“I believe in sharing our stories,” says Phyllis Root, who has spent a lifetime perfecting the art of writing for children, “so that we feel a little less lonely in this world.”
Her deep desire to share stories first struck her in fifth grade, Root recalls, but it wasn’t until college that she discovered a shelf of picture books in the corner of the library and knew she wanted to write for children and “have a part in making such amazing and beautiful books.”
Years later she took a class with Newbery Award-winning author Marion Dane Bauer and discovered that she could indeed write for children.
“After Marion’s class, I worked for five hours every morning at my old typewriter, writing stories, doing exercises, typing in the texts of books I admired,” Root says, although admitting that she has “never again been quite as disciplined as those early years when I wrote for hours every day.”
With the discipline and craftsmanship that she learned in those early years, she has produced more than thirty titles for young readers, from silly, comic tales like One Windy Wednesday, Kiss the Cow, and Rattletrap Car to trickster tales like Aunt Nancy and Old Man Trouble to more thoughtful tales like The Name Quilt, Oliver Finds His Way, Sam Who Was Swallowed by a Shark, Grandmother Winter, and Big Momma Makes the World. Indeed, her versatility, resilience, determination, and joy in life and in telling stories can take a reader’s breath away.
Root isn’t shy about admitting that her writing process is very messy. She’ll write pages and pages of the worst writing, she explains, because “all writing is practice,” and practice makes her a better writer ... and a better person. “I’m much nicer when I’ve been writing,” she says, “than when I’ve been avoiding it.”
But it’s in the very messiness of the process that Root finds the chance to play with language and rhythm and to dig into the past for voices from her childhood, a time in her life when she spent weeks each summer with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents on a farm in southern Illinois. It was “the closest place to heaven that I knew,” Root says, and she returns often to that farm and the rich memories and stories of her childhood for inspiration in her work today.
After teaching at Vermont College’s MFA in Writing for Children program for eight years, Root now teaches in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline University in St Paul, just a few minutes drive from her home.
Recently, she was kind enough to take a few minutes from her busy schedule to share her thoughts on writing.
Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming... how do you get into the water every day?
Root: Some days I don’t swim at all, some days I jump gleefully off the dock into the water, most days I just dip my toes, ease in gradually, and splash in the shallows. Those are the days I want to write and don’t want to write, or the days when I’m afraid of the blank page. A friend taught me the trick of saying I’m only going to write for seven minutes (five minutes is too brief a time to get going, ten might be too overwhelming of a commitment), and whenever I do those seven minutes I find am in the water, if not swimming at least splashing around, and I keep writing. The days I leap gleefully off the dock are, sadly, fewer and further between than I’d like.
Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat for short work, for longer work?
Root: Most of my work is short work (picture books), which doesn’t mean they take a short amount of time. What keeps me afloat for them is several things. One is the ability to work on shorter pieces in my head, an ability I worked to develop when I had two small children and no time to sit down and write. Also, my friends keep me afloat, fellow writers who know how hard this strange, difficult, dangerous thing we do is. Knowing that this is my job helps (if I don’t write, I don’t have a prayer of getting paid for writing), and a sense of professionalism, of wanting to do the best job I can, helps me float. But when all else fails, I go back to the beginning, to writing for an audience of one and no one else. To putting words on paper, no matter how silly or shallow, because that is what I have always wanted to do. I go back to practicing writing, and isn’t all writing really just practice?
For longer work, I need to make a commitment to the work and find longer stretches of uninterrupted time (which I think of as psychic space) to keep coming back to the work, to honor it, to know that if I don’t tell Lilly’s or Rose’s or Little Bert’s stories no one will because no one else knows it. Longer work takes me an inordinately long time –one short novel every ten years on average. And, as always, friends and fellow writers help.
I also take great comfort from Anne Lamott’s permission to write the worst garbage I can write. When I set that as my goal, I never disappoint myself.
Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?
Root: Any water will do. I set myself exercises and practice pieces. I wander freely and randomly among words. I take a story I admire by another author, deconstruct it, see how she or he put the story together, try to write one along the same pattern. And, of course, friends and fellow writers.
Wordswimmer: What’s the hardest part of swimming?
Root: Believing I can float and that I won’t drown.
Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?
Root: I never swim alone. Even when I am bottled up in my office, bottled up in my writing, in my mind I am in the company of people who are far greater and far better writers than I will ever be. Thinking of my writer friends, their hard work, their generous hearts, their love of writing keeps me afloat. And thinking of great writers I will never know reminds me, humbly, of the company we keep.
Wordswimmer: What’s the part of swimming you love most?
Root: The excitement of a new idea, of trying to make it take shape on the page, of trying this and that to see what happens, to see what the idea might become, how it will change as I work on it, how the writing might change me (a sea change) as well.
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