Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Recharging the Batteries

Had lunch with a friend the other day and he told me he had signed to get his social security payments. He's been out of work for over a year but despite numerous interviews he hasn't gotten one offer. Not even a second interview nibble. Since it seemed that his career was at a deadend, he decided to throw in the towel and retire. This was sad, of course, and I did try to think of ways to revive his energy and will to carry on the search. But it also got me thinking about my writing and those times when it just seems so hard -- too hard -- (which seems to happen more frequently these days) and how I get beyond that.*
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Well, for starters I know perfectly well that I can never really retire. Kids in school, debts, no handy pile of cash, etc., etc. In other words, the typical writer's life. So I begin by knowing I have to write until my publishers retire me.*
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But how to put that scenerio off for as long as possible? *
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I begin with the projects I work on. Years ago I realized that if I can't sustain a passionate interest in a topic over the years required to research, write, revise, and revise again and again, collect images, answer editorial and production questions, that the text would reflect this. So I am constantly analyzing how I feel about a project. And if I sense an emotional letdown -- that feeling that something's not right, those worries about whether anyone will want to read what I'm writing, whether I've really figured out how to say what I want to say properly -- I think over causes and solutions and totally re-evaluate the project. And sometimes I have to admit defeat, back away from a project, and get cracking on something I truly love.*
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There's also the changing nature of publishing and the world in general, that notion that things are passing me by and might even be leaving me far, far behind. No self-pity here; just an attempt to analyze a situation as objectively as possible. This notion of dislocation I decided to attack head-on -- or as head-on as my ancient brain can handle. It's one of the reasons I was happy to be a part of INK and do this blog. A once a month post is not heavy-lifting in the blog-world (how does Betsy Bird have the energy to do what she does at Fuse #8 every day, I'm always asking myself). But this blog is a start. And then we have our video-conferencing and publishing arm and more. And we just added a iPad to our household, a gadget that we'll be playing with and trying to figure out in the days ahead. Yes, these are tiny steps, but they're headed in the right direction and with some effort I can keep it moving forward (this week, for instance, is "read all of Vicki's recent e-mails and figure things out!" week). In short, these little learning moments help ease those annoying times of self-doubt enough to help me focus on the work at heand*
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Finally, I draw energy from my fellow nonfiction writers for kids. I am always reading other folks' books, studying how they shaped their texts, guessing what some of their decision making was like, looking carefully at the images and design, and admiring numerous other aspects of their books. Jim Giblin has a real knack for establishing themes and developing them throughout the text; Susan Campbell Bartoletti manages to make some very nasty subject matter work for kids (think Hitler Youth and They Called Themselves the K.K.K.), Russell Freedman writes in a clear, concise, direct way that obviously engages readers; Deborah Heiligman's Charles and Emma is multi-layered and complex, but also extremely readable. I read these authors and many, many others and feel challenged and renewed. What a great subject they took on, I tell myself. Unusual, not necessarily curriculum focused, but still immediate and riveting. How can I get that element of drama, that level of passion or emotion, that depth of character development into my own work? I might brood a while over all of this, might even have a flash of inspiration or insight about something I'm working on. What I do know is that after a while my negative thoughts, my personal demons, have evaporated to some degree, my head feels clearer, and I'm ready to plunge back into my own writing.*
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I wondered if anyone else goes through similar highs and lows and what sort of process you use to work through these rough spots? Right now I have to charge up the iPad and start noodling with it, but I'll be back and hope to learn more about how others deal with these darker moments. *
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P.S. If we don't talk again soon, I hope everyone has a great and happy bunch of December holidays.

8 comments:

Susan Bartoletti said...

Hey, Jim.

What a great question you raise here: how does a writer recharge?

This has been a year of personal challenges, more lows than highs: My cat died. My dog died. My dad died (two months ago).

Whew! I've needed some pretty strong voltage to recharge this year.

What have I been doing?

Maintaining a daily writing schedule as best I can.

Watching low brow comedy shows and movies and doing light reading. Nothing too heavy.

Spending time with my grand babies (boy girl twins, ages 2 3/4 and baby girl 18 months). I take them to the library. We sing. We dance. We act silly.

Teaching. (Teaching always helps me recharge.)

I figured out GarageBand and iMovie. (It's not exactly rocket science, but each time I learn something techy, I feel as though I've taken One Big Step toward the future.)

Now I want to learn a better organizational system.

And finally, finally, I feel as though I am coming up for air.

