Profiles of Persistence: Lisa Bierman, Meredith Davis, and Jill Donaldson on Committing Long-Term to Children’s Writing

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Part One: The Writer’s Heart

Many hard-working, committed, persistent, and resilient writers forge ahead with their writing journeys in spite of obstacles, disappointments, “almost-there” moments and plenty of what I call “Beautiful, buts.”

This two-part interview explores the experience of being a long-time, determined writer who has not yet had a book published.

Writers Lisa Bierman, Meredith Davis, and Jill Donaldson hail from different parts of the United States, and have different personalities, habits, writing choices, and ways of shoring up resilience. But one thing they have in common is this: nothing will deter them from continuing to write and submit their stories.

Our writing journeys vary in results, but all of us, whether published or not-yet-published, know that the joy is in the journey.

As you reflect on your writer’s journey, what are the major “bumps” or obstacles you’ve encountered (internal as well as external), and how have you managed to handle them while still remaining committed? 

Meredith: The biggest, most persistent bump is what I’ve perceived as failure – failure to achieve goals, find an agent, get published by the time I was forty.

The fallacy in this thinking was that I based those goals on others’ achievements. Once I recognized what I was doing, I readjusted my success barometer.

As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

I began to trust that I was on a path designed just for me, and all those things I wanted – the agent and the publishing contract and the awards will come at the right time.

I can’t force it, and don’t want to force it.
I continue moving forward, writing and editing and submitting. I count the bumps and hurdles of rejections as part of the journey that will make an even better story to tell in the end.

What’s a story without some tension? I remind myself that the journey is just as important as the destination.

Lisa Bierman

Lisa: I have had many time periods when I did very little writing, and [these periods] could last months.

The biggest internal barrier for me has always been the lack of an imposed deadline. 

External events – a lot of family health issues – have intervened over the years as well.
Having fellow writers I adore motivates me to keep returning to manuscripts.

Nothing beats the fun of having a character you begin to love or a string of rhyming stanzas that are really coming together.

Another factor that has helped me is that I often have new story ideas, and I enjoy brainstorming, but I’ve also learned that pursuing ideas that don’t have enough unique qualities can turn into unproductive time.

Jill: I started learning the craft of writing for children and teens in 1999 when I joined SCBWI. I found my writing soulmates and joined a critique group.

A few years in, one of my picture book manuscripts caught the eye of an editor at Random House and we went through several revisions. At that time, Random House merged with several other companies and my editor lost her job. The new editor did not do picture books, so my heart was broken. [A part of me felt like giving up, but instead] I began focusing on magazines and novels.

Not long after, my first article appeared in AppleSeeds.

Many of my other “bumps” have been external. Around that time, my family and I moved to Missouri for my husband’s job. Over the next six years, we moved three times, I continued to raise two active sons, complete my bachelor’s degree, and work full-time.

In 2011, we settled back home in Oklahoma, and I reconnected with old friends and my critique group and started taking my writing career seriously again. In 2015, a tornado damaged our house, and we were homeless for nine months.

In 2016, I faced a big emotional obstacle – the fear of losing my oldest son, who had joined the military and was deployed to war zones.

But I continued to volunteer for SCBWI throughout all of this time.

Oklahoma SCBWI Regional Team Jill Donaldson (regional advisor), Jerry Bennett (illustrator coordinator), Anna Myers (regional advisor emeritus), SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver and Helen Newton (former regional advisor).

I learned to channel frustration, fear, happiness, and peace into my stories, and that has given me the strength to persist in my passion of writing.

I am so happy that I have never given up or quit writing because I recently signed with Stephanie Hansen at Metamorphosis Literary Agency.

What are your top three pieces of advice for developing and maintaining the resilience necessary to persist in a difficult business? 

Lisa:

  1. Remember how many fine writers have a fat rejection file. Probably all of them.
  2. We are told that the publishing industry is highly competitive, and it is. But make peace with the fact that some published books will seem unworthy to you, and you might puzzle endlessly about why certain books “made the cut.” I suggest you focus on the books you are jealous of, that make you swoon. What can you learn from those lovely books? Probably a lot.
  3. Only write things that you really enjoy thinking about.

Jill:

  1. Connect and develop relationships with other kid lit writers and illustrators.
  2. Work at maintaining a balanced lifestyle, so your creativity is at its max when you sit down to write or illustrate.
  3. Keep your mind and heart open to learn and create in new ways. It is soul-satisfying when you have a breakthrough in your writing or illustrating.

