Sunday, December 06, 2015

One Writer’s Process: Mary Ann Rodman

“I come from a family where family stories are told over and over,” says Mary Ann Rodman, who grew up in Washington, DC and lived in Chicago, Illinois before moving to Mississippi in the 1960s (the setting of her autobiographical novel, Yankee Girl), and who now lives in Georgia.

“Instead of a bedtime story of say, Cinderella, I heard such stories as When Mom and Her Siblings Dug a Swimming Pool in the Front Yard When Their Mother Wasn’t Home.”

Her mother and grandmother were the storytellers in her family. “Everything I know about characterization, choosing details, how to move a story from Point A to B to C, I learned from my storytelling family,” says Rodman.

By the time she was seven years old, she had published her first story in a local newspaper, and then she went on to win local and national writing contests. During middle school and high school she became a news columnist for the local paper.

“Different versions of the same stories, as told by my aunts and uncles, taught me point-of-view well before high school (as well as the “unreliable narrator”!),” she says.

It was her love of stories and books that led her to become a school librarian, as well as a desire to make a living (“rather than live in my parents’ basement writing the Great American Unpublished Novel”), and perhaps it was being surrounded by books all day that inspired her to keep writing.

After her husband was transferred to Thailand, she enrolled in the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children program, and two years after becoming a full-time writer she sold her first book, My Best Friend, which Kirkus Reviews praised for Rodman’s ability to capture the feelings of young children “who are just beginning to navigate the labyrinths of friendships.”

Since then she’s written more picture books, including A Tree for Emmy, Roller Coaster Kid, First Grade Stinks, Surprise Soup, and Camp K-9, as well as historical fiction novels such as Jimmy’s Stars and Yankee Girl.

“I have always loved history,” Rodman says, describing some of her history teachers as wonderful. “They saw history as narrative, with characters and story arcs.”

When she sets out to write a story today, she says, she’s always “writing for the eleven-year old I was, and the books I would have wanted to read.”

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

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

Rodman: Swimming as a metaphor for writing is pretty apt in my case because I can barely swim. Despite years of swimming lessons, I never learned the trick of coordinating my breathing with stroking. Anything I do in water either involves a really unattractive backstroke or holding my breath for long periods of time.  Writing is occasionally as easy as floating, but more often I find myself overthinking both swimming and writing. Both take a great deal of effort.

How do I get in the water every day?  I don't. For the last couple of years I've been a member of the "sandwich generation"--an only child caring for an elderly parent and a challenged child in college. Writing takes emotional energy and focus that I can't always achieve, day to day.  If I don't have the time or focus for a solid writing session, I will at least get my feet wet. I research my historical novels.  Or I will read something on craft. Or journal. Or read reviews of what's being published. (I am addicted to Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus Reviews online.)  My mantra is "You are a writer. A writer writes...or at least does something writerly everyday." 

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

Rodman: Hmmm...the only thing I can think of as "short work" are blog entries. I contribute on a rotating basis to This one kind of writing I don't overthink.  As a result, I can finish in a couple of hours without breathing hard. 

I am not a "rapid" writer. Even my picture books can take me years and years of fiddling with them, trying to discover what the story is really about. My short story, "Farang"  (in the YA anthology, Such a Pretty Face, edited by Ann Angel) took me nine months, writing in bits and pieces, five minutes at a time. "Farang" is about a strange and stressful time of my life. The story was fully formed in my head, but I could only write a little at a time before I would have a panic attack. Panic attacks are not good for writing!

What keeps me going?  My characters nag at me, "Hurry up already. We have a story to be told. Finish it up. Get us out in the world." I am finally going back to my first YA historical novel after a five year break, a book I began in 2001. Those characters are waking me up at night. I need sleep!

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells? 

Rodman: Realizing they exist, and to not obsess about them. Like a mother who has just given birth and immediately wants to become pregnant again, my first instinct on finishing a novel is to jump right into another one, without a breather. Sometimes the well is just dry.  In dry spells is when I am most conscientious about journaling. I try to observe at least one thing a day that is worth recording. An odd comment overheard in the Old Navy checkout line ("And then he dragged my grandmother's table out in the yard and set fire to it!" What? Why? Journal entry!) or a clown in full costume and make-up, standing at the bus stop at four in the afternoon.  Or a smell like fresh lavender, which always reminds me of my grandmother. The feel of velvet, the taste of homemade chocolate pudding will uncover childhood memories. Eventually, one of those observations will take root, and the dry spell is over.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Rodman: Fear! I am a much more confident writer than I am a swimmer, but there is always the Voice of Negativity yelling at me. "This is a stupid story."  "Who would want to read this?" "You aren't skillful enough to write this story." Swallowing my fear of both swimming and writing is hardest for me.

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

Rodman: I try not to swim totally alone.  I have a critique group and a large circle of writer friends who can give feedback or help brainstorm. However, in the end, we are all swimming alone with our stories.  Again, I try not to obsess and overthink about my obstacles. Those are usually first draft obstacles. Once I slog through the first draft, revision is pure pleasure. The foundation is laid. I can relax and enjoy shaping my story. 

But there are times when my story hits a wall. I may know what happens later in the story, but not what comes next. Or an unanticipated research detail pops up…and I’ll type several rows of large red X's, which signals "There is a scene missing here, but I don't know what it is." Then I will skip on to whatever part of the story is currently in my brain. I don't write in order, going from the first chapter to the last. Sometimes I write the end of the story. I often start novels in the middle and work backwards and forwards, always red X'ing what I know is missing. When I come back to those X's weeks or even months later, somehow my subconscious has filled in what was missing.

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

Rodman: I enjoy getting to know my characters and setting.  I "live" with a story in my head for at least a year before I try to write it down. I do make notes as ideas come to me, but I don't try to bring it all together too soon. Rushing a story is the surest way for me to kill what might have been a great idea, by not having enough "stuff" in my head to pull it all together.  I research their world, whether it is WWII Pittsburgh (Jimmy's Stars) or a contemporary kindergarten classroom (First Grade Stinks). When I feel as though I know the setting and characters as well as my own town and family, I begin. (And then the hard part starts again...the beginning.)

For more information about Mary Ann Rodman, visit her Facebook page: or the Teaching Authors page where she blogs with fellow writers:

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