Sunday, July 09, 2006

One Writer's Process: Cynthia Leitich Smith

A tribal member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Cynthia Leitich Smith writes with sensitivity, humor, and compassion about the struggle that is sometimes necessary to remain true to one's self and one's heritage, probing in her work the sometimes awkward, sometimes wonderful, often challenging place where two cultures intersect.

An award-winning author (Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, and Rain Is Not My Indian Name), Cynthia teaches writing for children and young adults at Vermont College. In her forthcoming books, Santa Knows (Dutton, September, 2006), and Tantalize (Candlewick, March 2007), she sets off in new directions, exploring her growing interest in children's and YA fantasy--both humorous and gothic.

Cynthia was kind enough to take a moment from her work to share her thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.

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

CLS: I have to step away from my office. Maybe that sounds counter-intuitive, but my office is the place where I do e-mail, interviews, correspondence, read listservs, blog, talk on the phone, and, generally, do the business of life.

To write, I escape with research books, printed articles, my laptop, my latest draft of my work-in-progress, and my notes--both on yellow, lined pads and in little journals. I go to either the sunroom downstairs, and sometimes put on music that fits the mood of the scene, or to my bedroom suite. I have one of those snazzy lap desks from Restoration Hardware, which helps, along with a glass of iced tea and a cat or four. Once settled, I often have to read a while, sink back into the story, before I can begin scribbling or tapping on the keyboard.

Historically, I've written rough drafts only between one and four a.m., but my husband claims to miss me, so I'm trying to shift to earlier hours, though the night always helps.

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

Short work for me (picture books and short stories) is more like solving a puzzle. I may take breaks while my mind is spinning, trying to find the right solution for that piece, but once it clicks, I dive in and revise and revise and revise until every word's just right. Longer works are different. I generally toss the first draft. It's whole purpose is just to acclimate to the water. Then I struggle to stay in the floating place until I have a whole draft that's in good enough shape to knead. I call that the "second first draft." Then I become obsessive, and it's hard for me to quit to do anything else.

How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Reading fuels me, as does teaching and critiquing. I fill myself with words until they begin to spill out again.

What's the hardest part of swimming?

Drowning out intrusive voices and competing concerns. The world wants the product but won't always get out of the way of the process. This is especially true of those parts of the world that aren't themselves primarily concerned with the creative.

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

It's interesting that you ask that because it occurs to me that I'm seldom, if ever, alone. Even when I've taken big risks, I've always had other writers on my side, offering encouragement, standing steadfast in their belief in me.

Wordswimmer: In your new work, you appear to be swimming in new directions... away from your native roots. Are you nervous about your newest explorations?

CLS: I've actually published non-Indian short fiction, so it's not really the first time, though, of course, there's more career stake in a book. As a writer, it's important for me to grow, and the only way I can do that is by taking risks, trying new things. As an individual, I've always had diverse interests and reading tastes. It's fun to explore those sides of me.

That said, I've already had a couple of people offer a less than enthusiastic response to my branching out, mostly because there's such a need for quality, authentic Native literature. My feeling, though, is that I'll become a better writer this way, which will benefit my Native as well as non-Native work, and I'll also diffuse stereotypes by refusing to be one.

Wordswimmer: What can you tell us about these new waters?

CLS: My upcoming picture book, Santa Knows, grows from my love of holidays. It's a juxtaposition of the classic Santa imagery against modern sensibilities. This swimming was a synchronized sport as it's the first book I've co-authored with my husband, Greg.

In contrast, Tantalize dives to dangerous depths. It's my upper YA debut, born from a long-time love of gothic fantasy. The story is lush, romantic, chilling, and funny. It's also my first set in central Texas and guaranteed to upset my mama. I'm swimming in blood with this one.

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

The steady, day-by-day, hour-by-hour strokes that get me from beginning to end, and those moments when the sun shines down into the water and I realize I'm going just the right way.

For more information about Cynthia Leitich Smith and her work, check out her website at (named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer's Digest and an ALA Great Website for Kids).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for doing the interview with Wordswimmer, Cynthia. It's always inspiring to read about the approaches, insights, and disciplines of successful writers and it's great that you take the time to share these things with your writers' community. Good luck in your YA debut; that's my central focus.