Meredith:

  1. Keep reading. Great books continue to remind me why I’m writing and pursuing publication. I want to share stories and move others with my words the same way I’m moved by great writing.
  2. Keep learning. It’s part of the fun of being a writer. It’s exciting to try a new plotting technique or go to graduate school or attend a conference. I’m not just a writer so that I can have a published book. I’m a writer because I actually enjoy writing, and when I learn new things my writing improves. It’s like a woodworker using a new saw or a computer programmer learning a new language. Learning gives me tools to explore new ways of writing and keeps my process fresh.
  3. Keep nurturing relationships with other writers. The relationships I’ve made with other writers are life-giving. They encourage me and they inspire me. Other writers edit my work and they help me navigate the ups and downs of the writing life. They understand how hard it can be, so they can celebrate or commiserate authentically.

E.B. White writes of Charlotte,

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”

These relationships are precious.

How do you handle questions about “what is out on submission” (from writing colleagues) or “what have you published?” (from non-writer acquaintances) 

Meredith’s writing community: Anne Bustard (seated),
Meredith, Betty X. Davis, Kathi Appelt and Jane Peddicord.

Meredith: For a long time I didn’t tell people outside my writing circle that I wrote children’s books, but it was hard to stay incognito. I wrote Christmas letters and blog posts and long emails.

People told me they liked my writing, and so I got brave. I began to admit that I wrote children’s books, too, and then came the inevitable question.

Sometimes it was the double whammy: “Where can I buy them?” They assumed not only that I was published, but that I was published many times. As if that is no big deal!

Sometimes I try to explain about publishing, how it’s hard, editors move, the market is fickle, and I’m an unknown. But when I see eyes begin to glaze, I realize a quick “I’m not published yet, but I’m working on it,” works just fine.

Usually whomever I’m talking to has already moved on to new topics of conversation. Non-writers don’t realize they’ve exposed our insecurities, but other writers understand how hard it is and don’t judge.

The children’s writers I’ve met are kind and generous and they’re often rooting for me. We are a friendly bunch, so I try not to be intimidated and keep Dorie’s mantra from “Finding Nemo” playing on repeat in my head: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”

I move on, and, “Just keep writing, just keep
writing.”

Lisa: I give very brief answers. I’m honest. I’ll say that I’ve been beating my head
against the wall.

Jill: When I’m asked about submissions, I try to make it an opportunity to pitch my current work. Their reactions or lack thereof is helpful in knowing how I can be better.

When I’m asked about what I have published, I let them know what success I have had and then tell them that I don’t have any books published yet.

Part Two: Writing Craft


What are your favorite resources for improving your writing skills? 

Lisa’s favorite craft books.

Lisa: Reading books in my genre – that’s the most fun way to improve my own work. When I see a picture book that is clever and delights me, it can also help me think, “I have concepts that are as good as these…My voice is similar…,” and those are the times I get excited again and want to keep the fire going.

Jill: I try to attend as many kid lit related critique meetings, writing workshops, and webinars as possible.

Meredith: I love a good conference or workshop, when I am surrounded by creative people and inspired by either a lecture or a writing exercise, but perhaps the most helpful tool for me is a story well told. It can be a book, a movie, a podcast, even a grandma at the dinner table.

I love trying to figure out what makes a story work, and then trying it out in my own work. What builds tension? How to best set up a scene? How to paint a character so she seems real? My favorite books are all marked up and highlighted with notes for what works and what doesn’t.

What strategies (internal and external) do you use for improving your craft?

Meredith: My best “honing” happens during revision. One of the most important things I can do to revise well is to leave my manuscript alone for a while.

When it’s time for a big revision, I need some space to gain perspective and let go of some of the details I can’t seem to pry my fingers off of when it’s still close and present and on my mind daily.

Internally, this means filling up with someone else’s words, reading a book that’s so good it distracts me from my work.

Externally, it means going out and engaging in the real world for a while, meeting a friend for coffee or lunch. This makes no sense. How can I be working on my craft by ignoring it? It works because when I come back to it, I see it through new eyes.

Sometimes I’ll try laying a construct on it, like Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder (Michael Wiese, 2005) or the “snowflake method” or the “sticky-note method” or whatever fun plotting game has come across my radar.

