Survivors: Kathi Appelt on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Kathi Appelt. Photo by Igor Kraguljak.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field, yes?

I would agree with that. Over these many years I’ve seen superstars come and go. And I do realize that some of that is just basic human nature—we all want to see who is the new best thing, right?

There are so many ways to interpret the old adage “chasing the dream.”

I feel fortunate because I’ve caught a few of those dreams, and in doing so, they remind me of how utterly grateful I am to be able to do this good work. But I also understand how ethereal it all is, how fleeting. And there are some days when I think that I’d be perfectly happy waiting tables again (although my back would probably resist).

It’s a conundrum in many ways. Those of us who have been around for a while know how difficult it is to stay in this world, but lately I’ve felt a real longing to slow it all down, do a little less chasing, and maybe at the same time, up the ante.

I still feel like my best work is yet to come. But that means—at least to me—less chasing and more contemplation. That would not have been possible even a few years ago when I was constantly on the road, teaching like crazy, trying to get my kids through college, working to make ends meet.

So, I’m able now to slow it down a bit, but at the same time I understand the crushing need to produce something that is relevant and worthy. At least I feel that need, especially in these super-charged times. It feels like the very soul of the world is at risk.

I’m constantly asking—what is my role here? How can my stories matter? What do I even have to say that can make a dent or a difference, especially because every morning since the election of 2016, I wake up wondering what major screw up awaits the new day? It’s paralyzing.

I’ve been telling people that my next book is going to be called “Things that Frolic,” and it will feature only leaping animals, like bunnies and baby deer and unicorns. It will have lots of rainbows and candy-apple trees.

Ish! Makes my teeth hurt, just thinking about it.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed
to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

When the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, I had an existential crisis.

By then, I had published a whole bevy of picture books, plus a collection of middle grade poems, and I had several works in the pipeline. I had a terrific team that I worked with—three editors and my long-time agent. I was super cozy.

But then, my father passed away, followed by my sweet little grandmother, and shortly after that those towers fell, and everything I was doing came into question (kind of like now, actually).

And my beloved team! My agent, Marilyn Marlow, passed away after a long bout with cancer. A week later, my editor Meredith Charpentier, died unexpectedly. Another of my editors left to work as a freelancer. I was heartbroken. Bereft.

The very ground that I had been standing on shifted beneath my feet. I realized I was at a crossroads with my writing. There was that familiar cozy path that I knew so well, and that had supported me.

I could continue on that route. It was safe. I knew how to do it. There was a lot of reliability there, lots of encouragement. I could write rhyming picture books until the proverbial cows came home. I could write good-enough poetry, and even well-received nonfiction. I knew where my boundaries were, and how to exploit the territory within them.

But at the same time, I felt this kind of soul-ache. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the work I was doing or had done. I love all of my books. But at that moment, I felt like I needed to do something significant, even if it was only for me.

At that time, I met with my new agent, Holly McGhee, and she asked me, “Where do you want to take your writing?”

Even though it wasn’t a question I had ever been asked, I knew the answer. I needed to write a story that would crack open the heart, and the heart I needed to crack open the most was my own.

We always say, “write what you know.”

But we forget that eventually what we know can squeeze the life out of our work.

So, at first, I thought, okay, I’m going to write what I don’t know. And I realized that wasn’t exactly right either. What did that even mean? I don’t know anything about quantum physics, but I can guarantee you that I’m never going to write about them.

Serendipitously, I stumbled over Georgia Heard’s “heart maps.” So I got out a piece of paper and drew one, making all sorts of spaces on that map for the things that mattered to me. Then I drew another one, and another. They were so enlightening really. To actually see, in a visual way, the things that I loved. But with each one, I discovered that I had left a space that was unnamed.

Every time I drew a map, there was always an open, unlabeled space. I started calling that “the hole.” And for me, that hole was something I missed. Or someone I missed. Or some place or time that I missed.

It was, I discovered, where I needed to go. To dive into that place of missing, and find the story that was there. With The Underneath (Atheneum, 2008) I realized that I missed wild places, I missed my baby boys who were no longer babies, I missed the old dog that guarded me and my sisters when we were girls. So much missing. I confess that at times it was overwhelming.

