Trade-Offs and Confessions

I shared my pink chair for a moment with Jack Bryant from Russell Middle School in Winder, Georgia last night. Jack came over about 6:30, at the end of my work day, and interviewed me (video was involved; help) for a school project he is working on. He sat in the green chair, I sat in the pink chair and Jack's father, Kerry, made sure the camera kept working.

How is this story part of 30 days of process? Keep reading.

This past May, Scholastic Book Fairs hosted a tea for teachers in nearby Hall County. I was their guest author, and I participated by talking for a few minutes and reading from my novels, and signing books afterward, meeting teachers, which is always a pleasure.

As I got to know these teachers, I noticed one, Robin Blan, was wearing a fantastic artsy jacket and I asked her about it. One thing led to another, and I arranged to meet her in July in Dawsonville for her folk-art reunion -- Robin is a folk-art dealer as well -- AND to meet there her student, Jack, who had just read EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS, and who loved it ferociously... Robin had me sign a copy of ALL-STARS for Jack, and we parted with the assurance that Jack and I would meet in July. "He is special," said Robin. "You'll see."

When Jim and I arrived at the folk-art reunion in July, we had just missed Jack and his mother. Disappointment all around. When school started in August, I heard from Jack, a fantastic, articulate, respectful, earnest letter -- would I be willing to be interviewed for his school project?

But no, no, I had no time, I was on deadline for this novel, and... wait. I would be at the Decatur Book Festival over Labor Day Weekend, presenting... could he meet me there? With bells on, he said. But it didn't happen. A death in the family meant that Jack was attending a funeral that weekend, armed with Comfort's Top Ten Tips for First Rate Funeral Behavior.

By now I was deep into Revision-Land and could not bear to think about giving up a day for even my own children. Well... you know how it is... and you know what I mean. It's so hard to keep the momentum going, and it's so important to keep moving, for me, as I tend to write best in white-heats.

I wondered what had happened to Jack and his project, so I wrote him and his mother three weeks later and offered to answer some questions on email, to do a Skype interview, something else, if we still had time. I offered the photos on my website and blog for Jack to use in his PowerPoint presentation.

Back came an email from Jack that his parents would take him anywhere, anytime, take him out of school, take time on a weekend, whatever, to drive the 30 miles from Winder to Atlanta, for this interview, if I could find time. His deadline was October 18.

And I said no. Kindly. Firmly. And Jack wrote back the most respectful, kind, firm acquiescence. Case closed. Jack would send me some email questions. I would get my book done. And I would make one trip, one trip long on my schedule, to Birmingham with my Scholastic Book Fairs friends, to the Alabama Library Expo.

Which I did. I rode to Birmingham and back with the fabulous Beverly Williams. We regaled one another with stories. I told her about Jack, and how this request had grown out of the Scholastic Book Fairs tea in Gainesville, and how polite, erudite, earnest Jack was, how his parents -- both of whom had written me -- seemed so supportive and wonderful, and yet and yet and YET, how I had to finish this novel -- FOR SCHOLASTIC, no less -- and how my deadline was so tight... and Scholastic needed the novel in order to start design, art, marketing, who knows what else -- buzz, one hopes... I needed to keep my end of the bargain so others could do their jobs, too.

And Beverly said, into the quiet that my insistence left in its wake, "Could you maybe do the interview in the evening, after work?"

Now is the part where I am supposed to say that she completely changed my mind, that I saw it differently suddenly and that the earth stood still, but that is not the case.

Immediately I said NO. No, no, I have to keep my momentum going, I can't be distracted by these things, I'd have to completely rearrange my train of thought, go into author-mode, I'd have to GET DRESSED, PUT ON MAKE UP, BE "ON" and I would lose a day, really -- at least -- by doing this... it's about PROCESS... I have to stick with the process, and stay with the story, keep the faith with myself... that's how it will get done, and I am so far behind...

Beverly was quiet. Then, softly, "Wow. I didn't realize that. I see what you're saying, but I'll bet most folks don't get it. I wouldn't have gotten it without your explanation..." and it was clear that Beverly still didn't *really* get it... and I had to let that go, and so did she, and we changed the subject, and it was good. We are friends. Each to her own. (Hey there, Beverly, friend.)

Here is the part where we writers try to explain that what appears to be quirkiness and stubborn-ness and maybe just-plain-arrogance is not about being special, it's not. It's a job, this writing gig, this writing life, and this is how it works. It's not about saying we're more important than someone (anyone) else is, it's about getting the job done. And it's a weird job, constructing stories out of thin air, creating something tangible that never existed before -- it's hard. That's the nature of work, however. It's hard. And rewarding, and all those things that work can be... but it needs tending to, in its way.

And, along the way, we do other things that we construe as part of our jobs. We travel to schools and libraries and conferences to work as partners in literacy efforts, we write articles and give interviews and teach and volunteer and we sometimes run into misunderstanding or misconception. We walk such a fine line...