I look at my story as a puzzle instead of precious words I’ve woven together. Honing implies detail work, and getting to the root of what makes a scene and an entire story work. This can only be done with an objective eye, and I’m most objective when my affections are no longer entirely focused on my manuscript.

Jill: I study recently published kid lit books, create an organized comfortable working space, and play wordless music.

Lisa: Getting feedback as often as I can afford to, money-wise and time-wise.

What craft advice would you give to beginning writers?

Lisa: It takes a very long time for most of us to develop to a truly professional level.

You must enjoy the actual writing, not just the idea of having a book to sell. Don’t stay wedded to an idea too long, especially if an editor tells you in a critique that they see a lot of similar stories. If you’re going to do a common book theme, like a bedtime book, ya gotta shoot for being better than Jane Yolen

Meredith: Light a candle. You can get really caught up with word count and how many pages you’ve written in a day, but the most important thing is making progress.

Meredith’s writing space with lit candle.

We kid ourselves if progress only means meeting a designated and arbitrary word count. Sometimes progress looks like staring out the window or scribbling ideas on notecards or even deleting a bunch of pages that no longer work but were necessary to write to figure out your story.

This is all progress, though it may feel unsatisfying without physical proof of a hard day’s work.

My advice is to put a candle on a plate and light it when you start paying attention to your manuscript.

Measure your progress by the puddle of wax that accumulates instead of word count. You’ll have a physical manifestation of the time you’ve spent with your work in progress.

When someone asks how your writing went that day, you can proudly (and cryptically) reply, “about the size of a salad plate.”

Jill: First, learn about the different kid-lit industry standards.

Second, learn about yourself. What are your writing strengths and weaknesses? Focus on improving your weakness. For example, if you don’t have a good grasp of grammar rules, then teach yourself with workbooks, online classes, and tutorials.

Third, train yourself to take and give constructive critique about your manuscript. Even the master writer, Jane Yolen said, “It’s never perfect when I write it down the first time, or the second time, or the fifth time. But it always gets better as I go over it and over it.”

Thanks to Lisa, Jill, and Meredith for sharing so much about your inner journeys and your thoughts about commitment to your craft! 


As short or as long as our journeys are, it’s so important to call ourselves by our name – Writer – and to stay focused on the work, challenge, and joy of telling the stories we hold in our hearts and minds as beautifully as we can.


Cynsational Breaking News & Notes

Meredith Davis has sold what will become her debut book, Chance Comes Once, co-authored by Rebeka Uwitonze, to Scholastic.

Meredith founded the Austin chapter of SCBWI in 1995, the same year her daughter was born. She birthed an additional two children in subsequent years, worked in an independent children’s bookstore, and earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes middle grade and picture books, fiction and narrative nonfiction, and looks forward to announcing her first book contract, a product of many puddles of wax. In the featured photo, she is shown with Betty X. DavisAnne BustardKathi Appelt, and Jane Peddicord.

Lisa Bierman spent 17 years as a marketing research analyst. Then she had two sons who, thankfully, did not want to hear the same picture books over and over.

Lisa was hooked on the beauty and possibilities in the world of kids’ books. She has written (and not published) many picture book and chapter book manuscripts. Her poetry has appeared in kids’ magazines.

Meanwhile, she has done freelance business writing, volunteered extensively for SCBWI-Illinois, for local public schools and for AYSO soccer.

Jillene Donaldson (Jill) creates stories for children and teens and is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Inc.

She grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma with three siblings, several dogs, and a cat that climbed walls. She’s had run-ins with a mean bull, an electric fence, monster dogs, toe-eating mice, and bullies who once double-dog dared her to eat a white grub, which she did.

Jill graduated as valedictorian; completed an AA in English Literature for which she won the Geraldine Burns Award for Excellence in English; and then earned a BA all while working full time and raising two awesome boys with her husband.

She loves putting frozen fruit in drinks and most anything with cheese or chocolate. She lives with her husband in Oklahoma City.

Carol Coven Grannick writes picture books, poetry and middle grade fiction. Her work has appeared in Cricket, Ladybug, Highlights and Hunger Mountain.

Her middle grade novel-in-verse manuscript, “Reeni’s Turn,” addresses body image-issues for the younger audience, and won an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Sydney Taylor Manuscript competition. It also was a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Award from Hunger Mountain.