And soon it will be January, my favorite month of the year. (Honest. I love January.) I'll do my yearly "Accounting of My Days" to see where and how I've spent my time. based on the accounting, I'll make adjustments.

I'll plug into the Next Nasty Subject for kids.

Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Barbara Kerley said...

Hi Jim,

I really appreciate your posts -- just laying thing out there, and the ruminating aspect of them. I always find myself thinking about them, hours later.

To answer your question, I think the thing that keeps recharging me is the field itself: nonfiction for kids, and how in the past ten years or so, it's really come into its own.

Nonfiction now is -- wow! The field has expanded so much, and so many talented people are working in it, pushing boundaries and letting us all think bigger (how can I tell a bigger story, a deeper story, a story that is richer or quirkier or funnier.)

I've been thinking a lot lately about big books. How can I tell a more moving story? What would I write if I could write anything? What if I could really GO there?

I do still struggle with the long hard slog, at times, feeling buried up to my eyeballs. But I keep coming back to the excitement of thinking , wow -- THIS story hasn't been told yet for kids, or THIS one, or THIS.

The anything-is-possible fires me right back up.

Emily said...

Thanks, Jim. I needed that.

Deborah Heiligman said...

Jim,
first of all, back at you. Love your work, love this post. I am constantly looking for ways to recharge. And as you know I recently dropped a book after a long time researching it, and have now moved on to another. It's hard to get the energy up some days. A friend recently told me about a Richard Ford piece in which he talks about the time between books. "Goofing Off While the Muse Recharges." It spoke to me.
http://partners.nytimes.com/library/books/110899ford-writing.html

Emily said...

Thanks, Jim. I needed that, especially this week.

I have to agree with Barbara -- the work itself is something to cling to in hard times. (Though I do question the dictum of, "it's worth it whether it gets published or not" -- I think writing in a vacuum is of questionable value.

My writing group energizes me. And going outdoors for a walk or listening to music always makes me feel better about life.

I applaud your tech endeavors! That's a major next step for me.

Thanks for writing.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

All good comments. When I start moaning about how hard this writing gig is, I think of my actor friends - women of a certain age - and feel grateful that my career doesn't hinge on how old I am, what I look like, and how much I weigh!

Jim Murphy said...

Thank you all for responding in such thoughtful and instructive ways.

Susan: I was sorry to hear about your Dad's death. When my Mom died, I just couldn't seem to focus on work for months, which threw all of my schedules off for years. When my Dad died several years later, I dedicated doing work every day to both of them, telling myself that that was what they would want. I might have been fooling myself about that but it did help ground me and keep me moving forward.
By the way, posting at 5:21 AM is interesting since I was awake, watching the clock and waiting for our new puppy to begin making it clear that it was time to take her out.

Barbara: Yes, nonfiction for kids is changing in some amazing and challenging ways. And I think that trying to build Big Picture themes into our books is both smart and critical. I worry, though, that some people might create a big book without really doing the necessary research, but I guess we have to leave that sort of critical analysis to reviewers and historians.

Emily: Thanks. Why did you need it today. Nothing too serious, I hope.

Deborah: Yes, I agree that recharging is important. I try not to work on weekends anymore for that reason. I can come back on Monday and read what I did the week before and go back and edit it like the nastiest editor in the world (and I love my editors, but the tough and knowledgeable ones are worth the sweat). And like Susan I do all sorts of things to distract myself. I really like historical mysteries, for instance. And cooking. And cleaning up my office and around the house. The cleaning makes me feel as if I'm in control and seems very calming to me. In general, I think these little things help us (and our brains) to relax and that can help us see problems in a way that can lead to solutions.

Gretchen: Oh, my goodness, I think being an actor or a singer has to be absolutely exhausting and one of the hardest jobs in the world (second only to running a very good restuarant). I/we get to sit at home and pour our souls into our projects, but we also get to go back day after day to edit and (hopefully) make what we do better. Actors and musicians have to do it live (for the most part) and have to be perfect. And then there's the age thing that is not only unfair but must put immense pressure on people. At least we can have our author photos retouched to take out some flaws while we hide at home working. It's those public visits that can be unnerving and still provide humorous stories. (And I have a handful of those).

Peggy T said...

Hi Jim,
You are one of the writers that I turn to, to learn fresh approaches, remind myself of the extensive work I need to do to make my NF competitive with the rest of the wonderful writers out there. I sympathize with feeling like you'll be left behind in this everchanging business and its technology, and I thank you for being so honest about it. You are in good company, and something tells me that there will always be room for dedicated writers with passion for their topics.