Tobin with Martine Leavitt and Nancy Werlin

And then, on a particularly rough day, my friend Tobin (M.T.) Anderson called me out of the blue, and in our conversation, he said, “you should always write what you think you can’t.”

I’ll never forget that because in that short sentence is the absolute permission to fail.

After all, if you didn’t think you could do it in the first place, then what harm is there in trying? Right? If you fail, well, you didn’t think you could do it anyways.

There is so much liberation in allowing yourself to fail! Once I gave myself that permission, it was like I hit the go button and couldn’t stop.

When Tennessee Williams was working on his first important play, “Battle of Angels,” he noted in his journal that he was working with “seven wild-cats under [his] skin.”

I’ve learned to love that feeling, that furious itch to get the words down, to put all that missing, all that longing, all that failure onto the page. I’m no Tennessee Williams, but I understand that compulsion to dive into the hole.

With VCFA faculty Shelley Tanaka & Rita Williams-Garcia

Another thing that saved me was my work as a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Joining that esteemed group of writer/teachers gave me some grounding. They taught me so much.

Mostly, I learned that not everything was about me. My students forced me to be better, to be wiser, to be more circumspect and careful with our stories.

We are traders of stories. It’s what makes us fundamentally human—our stories. And so care has to be taken, both in the stories we write and the ones we read. The work was hard. But it was a necessary thing for me.

I know I’m a better writer because I’ve been a teacher. I might have been a more prolific writer if I hadn’t been a teacher, but I know I would not have been a better writer.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

I would try to be less seat-of-the-pants opinionated. I believe that there are a lot of things I’ve missed because I saw (and continue to see) the world through my own set of privileged lenses.

As such, I recognize that there are so many things I’ve refused to see or hear, or actually that I couldn’t see or hear. Fortunately, I have people who love me and are patient. But is it their responsibility to rip off the blinders? I’m not sure.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

Obviously, there is still a resounding need for more stories by and about citizens of Indigenous Nations and people of color. One only needs to check the data to see that we are so far behind, especially when demographics are taken into consideration, and especially with Native/First Nations writers.

I am glad to see new, young and gifted, really genius authors claiming their place in the canon. It makes my heart happy.

And it scares me, too. In so many ways, it’s forced me to really examine the myriad ways that the “system” has failed all of us, that system that has created what Will Alexander calls “fallback norms,” in which we just assume that the nondescript hero is white. So, what challenges me is the necessary work of peeling off those layers that perpetuate the fallback norms, and finding a way past them.

I can’t help but wonder who I’m going to find underneath those layers—my racist Southern grandmother, my great-great grandfather who fought for the Union, my alcoholic father, my encouraging first grade teacher, my great-grandmother who died in childbirth at age 25, the wool rakers of my father’s family?

None of them were perfect, and neither am I. But I can’t deny their influence.

So this is my challenge, and I am so grateful to my inner circle of fellow authors who have been patient, who listen, who guide, who are working so hard to be sure that all of our children are represented in our books, and that all of them can see themselves as heroes, no matter their racial or ethnic make-up, their gender, their abilities….

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

One day, long ago, I was having breakfast with a woman who had just traveled across the country by hitchhiking. Over eggs and bacon, she told this rather hair-raising tale about it all, and my response was a very trite, cliché “I can’t even imagine it.”

Her reply: “Imagine it.”

She said it with such force that it opened up something in me. It was like a directive, and maybe the truer meaning was: “don’t be a wimp, Kathi, imagine it.”

Do it. Don’t just sit there, saying you can’t.

She wasn’t a writer. I can’t even remember her name. We were with a group of other people at the table and I had never met her before. Never saw her again.

But I learned that day that possibly the best phrase in our lexicon is “imagine it.”

So, I would say to do that, to imagine it. Imagine it all. Dream it up, and do it in a big way.

You are built for this, made for telling stories.

Imagine it.

llus. from The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, (c) 2008 by David Small. (2)All rights reserved. Used by permission.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

With Cynthia Leitich Smith.

