Monday, June 30, 2014

My Writing Process Blog Tour

One of my favorite writers and illustrators, Michelle Edwards, was kind enough to invite me to join the My Writing Process Blog Tour. Michelle has written and illustrated numerous books for children, including the National Jewish Book Award winner, Chicken Man. If you enjoy knitting, you might like to pick up her book on knitting for adults, A Knitter's Home Companion, an illustrated collection of stories, knitting patterns, and recipes. To find out more about her work, visit her website: And if you want to check out her tour post, which appeared last week, click here:
You’ll find my answers to the tour’s four questions below, as well as links to the author who I’ve tagged and whose responses will appear on the blog tour next week.
1. What am I working on?
Pffffssssssssssssssttttttttttt. Do you hear that sound? It’s the sound of air escaping from the chamber of my heart where stories-in-progress are kept, leaving them limp and flat and earthbound. It’s the sound that I hear whenever I answer this question, a question that drains the enthusiasm and energy out of my pen, and leaves me stranded, empty-handed, wishing that I’d kept my mouth shut instead of answering the question.

The first time anyone asked me this question, I made the mistake of answering, and the story that I was working on turned to dust. The second time someone asked me the question, the same thing happened. In time I stopped responding to the question and politely switched the subject, which is, of course, what I’m doing now. I’ve learned not to respond to the question.

Writing, I’ve learned, requires silence in order for a story to grow. As soon as I open a door and start talking about a story, revealing its secret—even when I don’t yet know its secret—the story ends up deflated, much like a punctured balloon, and all my energy for that project rushes out the door, too. That’s why I don’t tell anyone what I’m working on. I need to keep it a secret, and that means not telling my wife, my brother, my critique partners, and certainly not strangers until the work is done or almost done.

But I can tell you what I’ve been working on for the past few years since the projects are almost ready to share: a YA novel about a high school runner who moves to Florida and discovers the kind of racial prejudice that he thought ended with the Civil War, and a book for adults about yoga that delves into the link between meditation and yoga. I’m working on a MG novel, as well, but that’s all I can say about it without puncturing the balloon and hearing that sound (Pffffsssssssttttt) again.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

How does any writer’s work differ from another writer’s work? Each of us writes in our own unique, idiosyncratic way, making our work distinctly our own in the same way our fingerprints are our own, or in the same way that snowflakes possess unique qualities and characteristics that make them different from one another. Every writer uses the same twenty-six letters of the alphabet. Yet each of us manages to convey an entirely different world based on our perspectives, our backgrounds, our prejudices, our tics and habits and preferences.

Until I went to Vermont College (now Vermont College of Fine Arts) for an MFA, I used to write whatever an editor asked me to write. If an editor needed a book on a certain baseball player, I wrote it. If another editor asked for an adventure story, I wrote that, too. If an editor requested a nonfiction book about American explorers, I did the research and came up with a book. These were the first books that I published. They taught me a lot about writing for children. But they didn’t teach me how to write stories that came from my heart. I didn’t learn how to tap into my own emotional core until I studied with the amazing teachers at VCFA, including Jackie Woodson, Graham Salisbury, Norma Fox Mazer, and Marion Dane Bauer, who were the most supportive and nurturing mentors any writer could ask for.

Each of these teachers wrote about the world from a different perspective, yet they taught me the the same lesson: the importance of writing from the heart. Maybe that’s what distinguishes my work from the work of other writers, although I think that any writer, if he wants to reach a reader’s heart, has to open his heart, too. If I’ve done my job as a writer, then the stories that I write will reflect what's in my heart. My vision. My prejudices. My desires. My assumptions. My way of looking at the world. I guess that’s what makes my work different from another writer’s work. And it’s what makes another writer’s work different from mine.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I write what I’m compelled to write. Sometimes I hear a voice, or I wake up from a dream with a faint memory of an image, or I simply want to see where my pen will lead me. Sometimes the words lead to a young adult novel, sometimes to a short story, sometimes to a piece for adults about yoga or writing or meditation. Usually, when I start out, I don’t know in advance where the words will lead. I listen for a voice. And when I hear it, I try to capture it on paper, to get it from inside my head onto the page so that others can hear it on the page and enjoy reading what I hope will be a good story.

4. How does your writing process work?

Here’s how it works: I have my own rituals that I follow before sitting down at my desk at roughly the same time every morning. I’ll go for a walk before breakfast. I’ll make a pot of coffee. I’ll read the morning newspaper’s headlines and comics (Zits is my favorite). And then I’ll go into my office and open up my laptop and begin working.

Some days the writing comes smoothly, others it’s a stormy process. I can’t tell ahead of time what kind of day it will be until I sit down and start. Often, I’ll start the day reading a poem to help me re-enter the space where words come from. Or I’ll fold laundry and the action of using my hands to fold somehow gives my mind a chance to relax and work its way into a story. The same is true for washing the breakfast dishes. These daily, mundane chores help me think about stories without actually writing so that when I get to my desk in the morning I’m ready to begin.

I find it helps to have a number of projects to work on. One of my teachers at Vermont College—I think it was Sharon Darrow—suggested that writing is a lot like riding horses. If a horse falters in midstream, it's helpful to have another horse in reserve to jump onto so I can keep writing. It's also helpful to remember that I can always climb back on the horse that faltered and ride it again further downstream.

* * * * * 

I’ve asked Ann Angel, a writer who I met at Vermont College years ago and whose career has blossomed in many directions since we got our degrees, to share her writing process on the tour next week.

Ann Angel is the author of Janis Joplin, Rise Up Singing (Abrams 2010), winner of the American Library Associations' 2010 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award. The book also made Booklist's 2011 Top Ten Biographies for Youth and the 2011 Top Ten Arts Books list. It is a 2011 CCBC Choice Book and received an SCBWI Crystal Kite Award and more. Ann has also written young adult fiction and nonfiction, including the critically acclaimed books Such A Pretty Face: Short Stories about Beauty (Abrams, 2007) and Robert Cormier: Writer of the Chocolate War (Enslow, 2007). In fall, 2013, Ann's biographies of famous adoptees, Adopted Like Me, My Book of Adopted Heroes, was released by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, and her upcoming anthology, Secret Selves, Short Stories About the Secrets We Keep and Share (Candlewick, 2015) will introduce readers to fifteen authors who reveal secrets their characters have tried to lock away. She posts on her blog and contributes to another blog, The Pirate Tree . For more info, take a look at her website:


Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Love this post, Bruce! Especially the part about writing from one's heart, because I learned that from VCFA and it's really hard to stick to it when editors tell you exactly what they're looking for and how they want you to do it.

Bruce Black said...

Lyn, thanks for the helpful feedback. It is hard to keep your heart open, with or without a supportive editor. The best editors, though, have a way of helping a writer open to a new place in the story that wasn't visible without the author-editor exchange. At least that's what I've found.