As an author, poet, and chronicler—and clinical social worker—my writing tends to explore social-emotional learning (SEL). While I deeply value the STEM and STEAM frameworks (and poetry and stories!) my own commitment and abilities lean toward creating work that handles issues that promote and build on SEL, without which STEM and STEAM learning cannot thrive.
I love exploring writers’ and illustrators’ inner lives—what builds and maintains emotional resilience? How do we navigate, surmount, and recover from all ‘sizes’ of obstacles? How does an author’s or illustrator’s own internal process and state of mind intertwine with the narrative arc of her work?
When I ask these questions in an interview, the kind of responses I received from Lisa Jenn Bigelow feel like a gift to readers. We learn from one another’s openness. We take strength from the honesty that leaves us feeling less alone.
CCG: Lisa, what can you share about your own “inner” journey as you write? Are there ups and downs, and if so, what aspect of the writing do they seem to relate to? And if you experience them, can you share how you tend to handle them?
Plotter? Pantser? “Blunderer!”
Some writers call themselves “plotters” or “pantsers” when it comes to process. I’m more of a blunderer. I vaguely know where I’m going, but it’s a three steps forward / two steps back operation. I spend much of the first draft in a state of high uncertainty, which causes me emotional and even physical discomfort. I do get excited about the promise of a new story! But for peace of mind, I much prefer revision to drafting.
I have trouble keeping a daily writing routine or making word count goals. I have trouble compartmentalizing, so I can’t write much when I’m experiencing a lot of stress in “real life,” which is often. Nor am I one of those writers who can simply push through a block.
I find journaling helpful when I’m stuck. I start by stating the problem. Then I add at least one idea about how to solve it.
Keeping Options Open
I like to start sentences with “maybe” because there’s no illusion of certainty, no pressure to follow through on the idea. A “maybe” is never right or wrong. It’s a possibility when I’m feeling at a loss for possibilities.
Once I write one “maybe,” chances are other “maybes” will follow. Usually one turns out to be a plausible solution. If not, maybe I just need a break. A break for a day, or a week, or a month—whatever it takes.
Above all, I try never to scold or punish myself for being “lazy” or “undisciplined,” no matter how long the project is taking me. That only causes despair, when what you need more than anything when you’re crafting a story is hope.
You need to be disciplined to write a book, but you also need to be kind to yourself.
CCG: Have you faced a really difficult time in your career that seemed to threaten your persistence and resilience as a writer? Can you talk about what strengths you bring to the table that helped you decide how to handle this experience?
A Not Uncommon Reality
There was a six-year gap between the publication of my first and second novels. My personal life had undergone some serious upheaval around the time I finished the first, and it took a great emotional toll on me. Meanwhile, my publisher had been purchased by Amazon, which meant many bookstores didn’t want to stock my book, which was discouraging to say the least. I kept writing, but nothing came easily.
I wrote multiple novels that my agent kindly but correctly criticized as ill-conceived or inexpertly executed. The flaws felt too overwhelming to fix, so I simply moved on to the next project.
I’m not sure how long this cycle might have continued if, largely out of frustration, I hadn’t decided to return to a shelved project, a middle grade novel about a girl with a crush on another girl she meets at camp—a novel that became, after many years of submissions and revisions, my middle grade debut, Drum Roll, Please (HarperCollins, 2018).
It’s Not Just ‘Belief’
My takeaway from the experience was not that you “just gotta believe”—that if you’re patient and faithful, your dream will someday come true.
Don’t get me wrong. Patience and faith are essential. Nobody will ever believe in your book as much as you do. Nobody will ever care about your career as much as you do. But other qualities are important, too.
One is humility: the acceptance that we and our writing are flawed, and that we do not always know best. I’m thinking specifically of a willingness to listen to and work with constructive criticism, not from just anyone, but from trusted colleagues who want to help us do our very best writing.
They may point out flaws that don’t seem like flaws to us, and they may suggest solutions that don’t ring true to us. But if they’re telling us, “This doesn’t feel right,” we need to humbly consider that the reason we’re failing is because we need to keep working.
Another important quality is a willingness to surrender. We need to accept the possibility that our manuscript will fail—whether because the world isn’t ready for it, or because our writing is not ready for the world, or both—and, if it happens, set the project aside and move on to our next endeavor.
We will discover new stories, but only if we leave space in our hearts and minds for them to emerge. Leaving that space also allows us to return to shelved manuscripts with fresh feeling and perspective.
And then there’s love. Love for ourselves—allowing ourselves to grieve our failures, to take time to rest, and to forgive ourselves for not being perfect.
And love for our stories, because whether or not they “succeed,” they are special.
CCG: Do you feel these strengths were inborn, Lisa? Or have you discovered or created them as you’ve grown and gone through the vicissitudes of life?
Ha! I struggle immensely with feelings of failure. I’m stingy with self-compassion. I’m a driven person with very high expectations for myself. I hate to fail, and I’m not naturally inclined to be kind to myself when I do. But as I’ve mentioned, I’ve learned over time that judging myself harshly for my shortcomings does nothing to motivate me. Quite the opposite. Between the carrot and the stick, the carrot wins every time.