If I could wave my magic wand, I’d wish for starred reviews and movie deals and cafeterias full of children all sitting crisscross applesauce, waiting to hear you read your books to them.

I’d wish for long signing lines, and great copy editors, and first class air tickets, and great friends to share your highs and lows with.

I’d wish for good cats, and long walks, and plenty of music. You know, things that frolic.

I’d wish that they could each know, even at a small level, how much love plays a role in all of this.

It does.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

A unicorn would be sweet.

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Tenth Anniversary Giveaway: Fifteen winners will receive an autographed paperback copy of The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (Atheneum, 2008). In addition, one Grand Prize winner will win a classroom set of 20 copies of the book, plus a 30 to 40 minute Skype visit for their school, classroom, or library with Kathi Appelt. Enter here!


New Voice: Caroline Leech on Wait for Me

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Caroline Leech is the debut author of Wait for Me (HarperTeen, 2017). From the promotional copy:

It’s 1945, and Lorna Anderson’s life on her father’s farm in Scotland consists of endless chores and rationing, knitting Red Cross scarves, and praying for an Allied victory. So when Paul Vogel, a German prisoner of war, is assigned as the new farmhand, Lorna is appalled. 

How can she possibly work alongside the enemy when her own brothers are risking their lives for their country?

But as Lorna reluctantly spends time with Paul, she feels herself changing. The more she learns about him—from his time fighting a war he doesn’t believe in, to his life back home in Germany—the more she sees the boy behind the soldier. 

Soon Lorna is battling her own warring heart. Loving Paul could mean losing her family and the life she’s always known. 

With tensions rising all around them, Lorna must decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice before the end of the war determines their fate.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My Wait for Me journey back to World War II was prompted by a conversation with a friend in Wales who mentioned in passing that her father had grown up during the war on a farm which had German prisoners of war working as farmhands.

Craigielaw Farm farmhouse, where Caroline
imagined Lorna would’ve lived

The proverbial light bulb went off in my head, and I immediately started researching how these prisoners came to be working alongside British people on farms, in parks and forests.

I grew up on a reading diet of Colditz and The Great Escape-type books, so I expected all prisoners to have stayed locked up in prison camps, plotting their escape. But I quickly found out that many of these men—who were screened on arrival to weed out the hardened Nazis—were relieved to be far from the war, and from Hitler’s brutality. 

Life in Germany had been terrible for more than a decade, and many had been forced into the army under threat of harm coming to their families.

I also discovered that many of the men chose not to go home again at the end of the war, especially those who had lived in what was to become the Russian Zone and then communist East Germany. 

I found numerous stories of prisoners who had fallen in love with local girls, and once they were released, they petitioned to stay so they could get married and settle down in the place which gave them safe harbor. 
Even those who did return to Germany had made such close friendships with the British people they’d worked alongside, they would be friends for the rest of their lives. 
Suddenly, all my writer’s alarm bells were ringing and I knew I had my opening scene—a young German prisoner arrives on a Scottish farm, injured and traumatized, and receives a less than friendly welcome from the farmer’s daughter. But in time, she starts to see him less like her enemy and more like the intelligent and caring young man he is, a boy who is very far from home. And then perhaps he becomes something even more to her . . .

Aberlady Bay, the regional setting for Wait for Me

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

I was very lucky to have great sources to aid my research. 
Both my parents were involved in the war—my mother was evacuated from London as a child, and my father followed his four older brothers into the army when he turned 18 in 1944—so I was never without that primary source material. 
But what was challenging to find was the balance between historical accuracy where girls lived in a very different set of societal expectations, and writing characters who were relatable to modern readers. 
By 1945, when the book is set, young women had been liberated from domesticity only to a certain extent. They were required to go out to work as part of the war effort—often doing previously “male” jobs in factories and dockyards—but ultimately, they were still expected to get married, settle down and stay at home to look after the house and children. 
Teenage girls now, of course, rightly expect to go on to further education, have a career and financial independence, even if they do later choose to get married and become mothers. 
Therefore, I had to find a middle ground where my protagonist was assertive and confident, so she would connect to my readers today, without dismissing the reality of the rules of the society in which she lived then.