Carol chronicles the writer’s inner journey with a focus on resilience for Cynsations and the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.

See her previous posts: Let’s Make a Plan: Reminders from Early Childhood Education; Life, Writing & A Word In Praise of Emotional Safety; Into the Scary for the Sake of Joy; and Does Expecting the Worst Make You a Pessimist? Confessions of a Learned Optimist.

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick: Let’s Make a Plan: Reminders from Early Childhood Education

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I walk into a classroom at the extraordinary early childhood center where I work, and watch a teacher kneeling or sitting at the height of one of her two-year-olds, one hand holding his, eyes meeting eyes.

Noah, I can see you’re having a hard time finding a way to play with Ari. Let’s make a plan for how you can do this. You could either play with a different toy, or wait until your friend finishes. Which one would you like to choose?

I get goosebumps listening. This signals: Important.

And there’s a lifting sensation in my chest – relief – and I see the same thing in the little one’s calmer face and body.

This kind of scene reminds me of how appreciative I am of the power of my brain to help me find pathways out of a place of confusion (What should I do now?) and frustration (I want something, but I don’t know how to get it!).

I was there this year. I’m pretty sure others have been there too (and I’m always grateful when I come across an open and honest post that describes these vulnerable part of our creative journey).

We adults find ourselves in parallel situations, not overwhelmed because we want to use the stethoscope from the doctor kit, but for other reasons that are as complex to us as the toys are to the two-year-old.

I found myself in this emotional environment this past year after an unpredictable disappointment, which I refuse to call it a disaster even though that’s how it felt at the time (I could never let myself put it in the same category as anything that involved human safety or life).

After recovering sufficiently from the shock, I put away a manuscript that was, and is, close to my heart. Then I turned on my journey to gaze into the empty spaces of Next.

And there, as I headed to the land of Next, I got lost.

Not right away, but ultimately.

At first, my brain filled with questions, all of which felt like I was digging into my own body and pulling out strings of things – anything, something! – that would be meaningful. I wrote poetry, revised picture books, wrote new work that I loved.

I took an intensive picture book writing/revision course online that kept my mind occupied every day for five weeks with reading, writing, critique, webinars, and submissions. I had two dozen verses that I thought might turn into the next big project, believing or maybe just hoping that persistence would open a door to where any of this was going.

I told myself I didn’t care, because I was writing, and that’s what mattered to me.

And while that was true to some extent, I began to grow a little impatient.

But my next project evaded me. Nothing held. Nothing embedded itself in the parts of my brain that handle the heart and the cognition that unite for what feels like passionate belief in a work in progress. Nothing needed me.

I kept writing, but I knew this would not do for much longer. As I figuratively looked around at all the options I had pulled out of myself – picture books, poetry for adults, the couple dozen verses about a loss in my younger life that could be the centerpiece of middle grade or young adult fiction, or turn into a memoir – I began to feel confused and overwhelmed with too many options.

That’s when I knew I was lost.

That’s when I knew, like the early childhood teachers I have the honor of watching every day, that the lost part of me, the little girl inside the adult, needed a plan. And more than that, I needed and wanted help to create the plan.

The minute I contacted my chosen helpers to set up time to talk, I felt relief and hope.

The difference in creating my plan was that it had to be purposeful, crafted carefully to take into account the realities of the publishing business, a full-time day job that I love, financial concerns, and my introverted personality that no one much knows about except when it comes roaring to the front lines when I attend gatherings of writers.

This plan – very different than setting “goals,” by the way – created specific steps to accomplish in a fairly clear order – gives me plenty of work to fill the next few years.

The plan itself, and the connection with my plan-mentors, nudged me forward on a new path that carried me away from the intersection where I’d been stuck. I never felt unproductive, but I’d begun to feel like my daily writing was creating a nest, rather than helping me walk forward.

My new plan does not answer the question of what my next writing project will be. But perhaps that’s because I was not really finished with the previous one.

Rescued from my files, I’m about to begin yet another revision. What will happen to it, I do not know. But I feel for the first time in many months that every day I move my own story ahead.