We know we're going to be misunderstood when we say, for instance, to schools, "I'm sorry, I can't do five sessions in a day, I lose my voice and stamina and I'm no good for my writing day tomorrow (or the next day)... and in any event I won't have a writing day because I'll be recovering from a school visit.

"Please understand -- we are going to have a wonderful day and I'm going to love being with you, but I need to put into place some boundaries that will work within your schedule as well. Please. You know your students and your school's particular needs and quirks and politics. I am coming to your teachers and students -- all 500 or 1500 of them -- for the first time and it will take all my energy to be present and effective for you -- I want you to have a wonderful day and take away so many good things that you can use in the classroom and put in your teaching and literacy toolboxes."

We know we're going to be misunderstood by some when we state honorariums and watch conference organizers or school budgets blanch, and we swoon right along with you, we do, because we understand the savaging of school, library and conference budgets, but honestly, at the same time we work with you to make a visit happen professionally, practically and financially, we stand for ourselves because we know we are not prima donas, it's just that we know what it costs us to take the day away from the writing, which is really three days at least (and we know this isn't understood, either), and we know what our expertise is, we know how important this day will be to students, to teachers, and to us, yes, we are excited to be with you, and we hear you when you say this is "just a day" (or "just a half-day" which is even harder) but it is also so much more, in so many ways.

We know it is exhausting for you, as well, and I'm quite sure that we cannot begin to comprehend all that you do behind the scenes to make the day a success -- it is a labor of love entirely, we know that.

When we stay away from our desks, we know we have no assistants who will answer the phone and email and do all the administrivia for us, so there's that work to make up as well when we change-up our routines, and there are the subsequent emails to the organizers waiting on us, saying "I'm sorry, I'm here, I'm buried, I'm getting to it..."

Then, too, it takes time to sink back into the story at hand, the family that needs tending to, the life that needs shepherding, the community that we participate in. The distraction of travel and break of routine is difficult... but welcome, if that makes sense. Very welcome. I have made good friends on the road. I consider these days and these schools and conferences sacred good work. I am lucky to be able to do it, and I know that, I do. So it's a paradox.

More than book sales will ever likely do for most writers, working in schools and at conferences pays our bills and allows us to keep writing. It's not only good work; in a day when there is no effective NEA or NEH funding for children's book writers and illustrators, in a day when arts and humanities are so devalued and yet more important than ever to a civil and humane society, in a day when there are no personal benefactors for children's writers and illustrators (unless you have a satisfactory day job which is another challenging story in itself, or a willing and well-healed spou$e or parent$, etc.), schools and libraries and conferences are our patrons. And we work hard to make it worthwhile for those patrons to invest in us, and to make sure they receive a good return for their investment.

Few jobs bring with them the particular wide-ranging, always-changing, multi-layered and platformed, personal, political, administrative, creative possibilities along with the sharply defined challenges, breathtaking privileges, and sacred trusts that being a children's author/illustrator does. You had better love the work.

You will not be rich or famous. You will not write in your pajamas all day and eat bon bons on the couch and whip up little stories for the little ones that everyone loves, purchases, and turns into classics.

You WILL go into schools where -- this does happen -- no one knows why you are there or who you are. You will show up to book signings and be the store's only customer. You will speak at conferences where your time slot is up against the giants of children's literature and 13 people sit in your ballroom and two of them are crying babies. You will study your royalty statement and see that your books STILL have not earned out, despite the buzz and hoorah surrounding them. You will fight for shelf space -- ANY space -- in bookstores and libraries. You will read reviews of your work that make you cringe and inspire you to send hate mail. You won't do it.

You will market and promote yourself to the public and you will run yourself ragged doing so. You will be misunderstood by those who don't understand the brutality of the publishing business or the nuances of the writing desk, or the art of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, personal narrative. Some will label you inconsiderate, arrogant, selfish, picky, difficult. You aren't.

But you will have to suffer these misunderstandings and you will. And you will have to understand, yourself, that you cannot explain to anyone who has not done this job why you cannot rent a car in Hoboken and drive to three schools in one day, or do a 45 minute session with pre-kindergartners or sleep for a week in a weekly-rental motel in the middle of nowhere that has a parking lot full of 18-wheelers, rooms the size of a cereal box, and sheets made of sandpaper. Likewise, you cannot stay in the PTA president's home and hang with the family all evening, even though you would at any other time love the conversation -- in this context, it is just too hard and you are too exhausted after a day on your feet, you are so sorry, but this is a boundary you must put in place, please understand... or not. Sigh.

There is the flip side of this misunderstanding, of course. There are the dream visits and teachers and conferences and conversations and understandings and memories and experiences and long-standing friendships that develop, fantastic teaching and learning that happens, meaningful moments that are treasured, there is that sense of making a difference in the world, the notion of being of service, the surety of doing great good work, and there is love everywhere -- literacy everywhere, too. There is that flip side. Truth to tell, there is lots of it.