Although the same rules applied for the time period of my second book, In Another Time (HarperTeen, August, 2018), it felt quite different.

My main character is one of the girls who chose to leave school and take over a job usually done by a man, that is being a forester in the Highlands of Scotland. Maisie joins the Women’s Timber Corps—the Lumberjills—and she rather makes her own rules after that!

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?

I did everything the wrong way around. Normally, you’re supposed to get your agent, who then shops your book out to editors, but I actually got my editor first.

I was still working on revisions to my WWII book when I won the Joan Lowery Nixon Award at SCBWI Houston conference. My prize was a year’s mentoring from the amazing Newbery Honor winner, Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt and Caroline
at the Texas Library Association Conference

Even though I was still working my way through revisions under Kathi’s expert guidance, I entered the first few pages into two contests with Romance Writers of America chapters in Houston. 

I was amazed to win the YA categories of both contests, the Emily and the Lone Star, and even more stunned that one of the judges—Alice at Harper Teen—emailed to say she wanted to read the whole manuscript. 
She was patient enough to wait for me to finish the revisions I was doing, and she then read it almost as soon as I sent it.

Within two weeks, she’d offered me the deal. I still didn’t have an agent, so several writer friends in Houston and Austin offered to make some introductions. 

It’s amazing how quickly agents pay attention to your emails when you approach them with a book deal in your hand! I was thrilled to sign up with New Leaf Literary & Media in New York within only a few days of getting my deal.

New Leaf’s client list includes the most stellar list of authors: Veronica RothVictoria Aveyard and Leigh BardugoJordan Hamessley is my agent, and she’s wonderfully supportive.

What is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community?

While there’s romance in the image of a struggling author sitting alone in a chilly garret, hunched over a sturdy typewriter bashing out the next great novel, it couldn’t be further from the truth. 

My books have mostly been written sitting in a Barnes & Noble café or a Starbucks, while my writing buddy, Penny, sits alongside me, working on her own novel. I find it very hard to write in my house—far too many distractions, even when no one else is there—so whenever I need to focus and write for more than an hour or so, I escape to a coffee shop, preferably with a friend or two. We keep each other focused, and only chat a little (honest!).

The other enormous influence on my writing has been my membership of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I went to my first SCBWI conference with the sole purpose of meeting one particular agent. 

It was in Austin and even though the agent gave me a big “no, thanks,” I gained so much from that weekend, not least of which meeting other writers who became great friends. I then went to the Houston SCBWI conference, too, and met even more wonderful people.

Back then, most of my new friends were still dreaming of publication; now, one by one, we have almost all got book deals, but we are all still supporting each other’s writing from “the other side of the fence.”

Caroline at the Brazos Bookstore launch of Wait for Me,
photo by Penny Linsenmayer

I can track my book deal directly from attending that first SCBWI conference, through winning the Joan Lowery Nixon competition, straight to publication, so I cannot stress how much I owe to everyone in SCBWI.

Getting a book deal is not only exciting, it is truly terrifying! 

You are suddenly thrown into a professional world, with its own jargon and unwritten rules, and it can feel incredibly intimidating. However, I discovered that I was not alone. For years, a support group for authors debuting in any given year has developed organically – the Fearless Fifteens in 2015, the Sweet Sixteens in 2016.

Since I was having my debut in 2017, I joined the Swanky Seventeens, now called the 2017 Debuts

We share our experiences, ask and answer questions about how publishing works, and lead the cheers for each other every Tuesday when a new set of debuts were released.

Now there are second books being published, and we support those, too. My second book, In Another Time, comes out in August, by which time a couple of my debut friends who write fantasy series will be on their third publication! 

Within the group, we’ve also had some very serious conversations about how race, gender, disability and sexuality are portrayed in YA and MG books, and I’ve learned so much from my fellow debuts.

I don’t know if I could have got through this last year without their support. Even though I’ve met only a few of them in person, I have made so many fantastic friends via the chat forum and our Facebook group, it feels like I’ve known some of them for years. Over the last year, I’ve been privileged to read some of the most amazing books in advance of their publication. 

What were the best moments of your publishing journey?