Cynsational Notes

Carol Coven Grannick’s middle grade novel in verse, Reeni’s Turn, recently won an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Sydney Taylor Manuscript Competition
A story of resilience and self-discovery that confronts the issue of body bias for a younger readership, an early version of Reeni’s Turn was also awarded Finalist in the 2014 Katherine Paterson Award at Hunger Mountain. 
Her essays and articles on emotional resilience and the writer’s inner journey can be found in the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind as well as on Cynsations.

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on Does Expecting the Worst Make You a Pessimist? Confessions of a Learned Optimist

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The endings of so many wonderful stories – our own and others’ – are different than what protagonists imagine they might be.

And our lives hand us some of the same twists and turns.

As writers and illustrators, there are times we must move through more than the usual vicissitudes.

Something may go terribly wrong and leave us feeling like doors are closing, possibilities are evaporating, and our creative work will forever remain in computer files or portfolios.

I had an experience this year that felt that way. It challenged my learned and well-practiced optimism to a degree that I hadn’t felt in years.

The first thing I did was a completely natural tendency: I tried to figure out how and why the experience had happened. Luckily, I’ve learned that it’s unlikely that we ever figure out the reasons for things completely out of our control. I also know for sure that spending time this way may be a natural way to mourn what is lost, but it’s also a definite mood and productivity sinker.

I won’t call it a total waste of time, but I will call it a bridge from despair to energy that I wanted to keep as short as possible. My experience left my middle grade novel in verse up in the air. The direction forward couldn’t be immediately clear.

Get busy on your next project in the meantime, I thought. That’s what we all tell one another, right? And it’s such a good plan!

But no big ideas came. No little ones, either.

I wondered whether my hard-won resilience had met its match. I definitely didn’t want to believe it had. Looking forward, I was not feeling tremendously optimistic.

But I don’t believe in writer’s block.

So I meandered forward more slowly than I might have wished, but I stayed patient.

Ideas came, and I jotted down verses. The ideas didn’t take hold, and I turned elsewhere, pulling out a picture book draft for revision.

I was writing, but I couldn’t detach my best writing self from the novel in verse that had been a story I had had to write, and did. I was collecting ideas that would or wouldn’t go anywhere.

That’s all I knew. I didn’t have a clue where my meandering would take me. I was fairly successful with staying patient, but I won’t say it was easy. I just wanted to keep writing.

Then an online course popped into my email – an intensive, homework-heavy, webinar-filled picture book course that appealed to my need to dive into something deeply. I read the syllabus, and any other time, it might have felt even overwhelming, because it was that filled with a bounty of information and peer and professional critiquing. It was going to be intense. Could I handle it?

I decided I could. At this moment in time, the intensity of the course offered a door off my meandering path, and I was ready to head through it.

Deep into dissecting components and aspects of a favorite picture book text during the five weeks of the class, I knew I had moved forward just by focusing on, and doing, the work. Thoughts came and went, and came again, about how I wanted to proceed with my novel in verse. I spoke with colleagues, a mentor, a friend. I began to research options for submission.

By the end of the course, I thought about the process I’d taken myself through: Without planning it or thinking about it, I’d used reliable techniques from past experiences. These come naturally to me now, but they were originally learned behaviors:

  • Trusted my feelings, let them come and go without judgment – the initial shock and disappointment, the interest in moving on along with the uncertainty of how I would do that, the pleasure in writing every day even if it “went nowhere,” the ultimate excitement about immersing myself in a new project.
  • Trusted the process – that if I nudged myself gently with interest rather than impatience, with a brain open to stimulation, my meandering and daily writing would lead me somewhere meaningful, or be meaningful for its own sake.
  • Worked hard to reframe any negative language (which equals negative thinking, and then a negative mood, decreased productivity, decreased creativity, and more) into neutral, and then positive language replacements.

All three “activities” kept my brain open and able to take in new information and possibilities, creative solutions to problems, and positive emotions.

For me, being a resilient optimist means that sometimes I see the worst possibilities, then begin to do whatever I can to at least try to have those possibilities not come true. And as I do, all kinds of opportunities open up right in front of me.

Cynsational Notes

Carol Coven Grannick writes middle grade fiction, award-winning picture book manuscripts, and poetry, as well as regular guest columns for Cynsations and the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind.

Drawing from her skills and experience as a clinical social worker and consultant/educator, she writes extensively about the psychological and emotional aspects of the writing journey, and the essential skills for creating and maintaining emotional resilience.