The trick is remembering to throw the stick away and bring out the carrot. It helps to have friends and family I can reach out to for a reminder.
I’m very prideful. It’s difficult and embarrassing to ask for help, especially when the help I need is an ego boost. But if I can’t convince myself of my own self-worth, it’s time to call in back-up.
Hazel’s Theory of Evolution
CCG: Lisa, while I found myself immediately fond of Hazel, I fell in love with her during the course of the book. As I asked myself what was so engaging and lovely about her, I kept hearing this phrase in my head: She’s comfortable with herself. Hazel seems comfortable with her strengths, with her vulnerabilities, with what she knows and what she doesn’t know, and (maybe most notably) with her discomforts.
She faces plenty of relationship issues (questions, ups and downs, role-negotiation, etc.) with a variety of peers, her moms, and a sibling and has lots of feelings. But she notices and experiences the feelings, her reaction to the changes in her life and the lives of those she cares for, without getting stuck in judgmental questioning of the feelings. Even if she ‘freaks out,’ she doesn’t freak out about freaking out. For me, this is such an important strength.
I believe this enables Hazel to keep carrying on with a certain centeredness and maturity that is simply beautiful. It doesn’t keep her inner journey calm, but it keeps her grounded (and therefore keeps the reader grounded too, I believe, feeling that we believe this girl will be able to handle whatever comes her way, even when she feels she can’t.)
Even when Hazel feels out of control, the response does not render her dysfunctional. And she is fairly easily soothed, and doesn’t continue to torture herself about the experience, but is able to bounce back and move ahead.
So: what was it like for you to write this kind of character? Was it a deliberate choice, or did it happen organically as the story unfolded and/or you revised? (Or maybe you don’t even agree with me?) Is there a part of you that is “in” the character? Does Hazel have strengths you have, or wish you had?
The Birth and Development of Hazel
Thank you for asking these questions. Creating Hazel as a character who is, as you say, comfortable with herself was absolutely a deliberate choice from the beginning.
I think we’re accustomed to the narrative of a character who starts out measuring their own worth based on the approval of others, and gradually learns to accept themselves as they are. It’s a valuable narrative that reflects many people’s experience.
But I wanted to tell a different story with Hazel. She’s accepted one version of herself, but what she hasn’t yet faced is this realization that she will inevitably change. She doesn’t understand that she can change and grow while remaining true to herself. That she is not becoming a different person but a more mature, capable, and even authentic version of herself.
An Important Aspect of ‘Heart’
In some ways, Hazel is my most “me” character yet.
I drew on my feelings as a young person who simultaneously was hungry for acceptance, the way everyone is, but who also firmly believed that I shouldn’t have to change who I was in order to win it.
Like Hazel, I was very lucky to have a family who loved me unconditionally. When you experience unconditional love, you have proof that it’s okay to be exactly who you are. You feel righteous and confident that bullies, not you, are the one with a problem.
Another great thing about self-acceptance is it allows you to accept others more easily. That is probably my favorite thing about Hazel. Being comfortable with herself allows her to accept others where they are (with the notable exception of her best friend—best friends aren’t allowed to change!). Hazel doesn’t believe anyone, animal or human, needs to be useful or even pleasant to be important. Everyone has a right to exist and be themselves, assuming they’re not out to hurt anyone.
The Gift of Creating Characters Who Have What We Didn’t
It’s taken me a lot longer in my life to approach the level of comfort with myself that Hazel possesses at age thirteen. I’ve been using the “fake it till you make it” approach, working more on principle than solid self-assurance. Again, like Hazel, I’ve had trouble accepting that I can and will change throughout my life, again and again, and that things that once “fit” may not “fit” forever.
I’ve always had a tendency to over-analyze things, myself included. Weaning myself from that tendency and trying to offer myself the kind of acceptance I expect from and give to others, allowing my questions to exist without demanding so many answers, has helped me reach greater peace. I dream of catching up with Hazel someday. Maybe when I’m ninety-six.
CCG: Lisa, thank you so much for sharing yourself in this honest, wonderfully intense, and deeply heartfelt interview. I wish you all the best for Hazel’s Theory of Evolution, and all your future work!
Michigan native Lisa Jenn Bigelow is the critically acclaimed author of the middle grade novels Hazel’s Theory of Evolution (HarperCollins, 2019) and Drum Roll, Please (HarperCollins, 2018), an Illinois Reads selection and Michigan Notable Book; and the young adult novel Starting from Here (Skyscape, 2012), an ALA Rainbow List Top Ten Book.
A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she serves as a youth librarian in the Chicago suburbs during her non-writing hours.
Carol Coven Grannick is an author, poet, and chronicler.
Her debut middle grade novel in verse, Reeni’s Turn (Fitzroy Books, September, 2020) handles issues of courage, self-awareness, and self-acceptance in the context of preteen body changes and the high percentage of dieting in younger children.
Her poetry and fiction for young children appears/is forthcoming in Ladybug, Babybug, Highlights, Hello, and Hunger Mountain.