One of best is certainly that lightbulb moment when suddenly this new story exploded in my mind, and I had to rush to grab a pencil to get it started. 
Women’s Timber Corps memorial statue
in Aberfoyle, Scotland

And of course, I’ll never forget the moment when I received the email offering me my book deal. We were in Scotland on a family vacation and were in the middle of my daughter’s 18th birthday party. 

I knew that Alice Jerman, an editor at HarperTeen, had read my manuscript and loved it enough to take it to her bosses that day for acquisition approval, but because of the time difference between Scotland and New York, it was already mid-evening and I was still waiting to hear.

When I felt my phone buzz in my pocket, I had a quick look without making it obvious I was checking my phone during a party. The email from Alice not only said she wanted to buy that book, but wanted another one after that. 

I had never expected to get a two-book deal, so I was totally thrilled.

From across the room, my husband saw me check my phone and looked questioningly at me. He was the only other person who knew that I was waiting for news, so I nodded and forwarded the email to him, meaning that both of us were sitting on opposite sides of the room grinning madly.

But of course, we didn’t want to distract from my daughter’s birthday, so we said nothing until the very end of the evening. It was so hard to keep the secret , even if it was only for a couple of hours.

Women’s Timber Corps, also known as the Lumberjills,
photo courtesy of Women’s Timber Corps.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

Read, read, read and write, write, write! And keep on writing, no matter how bad you think your first draft is. You can’t revise and perfect words that haven’t been written down yet, so sometimes you need to switch off your inner editor and just get the words onto the page. You can concentrate on making them pretty later at revision stage.

Also, try to find your “writing people” as soon as you can, even if it just starts out as one buddy to sit beside you as you work, someone to keep you accountable for the time you’ve promised yourself you’ll give over to writing each week. 

Also, for me, SCBWI membership is a vital tool for any children’s/teens’ writer, and I’d say don’t just join, take part! Go to meetings and conferences, so people get to know your name and face and join in the online discussion groups. By the time you get your book deal, these people will have become your biggest cheerleaders.

And finally, even when it gets hard, keep going. As you can see from my publication story, it only takes one editor to like your story for your whole life to change. That might happen next year, or it might happen tomorrow, you can’t know. But if you stop now, you will never know.

Cynsations Notes

Photo by Priscilla Dickson

Kirkus Reviews wrote of Wait for Me, “Clandestine meetings and stolen kisses will satisfy die-hard romantics, while history buffs will be drawn in by the details of war-torn…Scotland.”

Caroline Leech is a Scottish writer who moved to Texas for an adventure ten years ago. 
Her career in public relations with performing arts companies in the United Kingdom culminated with her editing a glossy photographic book, Welsh National Opera – The First Sixty Years (Graffeg, 2006).

She has written numerous feature articles on the performing arts in a number of newspapers and magazines in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

Her next novel, In Another Time, will be published in August 2018. 
Caroline lives in Houston with her husband and three teenage children.

Get a peek at the Wait for Me launch party at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. 

Guest Post: Padma Venkatraman on Voice: Writing Lean, Spare or Lush, Rich

Padma writing on the dock

By Padma Venkatraman
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

One of the most vital aspects of timeless writing is voice. Every serious reader, every writer has (or must develop), a strong sense of what voice is. Yet, like time, voice eludes definition.

Of course, I’m going to try and define it. To me, voice is the promise of the first page – the texture of the writing. It’s like the background music in a movie – or the wash an artist lays down to prepare the painting – something that isn’t entirely visible and yet pervades the creation.

What’s the best way to develop your own voice?

Here are three tips I hope will help.

1. Read, read, read the voices of others. Immersing yourself in books with rich voices will help you hone your own.

While I don’t for a mini-second suggest that any writer try to copy another writer’s voice – I do recommend, strongly, that every writer read as much as is humanly possible.

The best way to get a feel for voice and to develop your own is to tune in to the music of the written word – by reading writers with strong voices.

Here are some books written in powerful voices that I highly recommend (and, as with all lists, I’m sure I’ll leave out some favorites, but these wonderful books for young people come to mind at the moment):

2. Experiment with sentences and paragraphs, if not entire stories.

Padma writing on the deck

Each of your characters has a different voice. Unless the novel is written from multiple points of view, however, you usually spend most of your time narrating in the voice that, most likely, comes closest to your own.

This is fine. 

But by briefly experimenting with telling the story in another’s tone and seeing the story through another’s voice, you may be able to more clearly define the narrator’s voice that you naturally gravitate toward.

If you are writing close third or first person point of view, try switching bodies. 

Write an important scene or two in another character’s voice. This will not only help you enhance your understanding of this character, it will also give you a greater appreciation for your main character’s voice.

If you tend to write long, luxurious sentences, try writing a paragraph with short sentences and sentence fragments. And the other way around.

My second novel, Island’s End (G.P. Putnam, 2011), is written in lush, rich prose.

My third novel, A Time To Dance (Nancy Paulsen, 2014) is written in lean spare prose. I learned a great deal by journeying from one style to another – and I love both, I’ll admit.

I also love the in-between, which is where, I think, my debut novel, Climbing The Stairs (G.P. Putnam, 2008) fits.

3. Respect your heart, not just your head.

I was an oceanographer. Now I’m a writer. I can attest to the fact that not even scientists are always objective.

Padma working on a research ship

The field of literature is largely if not entirely subjective. Thus, it’s only natural that we often subjugate our own responses to a piece in favor of revered reviewers’ opinions.

Yet if you wish to carve your own unique niche, you must let yourself love whatever you love. 

There’s no shame in loving a book that has been deemed ridiculous or at least one that hasn’t received the attention you think it deserves. 
It’s important to seek out such books, books that haven’t got a lot of hype, and asking yourself whether you think they deserved more (or less). 
It’s also important to question and pause and discover which books you adore, deep inside, regardless of whether they won acclaim and awards or not.

When you discover these lesser known books and less celebrated authors, you begin to celebrate your own opinions. And as you grow comfortable with your individual taste, your confidence as a writer also grows. 

You start respecting your ideas, your sense of strength. And you must realize what you truly love (regardless of what the world says you should love) if you wish to write in a voice that is powerful – which is to say, a voice that is uniquely your own.

Cynsational Notes

Padma Venkatraman is the author of three novels, which together garnered 12 starred reviews, and were included in over 50 shortlists. 

In addition, her books have won several awards (such as the Paterson Prize, the South Asia Book Award, the Julia Ward Howe Award, and the ASTAL RI Book of the year award), and received many honors, including ALA notable, ALA BBYA, Booklist BBYA, Kirkus BBYA, NYPL Book for the Teen Age, Bank Street Best Book amd CCBC Notable. 
She has spoken and provided workshops and keynote addresses at national and international conferences and festivals. 

Our Story Begins

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Our Story Begins: Your Favorite Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring and Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids, edited by Elissa Brent Weissman (Atheneum, July 4, 2017) is now available for pre-order. From the promotional copy:

From award-winning author Elissa Brent Weissman comes a collection of quirky, smart, and vulnerable childhood works by some of today’s foremost children’s authors and illustrators—revealing young talent, the storytellers they would one day become, and the creativity they inspire today.

Everyone’s story begins somewhere…

For Linda Sue Park, it was a trip to the ocean, a brand-new typewriter, and a little creative license.

For Jarrett J. Krosoczka, it was a third grade writing assignment that ignited a creative fire in a kid who liked to draw.

For Kwame Alexander, it was a loving poem composed for Mother’s Day—and perfected through draft after discarded draft.

For others, it was a teacher, a parent, a beloved book, a word of encouragement. It was trying, and failing, and trying again. It was a love of words, and pictures, and stories.

Your story is beginning, too. Where will it go?

Featuring: “Dreams to Write” by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Guest Post: Bethany Hegedus on Writer Mama Survival Guide

By Bethany Hegedus
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

There are craft books on writing and parenting books galore, but nothing on how to be a “Writer Mama.”

I’ve watched many friends make the transition, somehow blurry-eyed making it to the page in between breast feeding and diaper changes. 
I’ve witnessed my friends with kids in elementary school put in longer hours, taking their laptops with them to doctor appointments and school pick-ups. My friends with teens write with them at coffee shops, each one blissfully zoning out but still in each other’s company.

