Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One Step at a Time

This week's post is courtesy of Leslie Helakoski, a writer/illustrator and Regional Advisor with the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

Because I'm such a chicken, I said goodbye to my day job in stages. First, I quit my professional job to do something that didn't leave me creatively bankrupt—because what I really wanted to do was create books. Then I quit working full time at my low-pressure job and went to part-time because I was bored out of my mind—and because what I really wanted to do was create books. I quit the part-time job because my boss was getting increasingly irritated that I was always writing or researching when I should have been cleaning a shelf or some- thing—and because what I really wanted to do was create books. So fine, I finally quit. I was free to write, BUT . . . my family needed another source of income besides what my husband brought home. If I couldn't make money creating books, then I'd have to go back to a regular paycheck job.

Fear was a great motivator. For two years, I pushed myself hard from the moment my family left in the morning until suppertime and then often in the evenings and weekends as well. I couldn't relax and ate every lunch standing up in the kitchen so I could finish quickly and get back to work.

My back hurt from hours of sitting and one eye began to twitch. What? Leave my desk? But I had more to write, more to paint, more emails to answer, and author visits to schedule! I was becoming a one-dimensional workaholic. I stopped playing tennis, stopped gardening, stopped painting for myself, and stopped cleaning. (OK, I never kept a pristine house anyway.) I thought I would have more fun someday, when I caught up with things. I was working as a writer/illustrator because I thought it would be fun but I wasn't exactly happy. I needed to get some perspective. I needed to get a grip. I needed to make this work.

Staying inside day after day, especially in winter, drove me crazy but I had to stay home and write, didn't I? Didn't I? When I actually had a tremor in my hand and approached my naturopathic sister about treat- ment, she pointed out that I had to find some balance and asked what I usually did for fun. Umm . . . work?

I slowly started sneaking out to coffees with friends and going to the gym more, or visiting museums—during the day! If my husband asked how my day went, did I tell him that after three hours of work I couldn't write anymore so I spent the afternoon at the museum? No. Did I explain that after revising rhyme for a couple of hours, I had to use another part of my brain and played the cello all afternoon? No. After all, he can't leave his job when he gets overloaded at work and just take the afternoon off. Did I cover the phone to drown out the voices of friends and let him think I was at home working? Yes. I felt guilty when I stepped away from my desk. How could I rationalize taking music lessons or playing frisbee golf when I should be working?

I can conduct business all day but I cannot write all day. After a few hours, my brain is usually done. Every once in a while I have to go someplace where the people talk back and the animals don't. We all know that it's essential to step away from our writing for periods of time so that we can look at our work with fresh eyes, right? But I have an even better rationale for taking off to do something fun: play and fun help stimulate the creative thinking part of the brain that is responsible for ideas. Even Einstein said, "To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play." So there.

Being at home and working on books is wonderful. I love it most of the time. But it can be isolating and stifling, not to mention tough on the back. My desk will never be completely cleared of things to do. But do I want to stay there all day, every day? I'm trying to write fun books, here. What kind of writer will I become?

I still spend plenty of time in my chair, drooling over manuscripts while my yard goes to hell and my tennis balls go flat. And sometimes, fear creeps in when I step away from my desk and I have to push away a pang of guilt. Breaking up some of my workdays keeps my mind fresh and my body moving. And guilt totally messes with the energy flow. I make a point to include play in my schedule for BALANCE and because . . . what I really really want is to be happy . . . and of course, create books.

Leslie Helakoski writes humorous picture books and sometimesbut not alwaysillustrates them. She lives in Michigan with her husband, three children, and one small white fuzz-ball of a dog. Her books include Woolbur, Big Chickens, and Fair Cow. She is currently at work revising and illustrating her seventh book, Under the Table, which will be released in the spring of 2013. She is on the web at

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Several years ago, my nephew, then a first-grader, came home from school and told my sister that his class was learning to count backwards. My sister didn’t think anything of this until she discovered that the teacher was doing a countdown to her last day before retirement.

It was pretty funny and pretty awful, but now that I’m in the same situation myself, I must confess to a certain sympathy with that teacher. It’s hard to feel invested in the future of my department when I’m not going to be there to see what happens, especially since a lot of the battles being fought are ones that I’ve fought in the past, cared deeply about, and lost over and over again. Sometimes I feel like I'm just marking time.

It’s a little hard to get excited about my classes this semester—beginning Italian, which I started teaching as a grad student in 1980. I’m even using the same textbook! (A much later and much revised edition, of course.) I’ve heard every excuse for not doing the homework, every reason why the sorority meeting was more important than my class, so could I please tell her what we did?

So I think I’m all blasé and uninterested, but then something happens. A student says something genuinely funny and original in Italian after only eight weeks of study. A light bulb goes off over the head of another student, who has been struggling. A colleague is being mistreated by someone in the administration and asks my advice. A former student emails me that she and some others who were in a small class with me are going out for pizza and they want me to come too because they miss our class. A colleague runs a great idea for a new course by me.

And all of a sudden I care again. So I guess I won't be doing a countdown—not yet, anyway. Check with me in a few months.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What’s your writing process?

