If you visit the workspace of Joann Early Macken, you’ll find it filled with many of her favorite things, including a lucky pink pig that was a gift from Norma Fox Mazer, one of her advisors at Vermont College, where Macken earned an MFA in writing for children.
That lucky pink pig, along with the skills that she learned while studying for her degree, have helped her write five picture books, including Waiting Out the Storm, Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move, Baby Says “Moo!” and many educational books for children.
Macken can’t always predict where her words will take her when she sets out to write. “Sometimes I know where I’m headed,” she says, “and other times I have to discover the right direction by trial and error.”
Words often come to her when she’s doing something besides writing, such as hanging laundry, chopping vegetables, or taking a walk, so she carries a small pocket notebook and pen to jot down words, phrases, or ideas to remember when she returns to her desk.
Ever since reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Macken says, she heads to her desk each morning to write before getting dressed, “just as soon as the coffee is ready.”
For short projects, such as poems and picture books, Macken admits she prefers writing “longhand in purple ink in a spiral notebook, and I pile up many drafts before I ever put anything on the computer.”
If she’s working on a longer project, however, she needs to work on the computer. “Otherwise, arrows, asterisks, scribbles, and sticky notes take over the pages,” she says, “and I can lose my way.”
Macken follows the advice of Madeleine L’Engle, who found inspiration by doing the work itself, and has learned not to wait for inspiration to strike. “I don’t need to find an idea to start writing,” says Macken. “I need to start writing to find an idea. The act of putting pen to paper helps me discover what I want to say and how to say it.”
In addition to writing, Macken teaches writing courses to a variety of students at the graduate, undergraduate, and continuing education level. Her poems appear in many children’s magazines and anthologies, including the Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations. Her poetry instruction guide Write a Poem Step by Step is based on her writing workshops.
Recently, she was kind enough to take a break from her works-in-progress to share some of her thoughts on writing with wordswimmer.
Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming…how do you get into the water each day?
Macken: Although I try, I don’t manage to write every day. I’ve learned, though, that the longer I stay away, the more I miss it, and the harder it is to plunge back in. That thought, along with general itchiness, usually keeps me from missing too many days in a row.
Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?
Macken: Most of my work is pretty short: picture books, poems, test passages, and educational books for young readers. When I’m really lucky, I’m working on something I can’t wait to get back to. The urge to write is inescapable; I have trouble focusing on anything else. Otherwise, deadlines motivate me. Fear of not living up to a commitment scares me into sticking to a schedule!
Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?
Macken: Morning Pages help. Some days, I can only write about writing. I write about how much I miss my work. I give myself pep talks. I do writing exercises. I make lists of ideas, hoping that one of them will thrill me enough to make me want to dive in again. These days, I’m making an effort to sort through the lists I’ve accumulated over the years in search of ideas that still appeal to me.
Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?
Macken: Keeping the proper perspective. I can get tangled up in the seaweed of doubt. I can succumb to fear or be swept away by distractions. I’ve learned to recognize the inevitable point in almost every project at which I realize I can’t possibly finish what I’ve started. Now I know I need to keep pushing instead of giving up.
Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?
Macken: My only solution is always the same: keep working. Besides, I’m not really alone. I’m lucky to have companions swimming alongside me. My VCFA classmates support me, cheering me on and commiserating as needed. My writing group kindly tells me when I’ve missed the mark. Social media gives me instant connections as well as countless distractions.
Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?
Macken: Being carried along in the flow of words. Once in a while, I hear words or phrases as if they are whispered in my ear. I strive to put myself into listening mode. Walking helps. Gardening helps. Almost any repetitive motion like chopping vegetables or hanging laundry on the line helps. Traveling helps, and so does coming home again.
If you’d like to read more about Macken, visit her web site: www.joannmacken.com
And take a look at the Teaching Authors website where she often blogs: http://www.teachingauthors.com/
And if you’d like to read more interviews with her, visit: