By Cynthia Leitich Smith
Esther, welcome back to Cynsations! What’s new in your writing-teacher life?
I’m happy to report: the teaching part of my teaching-author life is taking off in all sorts of new directions this year, literally and figuratively. I continue to teach writing for children workshops at both the University of Chicago’s Graham School’s Writer’s Studio and Chicago’s Newberry Library, where I’ve taught since 2001 in alternating seasons.
However, this April and May I’ll be facilitating a Writers Group at the Writer’s Studio for middle grade and young adult novelists. This June I’m introducing a new hands-on workshop in which writers use common marketing tools to create a GPS to guide their final submission-worthy revisions.
Both institutions bring me stellar students from all walks of life, so committed to telling their stories to children they wring me out like a sponge.
I love it and remain “Jewish-Mama proud” as they fully immerse themselves in learning and honing their craft.
Come July, I’ll be flying northeast to Landgrove, Vermont, where I’m honored to continue Barbara Seuling’s venerable Manuscript Workshop from July 10 to July 15 at the Landgrove Inn.
I’m back in Chicago July 23 through Aug. 3, again honored, this time to facilitate a writing for children workshop, along with Joan Bauer and Sara Holbrook, in Judson University’s Doctoral program.
We’ll spend time on campus grounding the soon-to-graduate Doctorate in Literacy candidates in the Children’s Book World’s story-telling opportunities and possibilities; we’ll then retreat to a northern Michigan resort where we’ll work one-one-one with our writers to help each ready his or her manuscript.
How exciting that you’ll be leading the Manuscript Workshop at the Landgrove Inn in Landgrove, Vermont! Would you please tell us about the history of the program?
The one-and-only Barbara Seuling – children’s book author of more than 60 titles, illustrator, former children’s book editor and esteemed children’s book writing teacher, founded The Manuscript Workshop in New York City in 1982, moving it to Vermont in 1992 and then to the Landgrove Inn these last few years.
That’s Barbara Seuling, the expert author, as in How To Write A Children’s Book and Get It Published (Wiley, 2004), Barbara Seuling, whose dedication to craft and children’s literature as well as to her students and fellow children’s book creators is known to all in the children’s book world.
I’m mindful I’m stepping into some mighty huge shoes.
An early brochure’s cover quote underscored Barbara’s heart and the workshop’s intent: “Spread your writer’s wings…and discover how high you can soar.”
Countless working writers who attended the workshop and retreat have indeed flown high, connecting with fellow writers, learning new skills and polishing their work.
The good news is: my heart lies with Barbara’s; the workshop’s intent remains the same.
The small (up to eight writers) week-long workshop continues its tradition of offering insightful, informative and inspiring one-to-one student-teacher connections.
Morning sessions include hands-on writing exercises and instruction on craft – story and its structure, format and genre considerations, the young reader’s needs.
Afternoons are set aside for individual writing and/or re-visioning of manuscripts, optional special interest sessions or free time.
Evening sessions focus on readings of the day’s work and guided critiques.
Throughout the week, focused food-for-thought conversations at meals highlight the writing process, paths to publications, writer’s tips and sustaining the creative spirit.
Appropriately enough, manuscript workshop founder Barbara Seuling ices the week’s cake with a guest speaker visit.
How about your personal philosophy of teaching? What should your students expect from you?
As corny as it sounds, like Barbara I do things “the old-fashioned way” – up close and personal, eyeball to eyeball, heart to heart.
In my humble opinion: each of us has a story and the right to tell that story. It’s my job, as well as a privilege, to help the writer do just that if children are his or her audience. I do indeed invest in that story – in its construct, its telling, its place within the body of children’s literature.
But as important, I also invest in the writer. Knowing what our characters want/need/wish for and why isn’t enough; we need to know our own what’s and why’s. As Marion Dane Bauer taught me, the writer needs to be somewhere in his story if it’s to re-sound in the reader’s heart.
This was a truth that came late to me in my own path to publication, a career that – proudly – earned me the title “The Susan Lucci of Children’s Books.”
Again, it might sound corny, but I do my best to give my students and the writers I coach what I needed while out and about on my own writer’s plotline: I needed someone seeding me, feeding me, cheering me on, believing in my story, believing in me.