Helen Hemphill, who contributed this week's post
Every writer has a unique process that feels right. For me, it’s a weird combina- tion of writing nonstop or writing not at all. I can write like my fingers are on fire or not touch the draft for weeks, but rarely am I a “two-page-a-day” person anymore. I used to be very intentional about writing those two pages, but sometimes I felt as if I was pushing too hard. Pushing the story to go places it didn’t want to go. Push- ing characters to make choices that weren’t really their own. Pushing to get done! I became more interested in finishing the pages than actually writing the pages. That was wrong.

In learning my own writing process, I’ve learned some things about myself. Hate drafting. Love revision. Revision is fun, and I can do it in tiny bites on the run or during lei- surely sessions with a glass of wine and good music. Writ- ing a first draft means quiet, discipline, frustration, and, well, it’s kind of like real work. I know that I have to sit there and do it, or I might find a million reasons not to do it. May- be you love making the marble of a story, but hate sculpting the raw manuscript. Maybe you like to write scenes and figure out the puzzle of how they fit together instead of writing a linear path from beginning to end. That’s the interesting part about writ- ing. You can take classes and learn craft, but no one can actually tell you how to do it. You have to find out on your own.

So, how do you find your process? Some of it depends on your own tempera- ment. I’m a morning person, but I don’t think my best writing happens in the morn- ing. It takes me a few hours to get my mind fully immersed in the story. Tony Earley, a terrific writer of adult fiction, once told me he revises daily, and by the time a novel is done he can recite the first chapters of the book easily. A few of my friends are night writers. They stay up late with their laptops and work while the house is quiet, children and spouses sleeping.

So, the first thing to figure out is your own clock. When do you work best?

Then, set up your physical work space accordingly. If you write at night, maybe the kitchen table is perfect. An out-of-the-way desk might be your best option if you write in the afternoon (like me).

Get to know yourself as writer. I hate writing exercises. I enjoy stopping in the middle of my writing to read books I love as inspiration. I have to have coffee or tea at my desk. I have to have my Flip Dictionary. And, as I said, revision makes me so much happier than actual drafting.

Honor your process. Don’t try to mimic some other writer’s pace or routine. Do what works for you. If that means writing naked in the bathroom, do it! Don’t beat yourself up if your writing process is unique to you, because that’s part of your creative contract with the world.

When other writers ask you about your process, make up something normal and rational. Go with the two pages or the 1,000 words a day. Then do what you do. Nobody will know.

Enjoy writing. It’s pretty weird how many people want to have written but don’t care so much about the craft. Find a process that makes writing fun for you. Then do that. Writ- ing a book takes a long time. You should enjoy the journey.

Hailed as “a strong new voice in children’s literature” by Kirkus Reviews, Helen Hemphill grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas and now lives with her family in Nashville, Tennessee and Austin, Texas. 

Her novel Long Gone Daddy won the Teddy Award for young-adult fiction from the Writers’ League of Texas and was named to the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age. In 2007, her second novel, Runaround, was named a Top Ten Youth Romance by Booklist and Best New Books for the Classroom by Book Links. Her new book for middle school readers, The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones, was named “most distinguished book of 2008 for young adults” by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library; to Best Children’s Books, Bank State College; to the Kansas State Reading Circle 2009 Recom- mended Reading List; and to the Winter 2008-09 Kid’s Indie Next list.  

Ms. Hemphill is a graduate of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College and holds an MA in English literature from Belmont University. Ms. Hemp- hill is a member of the Southern Artistry register at the Southern Arts Federation and is an Artist in Residence for the Tennessee Arts Commission.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What You Stand to Lose

What will you lose financially—aside from your salary, of course—when you leave your day job? I’m trying to make a kind of global checklist to help those of you who are planning to leave your job, so that a month later, you won’t say, “D’oh! I forgot about that free gym membership!”

Here’s what I’ve been able to come up with. I know that some of these are totally irrelevant to many people—some of them are irrelevant to me—but that’s part of the point: every job has something that other jobs don’t offer, and I want to get everything.  So please add a comment telling me what I’ve forgotten.

Medical insurance
Paid vacation
Paid sick days
Paid personal days
Pension plan with employer contribution
Employer's match on Social Security
Child care
Gym membership
Use of IT department
Use of company car
Travel miles on personal account from business travel
Cell phone
Outside opportunities associated with your job*
Bonuses (associated with holidays, job performance, etc.)
Credit union
  • on employer’s product**
  • on public transportation
  • at local stores and services
  • on tickets at musical, sports, etc. events sponsored by employer
  • on life insurance (and other kinds of insurance)

I know I haven't thought of everything, so please help: What benefits will you lose when you quit your day job?

A future post will address what you'll save when you quit, so start thinking about that too!

*For example: I teach Italian, and I work on the SAT Subject Test in Italian every year. More fun than it sounds like, and it pays, but only active high-school and college instructors can serve on the committee, so it will disappear once I've left the job. You might serve on the board of another company, do consulting work, etc.

**In my case, the university pays 70% of the tuition of the children of all employees—not just faculty—wherever they go to college. I know; it's been sweet.