Her middle grade novel in verse, “Reeni’s Turn,” currently out on submission, inspired the award-winning film, “La Folia,” and was named a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize at Hunger Mountain.

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on Life, Writing & A Word In Praise of Emotional Safety

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

This morning I see a child on the early side of toddler, snuggled like a well-placed puzzle piece in his daddy’s arms.

He smiles at me, reaches out with one arm, as if I will be a wonderful new discovery. I reach back…

But, no. The minute I do, he pulls his hand away, squishing himself into the soft corners of a neck, shoulder, chest.

He’ll reach back when he’s ready. Right now I’m too new, too scary.

He’ll begin devoting a great proportion of his time to toddling out into the world, crawling or leaping into courageous experiences, taking risks, feeling exhilarated, yet vulnerable, and then scooting back into the safe spaces of his life for a rest, reassurance, and renewal.

Are we adults really much different?

For me, I’d say the answer is “no” – certainly not when it comes to needing a calm, comfortable, even neutral emotional space between encouraging myself to be courageous, vulnerable, emotionally and intellectually risk-taking in relationships and art.

A Culture of Courage

The concepts of finding the courage to make yourself vulnerable, break out of comfortable patterns and take risks, and create resilience and strength after failure, are not new – but have become increasingly familiar.

When I first heard this kind of language many decades ago in New York psychoanalytic circles, the concept of safety – AKA “comfortable” – was a pejorative term. Safety was a place to challenge, leave behind with other neurotic behaviors, cast aside as one leaped into learning to be vulnerable, take emotional, intellectual, job- and relationship-related risks.

I’d hear things like, You’re in a ‘safe’ job (not challenging yourself) and You’re in a ‘safe’ relationship (too comfortable) – as if there was something cowardly (or neurotic) about being in a certain kind of situation.

At the time, I didn’t have the courage to question this. But inside, I didn’t understand how the need for safety was “bad”. It puzzled me. I certainly understood it intellectually. But emotionally?

Not so much. I’d longed for a sense of safety as a child, and was even more aware of the need for it as an adult…That is, the feeling that I was protected, safe, comfortable – who could ask for more?

Upside/Downside

As I matured (and learned to trust my own beliefs, capacities, and strengths), I found and tried to sustain the courage to be vulnerable, take emotional and intellectual risks, and use disappointments and failures, in relationships and in my writing life, to grow stronger and clearer about myself and my work.

There’s no question that having the courage to experience vulnerability, take emotional and intellectual risks, work hard to find and maintain resilience after disappointments and failures, can be exhilarating, nourishing, deeply meaningful, and exquisitely rewarding.

It can also be terrifying, discouraging, and occasionally even depleting.

So in between the leaps into experiences that may frighten – but ultimately reward – us, I like to think that seeking safety or comfort is important, too.

I believe equally in the benefits of courageous vulnerability and risk-taking in our work and our lives, and the need for emotional safety. I try not to judge one as better than the other, but instead view them as a unit, better together than they are apart.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve worked hard to be courageous and to be a risk-taker in my life and my work. I just don’t want to disregard, dismiss, or disparage, the need for safety, for comfort – between the minutes or days or months of being courageous.

Between “Over” and “Next”

I love those times of safety, during which I often focus on nourishing my spirit and intellect. I heard a replay of an NPR interview with the magnificent Norman Lear. Many of you may have heard or read the original interview.

“I think what I’m saying – and it’s something I’ve come to over a number of years – is I do enjoy the moment,” he continues. “There are two little words that couldn’t be more true – ‘over’ and ‘next.’

“When something is over, you gotta get used to knowing that it is over. Nothing is going to bring it back. It is just a memory. What about ‘next’?

If there’s a hammock in the middle, then that’s what they mean about living in the moment.

I think of that hammock as a safe, comforting place. A place to rock in between periods of intense, deep, vulnerable, and risk-taking work.

Not a place of denial of or defense against being courageous, but a place between.

And, like the little one I saw this morning, cuddling into his parent’s body, I embrace it.

I hold on as long as I need to, gazing out at what might be “next” – then, leap.

Cynsational Notes

More on Carol Coven Grannick

Carol Coven Grannick has been a writer since before her fourth grade teacher told her she was one. Her poetry, essays, and articles have appeared in numerous print and online venues.

