This is the second in a series of posts about the NJ-SCBWI Annual Conference. Visit all this week for insights from this incredible children’s book writing event.

continued from previous post

After seven years, Kate decided she wanted to live a life in which she was always making art. She had fear as a writer, especially in revision, but instead of the terror paralyzing her any longer, it motivated her.

Kate introduced writing’s first contradiction: “you go on a long journey but stay in the same place.” The writing can take you anywhere, but you are still a lonely writer sitting at a keyboard.

Kate explained that a career in writing means you have to “chart a course through the contradictions.” She revealed five pieces of contradictory writing truths:

  1. Be absolutely rigid; Be loosey-goosey.
  2. Write only for others; Write only for yourself.
  3. Hide yourself; Reveal yourself.
  4. Compromise; Never compromise.
  5. Listen to what other people say; Don’t listen.

Kate had a good friend Oscar during that not-writing-but-wanting-to-be-a-writer seven-year stretch. One day they discussed belief in miracles and Kate told Oscar that she wanted to be a writer.

“Baby, that don’t take a miracle. That’s all on you,” Oscar said.

She had never realized that the whole of the task was on her. You have to do what you promise yourself. After years of brooding, she came to know that it was “easier to do the work than to NOT do the work.” Just in case we didn’t get it, she repeated this several times.

Yes, art and fear always go together. The constant feeling of uncertainty creates a tolerance for uncertainty. In other words, embrace the terror. It’s a prerequisite for success.

 As I sat in the balcony, I had my own epiphany. Writing picture books is my comfort zone. My middle grade novel has been sitting untouched for more time than I’m willing to reveal. And it’s languishing out of pure fear: fear of ruining what I already adore, fear of not knowing what comes next, fear of writing more than 600 words IN A ROW. Why have I not embraced the fear before? Kate DiCamillo says she never works with an outline; “an outline kills it.” She writes to know what happens next. And that’s how I write, too. I enjoy discovering the story as I write. But I thought writing a novel like that was WRONG. Now I understand that nothing is wrong, it’s just the way I like to work.

So when Kate says “be absolutely rigid”, she means to commit yourself to the work. But when she contradicts this advice with “be loosey-goosey” she means the stories want love and joy and play. Go ahead and write without an outline, don’t plot where you’re going and you’ll journey somewhere totally unexpected. She equates this first contradiction with standing at a door and knocking. You must stand there, but how you knock is up to you. Shave and a haircut? A rock riff? Gentle tapping? How will you knock?

continue to part III