works-in-progress to share insights into her writing process with wordswimmer:

I love the swimming metaphor. First, let me tell you a story.

When I was a freshman in high school, I took a life-saving class at the YMCA.

Each night, we began by swimming sixteen laps: four crawl, four breaststroke, four sidestroke, four backstroke, up and back. I wasn’t the strongest swimmer and I wasn’t the fastest swimmer, but I held my own and always finished.

We learned to identify distressed swimmers. We learned to use rescue aids and various rescue holds to tow a drowning victim to safety.  We learned to administer CPR.

As the weeks passed, I grew stronger and faster – simply by showing up each night, getting in the water, and doing the work.

Then the final test came. The night before, I couldn’t sleep. The self-doubt! I wasn’t worried about the written exam - I knew the material and could save anyone on paper – but I was terrified of the actual-save-the-drowning victim test. The victim would be an adult. (Did I mention I was fourteen and the youngest in the class? What if I wasn’t fast enough or strong enough, compared to my older classmates?)

The next night, my classmates and I huddled at the deep end of the pool. My jaw dropped as our volunteer victim – a very large man - emerged from the locker room. (Did I mention I was five feet, two inches tall? One hundred and five pounds?)

Our victim slipped into the water and swam to the center of the pool. He turned and stared at us, unblinking. (Was he trying to psyche us out? If so, it worked.) Then he sank like a depth charge to the bottom of the pool, thirteen feet below.

Our job was to bring him to the surface, using a proper hold, and tow him to safety.

Did I mention our victim waited all year for this moment? That he could hold his breath for an inhuman amount of time? That he was a sado-masochist who lunged at his teenage rescuers and fought them off?

Time after time, the whistle blew. From above, I watched as each classmate approached beneath the water. Then it became a blur of shapes. The shimmering blue water churned to a frothy white. Eventually, either my classmate succeeded and towed the victim to the side, or gave up and surfaced, gasping for air.

And then it was my turn. “Campbell, you’re up,” said our instructor.

The whistle shrieked. I sucked in air and dove in. Squinting, I made out his hulking form, waiting for me. He looked like a boulder.

I swam around him, gauging the best approach. As I circled, he pivoted, watching me. I had no choice but to go in.

I swam closer. He stopped moving. I grew hopeful. Perhaps he was taking it easy on me. Perhaps he was tired out. Perhaps I could use the simple cross-chest hold.

I crooked my arm around his neck and across his chest. He broke loose. He grabbed my arm and pulled me down, just as a drowning person is known to do.

With both feet, I launched myself off his chest. Now it was a fight for survival. (Remember how stubborn I am?) I kicked. I punched. I clawed. I grabbed a fistful of hair.

I don’t remember what tow I used. I remember that I wrangled him into some sort of hold and towed him to the surface. At the surface, he tried to break my hold again, but I dug in and got him to the side of the pool.

When he climbed out of the water, he bore long red scratch marks down his back.

Self-doubt again. I thought for sure that I failed, but a week later, my junior-life saving badge arrived in the mail.

What does this story say about my approach to writing?

I don’t swim the same way I did as a kid. As a teenager, swimming was all about friends and hanging out. As a teenager, I stayed up late. Nothing fun ever happened before midnight!

Today I swim in words more often than in water. Nowadays I don’t hang out. I go to bed early and write in the early morning hours. For me, that’s the best time to swim in words and ideas.

You won’t see me dive into the water – unless you need me to rescue you. I tend to tiptoe around the shallow end, getting wet gradually, before I move into the deep end. The same is true for my writing. I know writers who plunge headfirst – and I admire their spirit and style - but you know what? We both make it to the finish line.

Self doubt still surfaces, especially in the rough draft stage. I’m teaching myself to embrace the rough draft stage. My favorite stage is revising.

I still do laps. I set a kitchen timer for 45 minutes and write nonstop. When the timer rings, I stop – even if it’s midsentence. I take a 15-minute break. I try not to make phone calls or check email but often do.  I do small, rote chores such as laundry or I walk the dog. I trust that my subconscious keeps working on the book, even while my conscious mind is doing something else.

At the end of the 15 minutes, I return to the work. I do several sessions like this throughout the day. Some days it’s as few as three; other days, especially if I‘m revising, I do more.

At the end of the writing day, I try to take notes for the writing I intend to do the next day, to avoid starting with a blank page.

What sort of floating devices do I use?

On dry land, my floating devices include my husband Joe. My children. My grandchildren. Good coffee. Movies. Books. Good friends that I can swap funny stories with. Anything that makes me laugh.

I like side-growth activities – doing things that seem to have little or no relation to writing. One year I took a watercolor art class. Another year I took a mixed media art workshop. Another year, I returned to piano lessons. Lately, I’ve been sewing.

My favorite side-growth activity was the nearly two years I spent taking an Improv Comedy master class and performing on stage. Was it scary? Yes! But one of the greatest highs is letting go, taking a risk, and making an audience laugh.

Did I ever bomb onstage? Yes! That was terrifying and humiliating. But I think it’s important to bomb once in a while because that proves that we’ve taken a risk and challenged ourselves and dared to reach – even if our reach exceeds our grasp.

Most of my rough draft writing is ordinary at best. At its worst, it’s the sort of writing that makes me want to plug my nose.

But you know the old saying about one percent genius. Out of that ordinary and terrible work, extraordinary moments –  sparks of genius - arise. The spark might be an image. It might be a sentence. It might be a bit of dialogue. It might be a whole paragraph. Such sparks make me say to myself, okay, Bartoletti, maybe you can write, after all. The sparks give me hope that the rest of the work will also rise and float – if I just keep at it.

How do I keep swimming through a dry spell?

I’m emerging from a dry spell now.

The way I see it is this: Sometimes we rescue others. Other times we rescue ourselves.

In life-saving class, we learned to save ourselves. We learned to relax, because fear kills. It kills the physical body and it kills the spirit.

If a distressed swimmer relaxes, chances are, that swimmer will float.

And so during my dry spell, I floated:

I read and watched movies.
I spent time with friends and family.
I spoiled my grandchildren.
I journaled.
I taught. (I teach in the brief-residency MFA program at Spalding University in Louisville, KY.)
I watched Under the Tuscan Sun – again.

Knowing how to tread water is also a life-saving technique. Instead of 45-minute laps, I did 25 minutes on and 5 minutes off. If, at the end of the first 25-minute session, my attitude wasn’t adjusted, I packed it in.

I lowered my standards. I didn’t expect any sparks of genius (as I describe above). If any showed up, I threw a surprise party.

And you know what happens when you lower your standards? You’ll doggy-paddle your way through sentences. Paragraphs. Eventually a page.  More pages. And one day, a rough draft.

This month, my historical novel, Down the Rabbit Hole: The Diary of Pringle Rose, 1871 (Dear America, Scholastic) is published. This book was just named a Junior Library Guild selection.

What’s the hardest part of swimming?

How I look in a bathing suit. I’m still 5’2, but I'm no longer 105 pounds.

But as my friend and colleague Julie Brickman also a writer (, says, “Who’s looking at you?”

And Julie’s right.

So I just get in the water.

For more information about Susan Campbell Bartoletti, visit her website:

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