Wednesday, February 27, 2008

True Confessions

I love to read nonfiction – history, biography, environmental essays, memoirs, kid’s books, adult books – and I love to write nonfiction. But last fall I hit a wall.

Before I started writing for children back in the early 90s I wrote nonfiction (art reviews and features and travel features mostly.) I wrote scripts (nonfiction) for interactive educational multimedia programs. Since then I’ve written nonfiction for early and middle grades and I've loved it all.

So what happened last fall? I had just returned from six weeks in Italy and France: singing in Italian cathedrals, basking on Lake Como, bicycling from Geneva to Nice, lolling on the Riviera. Now I love my hometown, Los Angeles, and I love my work. So when jet lag had faded I surveyed my hard drive. I saw several works in progress, and one I was especially eager to complete. But, for the first time in my life….. I didn’t want to write. I was afraid even to think the phrase wr***r’s bl*ck. Or maybe I just wanted to go back and sit by the Mediterranean, sipping cappuccino and eating croissants still warm from a French oven.

At first I didn’t worry: I had heaps of business to take care of. I traveled to Washington DC for the National Book Festival where my latest book, Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer, was featured at the Montana State booth. Back home again, nothing had changed. I dared to think the words wr***r’s bl**k and felt worse. My editor wanted another biography from me. I had an idea or two, but nothing stirred the heart. I read my works in progress. Yawn. I slogged through a revision or two. Then I panicked. Was I finished as a writer? Was I doomed to return to Italy and eke out my days drinking cappuccino by Lake Como? (Ha!)

Three months into spinning-through-denial-slogging-and-anxiety, I attended a guided meditation. I lightly floated “my work” into the cosmos and got a reply: “Focus.” I knew just what it meant: work on one genre, rather than skipping from picture book fiction to biographies to middle grade novels – as I have done for years. Furthermore I knew where to focus: biography. I did have those drafts, I did have an editor wanting more.

Now, epiphanies are common as dirt – just like story ideas. Less common are completed stories and epiphanies made manifest. But this one worked for me. With “focus” lighting the way, I finished one biography, began a second, found a third subject while researching the second, and stumbled across a fourth subject while on a field trip for the third.

So what was my problem? Why the writer’s block? Back to the meditation evening. Jotting down thoughts of my experience, I dared put into words what I didn’t like to admit: I have been a slave to status. Just as children’s writers are the proles of the literary world – “anyone can do it!” – with literary novelists as reigning monarchs, my feudal world of children’s literature was ruled by Baron and Baroness Novelists, surrounded by picture book author courtiers. Below stairs in the scullery, lived the – wince – nonfiction writers. None of this was rational, mind you. I know nonfiction to be just as gorgeous – and difficult – as fiction. But my neuroses dwell not in reason’s realm. Anyway, coughing up my dirty secret allowed me to see that it was – to misquote Mr. Scrooge -- just "a bit of undigested beef.” (And I’m a vegetarian!)

I’m happy to report that while I still long for croissants warm from a French oven, I am working again, neither scullery maid nor duchess, but a (mostly) contented scribbler – writing biographies, telling the best stories I can.

Besides, I’m off to Paris in April, thanks to a winning raffle ticket. More about that next month.

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