She began writing for children in 1999, and her poetry and fiction have appeared in Highlights for Children, Ladybug, Cricket and Hunger Mountain. Her picture book manuscripts have won several
awards, and her middle grade novel in verse manuscript, “Reeni’s Turn,” was named a finalist in the 2014 Katherine Paterson Prize for YA and Children’s Writing at Hunger Mountain.

Drawing from her skills and experience as a clinical social worker and consultant/educator, Carol also writes extensively about the psychological and emotional aspects of the writing journey, and the essential skills for creating and maintaining emotional resilience. Her column, “The Inside Story,” appears regularly in the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.

Carol lives with her husband in Chicagoland and treasures her family, friends, and work at an extraordinary early childhood center.

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on Open Expectations: Preparing for an Artist’s Residency: Internal Logistics

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I headed to my first writer’s residency at The Ragdale Foundation at the end of March with an imagined vision of open space, open time, and what I call “open expectations” – no finish line, no deadline, no shoulds or have tos about the challenging revision of my middle grade novel in verse or the small community of artists of which I’d be part.

I knew from experience that gentle, heartfelt, positive guidelines were my best bet for flourishing as a writer and a person. I told myself to:

  1. Trust my needs, my rhythm, what I and my story feel each step forward needs to be, and connect with others as I need and want to, but without pressure that I have to.
  2. Keep my brain open to surprises of all kinds and embrace, enjoy, tolerate, readjust as needed.
  3. Let the residency change me – openness to writing and human surprises has often had this lovely effect on me.

It worked. From a writing and a community perspective, the residency was extraordinary. Among the many meaningful incidents were these:

  • When I’d inserted eighty new verses into my then-current draft, half-hoping for a wonderful and well-organized draft, I found instead an incoherent, fragmented story. At dinner, as we all casually talked about our first day, I said my next days would be dismantling my book, and was glad I had the floor space and time to do it. The luxury of seemingly endless hours was going to be a gift.
  • As I went through the days, dismantling, reassembling, and readying myself for a deep and intense revision, I realized something all of us seemed to say in our end-of-residency summary: It’s not just the number of hours I have, it’s how the hours and the lack of distracting responsibilities allow my brain to open and blossom. I discovered, with this undistracted time, the capacity to work deeply and intensely, giving my unconscious mind the freedom to feed me creative solutions.
  • Many days, I lost any sense of what time it was, whether or not my phone and computer were collecting texts and emails, and occasionally even whether or not I was hungry. My lovely little room, walks on the prairie (even in the snowstorms of a Chicago spring), and conversations with new colleagues fed a brain that seemed wonderfully open to the world, and to my own unconscious.
  • One night early in the residency, instead of returning to work, I decided to join several colleagues to listen to another’s discussion of her volunteer work in a Michigan hospital, gathering bedside stories from in-patients. She played several of the stories for us. I was riveted. I heard an urgency in all the short, impromptu stories. The patients have to choose only one story to tell, my colleague said. I had a visceral response in my chest, home of where my feelings tell me things. One story. Only one story. I have to write Reeni’s story as if it is the only one she gets to tell. That’s where I will find the urgency. And maybe I will find her voice. 
  • The next day I began, sitting on my pillow on the floor with paper and pencil. If it was Reeni’s last day on earth, how would she tell the story? And then I found her voice.

It would have been enough to do the kind of deep writing I did from that day on. But going into the residency with my three guidelines enabled me to do and experience more than that.

I discovered that I am a writer who is able to spend many hours a day working if given the opportunity. That I am a writer who can find and stay in deep connection with my unconscious for more than a few moments at a time. And that I could also enjoy the deep pleasure of becoming part of a supportive, smart, funny, and all-around extraordinary, group of fellow artists.

In my life as writer, therapist, wife, mother, friend I’ve repeatedly found that while attitude is not everything, it is quite a bit. When I enter an experience with gentle and positive expectations, an open mind, and the ability to respond to surprises of any nature, I free myself again to grow, change, and continue the adventure of living.

It’s not necessarily easy. But it’s always worth the effort.

Cynsational Notes

More on Carol Coven Grannick

Carol Coven Grannick
has been a writer since before her fourth grade teacher told her she was
one. Her poetry, essays, and articles have appeared in numerous print
and online venues.