Like the earlier-mentioned Jewish Mama, I’m tough – because children deserve the very best, I nurture and I take enormous pride in the strides my students and coached writers – my “storied treasures” – continue to make.
One of the great lures of any workshop is the location. How would you describe it?
I cannot tell a lie: I’ve yet to visit the Green Mountains in person!
However, I’m counting the days ‘til I arrive.
Paging through Vermont travel guides and scrolling down the pages of online Vermont websites, I know what awaits me: majestic mountain peaks, rolling hills, picturesque valleys and verdant forests, scenic roads, hiking trails and quaint charming towns. “Idyllic” is the word most travel writers choose to describe the Green Mountain State.
Tom and Maureen Checchia, proprietors of the historic Landgrove Inn, known, incidentally, for its award-winning meals, describe their country inn and town as “authentically Vermont.”
The truth is: a whole lot of magic can happen when we leave our known and familiar writing rooms, when we take ourselves and our stories to new places and spaces and surround ourselves with like-minded, like-hearted folks who share our passion.
Tell us more what you’re doing in your writing life.
Ah! The author part of teaching-author.
Alas, when I do claim writing time between my teaching and coaching, my work, like my teaching, has taken off in new directions, literally and figuratively. Now, when I do write, I’m usually writing nonfiction.
I found this funny at first, since I was somewhat reluctant to join my fellow TeachingAuthors bloggers, certain the writing would not fulfill me as my fiction did. (How wrong I was!)
I also found my reluctance ironic. I minored in journalism at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication and cut my writer’s teeth working for a local newspaper, then educational text book publishers.
Researching and writing S is for Story, illustrated by Zachary Pullen (Sleeping Bear, 2009) turned me around 360°. The writing itself, straightforward and concrete, came so naturally, lost as I was in that creative flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi advocates.
Recently I began blogging for the American Writer’s Museum, scheduled to open in Chicago in late 2016/early 2017.
Given my love of Chicago and All Things Children’s Book, my posts have featured Shel Silverstein (“A Chicago Gift Named Shel”), L. Frank Baum (“Somewhere, Over Lake Michigan!”) and The Center for the Book’s Letters About Literature project (“Dear Author”). Future posts will feature Gene Luen Yang (the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature), the Walter Dean Meyers Award and a favorite author’s upcoming 100th Birthday.
Currently, I’m working with a graphic designer to create a new alphabet book concept.
And that one middle grade fictional character whose story grabbed my heart a life-time ago?
Fortunately, she’s making herself known on a daily basis.
How would you say your journey has evolved over time?
Leo the Late Bloomer and I have much in common.
For starters, like most beginning children’s book writers, I had no idea I was embarking on a journey, and a Hero’s Journey, to boot.
I was simply writing a picture book to be published in time for my son’s third birthday. It would be easy. It would be fun. And how nice that while doing so I could realize my childhood dream of seeing my name on the cover of a children’s book. I mean, I did teach fifth grade, right? I did write for newspapers, yes? I did write text books.
Fast forward lots of years dotted with lots of rejections and “oh, no!” Moments, past lots of twists and turns, not to mention lots of mentors and allies. To my amazement, as story helps the reader discover/uncover/recover his story, writing – and revising – my never-published picture books and middle grade fiction helped me discover/uncover/recover my story. I’d finally found my voice. I could speak from the heart. Published picture books soon indeed followed.
But wait! Just as the hero surprisingly returns with something so much better than what he first sought, I did too.
Once published, I went on to become a teacher and coach of children’s book writers.
In Elizabeth Strout’s new novel My Name is Lucy Barton (Random House, 2016), the title character and narrator shares remembered advice from a famous author whose writing workshop she’d attended. “You will have only one story,” Sarah Payne told the class. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”
I’ve come to see that all of my books, whether fiction or nonfiction, picture book or novel, and all of my characters from Lowell Piggott to the referenced and cited children’s book creators in S is for Story, tell the reader: you matter!
Which is just what I tell my students and writers.
In so many inevitable yet surprising ways, I now understand my story may well be helping other writers tell their stories.
I look forward to doing just that July 10 to July 15 at the Landgrove Inn in Landgrove, Vermont.
Through February, The Inn offers a discount for accommodations. You can email Tom Chechhia at email@example.com.
Interested writers can also email me their questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.