And, there is a common, shared goal -- many goals -- and the assurance (hard earned) that all stories, even the difficult ones, end with hope and the secure knowledge that we still have lots to learn, all of us. We are in this together. We are stronger together than we are apart. And we have good work to do, together.

You will walk a fine line, however, as you learn what works for you and what doesn't, how you want to be in the world, and how your work is best served -- for that is what you have control over -- your story, the work in front of you. We have not begun to talk about the writing itself, the product and the process, although all of this falls into process, of course.

And my process this week, yesterday, included an interview by Jack Bryant that I said yes to last week. I thought about what Beverly had asked me, I slept on it for a few days. I read Jack's emails and thought about our history -- even though we'd never met. I was curious, I wanted to do this, and that both surprised me and felt just right. So I wrote Jack again and asked, "could you meet in the evening? I could do that."

And we did. Jack and his dad arrived at the tail end of a stupendous storm. I had run to the post office earlier and had come home literally soaked to the skin. My hair was still wet. I dressed in my work clothes (meaning I was out of my usual funky-but-comfortable rags), I put on lipstick and we laughed about that, and I greeted my guests.

I was bowled over by Jack's sense of self, by his questions, his intelligence, his humility. He and his dad had made an evening of it, had gone to dinner, then had come to see me. I know they each made concessions and changed-up their schedules, just as I had.

And you know what? I had a great time -- a wonderful time. I think Jack did, too. He's going to give me a copy of his presentation and I can't wait to see it. When I visit Barrow Elementary School in Athens next March (which is near Winder), I plan to have supper with Jack and his family on the way home, after a teacher workshop after school. Jack is going to cook his famous risotto and bake bread. Jack's dad will tell me more about HIS dad, who was one of the federal marshalls who held Ruby Bridges' hand and walked her into school. (HOW COOL IS THAT?) I feel a Story coming on...

And yet... this morning, I could not for the life of me get up at four. Or five. Or six. Or seven. It was 8am before I rolled out of bed, and I have piddled with my novel today, but mostly my head has been fuzzy, has lost that thread of process with the novel, and I have spent the morning recovering from being very present last night, working hard, and having a lot of fun.

So today, I'm going to break for lunch and then take myself to my locally-owned coffee shop for an afternoon writing session. I will not try to catch up; I will focus on the process. It is what it is, and I will just keep going. I can write well into the evening if I want to. Nothing else is required of me today. The book will get written. My family of choice has expanded. All is as it should be. All will be well.

I am lucky.


  1. What a great explanation of the toll school visits take on authors. We try to schedule an author visit each year, and I am slowly understanding the process of booking authors, and why we have to book so far in advance, and why authors can only do a couple of presentations a day, and how lucky we are when we find someone who can speak for our whole school (all 850 of us). AND I am also understanding that I need to communicate all this better to our teachers, who are lit-tle bit demanding when we have to change their schedules or ask them to prepare for an author visit.

    I am so glad you said yes to your little interviewer, and even though I don't want to sounds too karmic and predestined, perhaps it was that you said yes to him and planted the seed for a new book.

    Lucky us!

  2. Wonderful post! I'll be sure to feature the link Friday on Cynsations. Hope you're doing well!

  3. Thank you, Cyn! I would love that. Hope you are well, too.

    Jann -- thanks for writing. Most authors I know can handily and enthusiastically do either three or four presentations in a day and do. We don't require water with lemon or time in a dark closet alone or special lunches, but we do need students and teachers to be prepared for our arrival and be familiar with our books and who we are, since this means they will take away so much rich material from an assembly program instead of trying to catch up and make connections and wonder what it's all about. It is so much work for teachers and organizers, I know, and yet I see how rewarding it is, too.

    And yes, I find that most elementary schools are looking for an author who can reach from pre-K through 5th (or 6th) grade and that's totally understandable, especially in these days of crazy budget constraints.

    For my part, I like working with every student in a school because I get to change up my program each time to suit the age and stage of my students. It's also fun, though, to go into a school and work with, say, only fourth grade all day, etc., especially if we are working on personal narratives.

    Every school is so different, and has different challenges and particular pleasures, and that's part of what keeps the job interesting and fulfilling as well.

    Would be happy to keep talking about this.

    I, too, feel a bit of karma at work with Jack -- it was such a pleasure to meet him and his dad.

  4. Good Lord, woman, who pressed your button? That was an exhausting post to read and I have no doubt that it must have been to write, as well, but what a valuable contribution it is! Not only for how you have changed young Jack's life, nor just for the insight into your own process you must have gained by sorting things out enough to make a coherent statement, but because you have written a post that will be copied and linked to for ages as THE word on author visits. I'm going to tell every school I visit to read your post. Thank you so much! You are somethin' else!


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