Sunday, October 11, 2015

One Writer’s Process: Fran Manushkin

Before becoming a writer, Fran Manushkin had the idea that books came to life inside an author’s head fully made and that an author simply wrote them down “lickety split.”

But then she started writing and discovered that notion simply wasn’t true.

"Books develop according to their own time,” she says. “You cannot dictate that a book be born; neither can you dictate to a book. Listen. Really listen, and your book will speak."

Manushkin’s picture books, early readers, and stories about Jewish holidays have been speaking to generations of children in ways that have enriched their lives and imaginations for the past forty-three years.

Beginning with her first book, Baby, Come Out!, which appeared in 1972, and most recently with her book about diverse families, Happy in Our Skin, and her latest Katie Woo books, she’s written dozens of books that have touched the hearts of the children (and adults) who read them.

Manushkin never set out to become a writer. Born in Chicago, she graduated from college, earned a teaching certificate, and became a substitute teacher. But after four months, she decided what she really wanted was to live in New York.

So she left Chicago for Manhattan and, thanks to a lucky meeting with Ezra Jack Keats, learned of an editorial assistant’s opening in Harper & Row’s Department of Books For Boys and Girls. That’s how she began a career in publishing, working with two of Harper & Row’s most illustrious children’s book editors, Ursula Nordstrom and Charlotte Zolotow.

It was Charlotte, says Manushkin, who encouraged her to write a book, and once she started, she couldn’t stop.

"Whether you know it or not, every book you write is about yourself," Manushkin says.

“Don't be nervous if you've started writing something but don't know where it is going—be willing to discover the book as it evolves."

She was kind enough to take time from her works-in-progress and her love of bird watching to share her thoughts about writing with Wordswimmer.

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

Manushkin: I remind myself that writing is what I do—that it’s important—just as important as enjoying the park and bird watching. Having a book contract is definitely motivating! 

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

 Manushkin: What keeps me afloat is making any progress whatsoever on a story. I only write short books, so if I get one new line or one new idea in a day’s work, I’m thrilled. I write one step at a time and measure progress in small steps. They are satisfying, and add up to a story I can love.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells? 

Manushkin: Sometimes I do stop swimming for a while. When I’m really stuck, I give myself brief vacations: I watch a lot of episodic TV, go to the park and bird watch, and go to a museum. I also eat a lot.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Manushkin: The hardest part is whether to give up on a story that isn’t working or to keep going. I have wasted a lot of time pursuing stories that should’ve been written by others. This happens when I begin with a theme rather than with a wonderful image or a rhythmic line or an intriguing character. But it should be said that my very stubbornness has also allowed me to plow through difficult days and come out with a workable story. I think I’ve solved an intractable problem this week!

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

Manushkin: I don’t feel good about myself if I’m not pursuing a story. I lack a center and a purpose. My problem is that I swim alone too much. I should be showing my stories to others for critiques sooner than I do. I used to have a fine critique group, but it dissolved because of illness and other factors, and I really should find another that meets on a weekly basis.

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

Manushkin: The part I love the most is making a story work! It’s thrilling to start with nothing and end up with something the world has never seen. As my god, Sondheim, says: “Look, I made a hat—where there never was a hat.” I don’t send out a story until I’ve fallen in love with it. I know it’s true love when the lines and rhythms remain with me, and I find myself chanting them as I walk down the street. 

For more info on Manushkin and her work, visit her website:

And here’s a link to her most recent book, Happy in Our Skin:

If you’d like to read more about her, check out these sites:

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