She began writing for children in 1999, and her poetry and fiction have appeared in Highlights for Children, Ladybug, Cricket
and Hunger Mountain. Her picture book manuscripts have won several
awards, and her middle grade novel in verse manuscript, “Reeni’s Turn,”
was named a finalist in the 2014 Katherine Paterson Prize for YA and Children’s Writing at Hunger Mountain.

Drawing from her skills and experience as a clinical social worker and
consultant/educator, Carol also writes extensively about the
psychological and emotional aspects of the writing journey, and the
essential skills for creating and maintaining emotional resilience. Her
column, “The Flourishing Writer,” is archived in the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.

Carol lives with her husband in Chicagoland and treasures her family,
friends, and work at an extraordinary early childhood center.

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on In a Dark and Not-So-Quiet Room

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’m in a cozy, dark room – too warm, and scattered with noises of children’s breathing, soft wordless Beatles’ arrangements, and the burble of the turtle tank filter. It’s nap-time at the early childhood school where I work, and I’m on duty. I’m also working on a major revision for my novel in verse.

It’s an unlikely setting, this child-dense room with documentation of the children’s discoveries through paint, clay, blocks, but between two or more hours at Starbuck’s in the morning and the napping room in the afternoon, I’m making good progress on my revision.

In the not-so-quiet space I sink deeply into my character’s life, where I may hear and feel her anguish and joy without interference from any angst of my own.

For years, I struggled with finding the perfect place to write, because something seemed “off” with so many spaces. I found myself writing in short, deep spurts, but I was easily distracted.

Too quiet. Too loud.

The thing is, I carried with me so much noise of my own, that almost every place was far from perfect.

Early on in my committed writing journey, I heard the well-known caution to “keep my head down and do the work”. And yet online and off, in informal gatherings and at conferences, the longing to be book-published was front and center. I worked hard, submitted, survived rejections with my learned resilience, and “came close” many times.

Then, about five years ago, unusually distracted and distressed by the new industry policy adapted by so many agents and editors: If you don’t hear from us, assume we’re not interested. If I don’t hear from you by when? I wondered.

The absence of waiting for responses took too great an emotional toll on my resilient self.

So one day I decided to put an end to the situation that troubled me. I challenged the assumption that I would eventually get a book contract. Maybe I wouldn’t. I said it aloud, then asked myself one of the most important questions of my life: Now what?

Now, I am a writer, I answered myself. Now, I keep writing. An emotional gust of wind that blew me away in the best of ways. The relief I felt turned into a joy about writing that opened unimagined possibilities.

Without any expectations of myself other than writing, I gave myself permission to work at all the things I loved – poetry, essays, picture books, and my middle grade novel in verse. I avoided places online and in person where discussions of hoped-for publication abounded. I felt somewhat isolated from a community I’d been involved in, but the benefits were worth it.

Eventually I began submitting again. But I was calmer, even carefree. My queries were more casual, authentic. I had acceptances and rejections – interestingly, with more personal responses to rejections than I’d ever gotten. I was shocked and quietly pleased to find that my middle grade novel in verse was chosen a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize for YA and Children’s Writing.

My (now) agent took notice of my book from the contest, and the revision process with her has been challenging and immensely pleasurable. I feel a calm, deep pleasure when I when I get an acceptance, an agent, write a verse I’m particularly proud of – instead of the wild excitement I felt years ago when I assumed each step was closer to “success.”

I hope my book is published one day – of course. But success is truly the journey, and how my own strengths meet the challenges of the work.

And, of course, the sweetness in the dark, not-so-quiet room with the sleeping children.

Cynsational Notes

More on Carol Coven Grannick

Carol Coven Grannick has been a writer since before her fourth grade teacher told her she was one. Her poetry, essays, and articles have appeared in numerous print and online venues.

She began writing for children in 1999, and her poetry and fiction have appeared in Highlights for Children, Ladybug, Cricket and Hunger Mountain. Her picture book manuscripts have won several awards, and her middle grade novel in verse manuscript, “Reeni’s Turn,” was named a finalist in the 2014 Katherine Paterson Prize for YA and Children’s Writing at Hunger Mountain.

Drawing from her skills and experience as a clinical social worker and consultant/educator, Carol also writes extensively about the psychological and emotional aspects of the writing journey, and the
essential skills for creating and maintaining emotional resilience. Her column, “The Flourishing Writer,” is archived in the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.

Carol lives with her husband in Chicagoland and treasures her family, friends, and work at an extraordinary early childhood center.