Still, I wondered—how exactly do we do this thing: write for a living or with a passion (passion earns us a living, I promise) and mother? 

My son is almost seven months old. I am not an expert and doubt I ever will be, but this is what I have cobbled together as my own Writer Mama Survival Guide.

1. Podcasts: In the first few months of life, babies spend six to eight hours a day feeding. Your hands and breasts may be busy but your mind needs stimulation. Find a podcast you love! (Bonus if it is about writing and creativity.) 

I loved the form so much, I began The Writing Barn’s Porchlight podcast.

2. Hunt for the Time: Friend and mentor, Kathi Appelt said when her kiddos were little she’d write in 15 minute increments. This is doable. 

Also, hunt for longer time. Hire a babysitter and go to a coffee shop. Breathe deep.

The clock is ticking—but even so the first torn moments away feel so heavy. Push through the worry and guilt and do the work you love. Craft one sentence then another. 

You will start to feel yourself returning and that is both good for you and your little one.

3. Enlist Help: My husband and I made the tough decision about childcare, finding a home daycare we love. 

As we are both freelancers, it was necessary. Do what you need to do for your family, your work, and your own peace of mind.

4. Circle of Creative Friends: As an older mama, I don’t have many friends with little ones—but I do have friends. 

Creative friends. Writer friends. Yes, we do talk about the baby, but we also still talk about books, deadlines, the industry, their work, my work, our mutual and separate struggles. 
Don’t isolate. Keep up your writer’s group if you can. If really brave, take a class. Or in my case, teach a class. The communion of other creatives feeds you. Bring that energy back to mothering.

5. Don’t Do It All: I have a full co-parent in my partner and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Nor would he. But no matter what the load is on your shoulders, don’t take it all on. I may have a cluttered living room for the next 15 or so years but I will have books on the shelves—or scattered across the floor—that this writing mama wrote.

Co-writer Arun Gandhi holding Taru

6. Look for Inspiration: I am a children’s writer. You don’t have to be a parent to be one. Now or ever—but if you are, use it. Seeing the world through my son’s eyes is changing my work, just as it has changed me.

7. Change Form: I am a novelist and picture book writer. I will continue to do both but since my son’s birth I’ve been crafting more creative nonfiction than working on novels.

I am finding pleasure in finding the through lines in the lives of my chosen subjects, as I give my guy his beginning.

8. Gold Stars: This one isn’t from me—as my son’s chores consist of drooling and pooping and making me laugh and surge with love—but it is from Printz-Honor author and mother of two, Ashley Perez.

Keeping a chart for her son, nightly he asks her, “Did you write your five pages, Mama?” And he watches her put a gold star next to her name.

9. Trial and Error: Anne Lamott has a saying I love: “Scooch, scooch, stall.” Trying is trying and tiring.

I prefer to take baby steps. And rest. Lots and lots of rest.

10. Be Real; Not Realistic: Just as there is societal pressure on women, there is societal pressure on mothers.

Know the pressure is out there—and in here. Feel it and then let it go. Talk about the joys and struggles both—with your partner, your friends, and even with the page. Be real. Your writing and mothering will be all the better for it.

There is no one-sized fits all for anything in life, being or becoming a writer mama included. Write your own list—you have your own wisdom to share, with yourself and others.

Additional resources and links:

Cynsations Notes

Bethany Hegedus, mom to now 19-month-old Taru, has sold three picture book biographies, since becoming pregnant. Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, illustrated by Erin McGuire (Balzer + Bray) releases in January 2018. She hopes one day to have enough brain power to write another novel.

She is also the owner and creative director of The Writing Barn, a writing retreat workshop and event space in Austin, Texas.

Her books include the award-winning Grandfather Gandhi (Atheneum, 2014) and Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story (Atheneum, 2016), both co-written with Arun Gandhi, grandson to the Mahatma, and illustrated by Evan Turk. Her pre-motherhood novels are Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte, 2010) and Between Us Baxters (West Side Books, 2009).

She is also a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults and the former editor of the literary journal Hunger Mountain.

Taru now