This is the first post in a series about the NJ-SCBWI Annual Conference, held in Princeton, NJ this past weekend, June 8-10. Visit all this week for insights from this stellar children’s book writing event.
Kate DiCamillo began her NJ-SCBWI keynote speech warning us that it was long and full of contradictory advice. I am certain no one minded. I mean, if you have an opportunity to hear Kate speak, wouldn’t you want it to last forever?
After college, Kate’s family asked, “So what are you going to do now?” Of course, the answer was simple: “I’m going to be a writer.” Simple and yet complicated—a contradiction. She didn’t have any desire to actually write, she just wanted to be a writer.
Instead, she worked in a greenhouse and came home with dirt crusted under her fingernails. Her mother would ask how her day went. “I’m a manual laborer!” Kate would yell. “How do you think my day went?!” Then she’d storm to her bedroom and slam the door.
After a few minutes, her mother would knock gently. “What are you doing now?” she’d ask.
“I’m writing,” Kate would answer. But Kate wasn’t writing, she was just sitting on her bed.
“I don’t hear anything,” responded her mother.
So Kate would turn on the typewriter with its gentle hum. “There! Are you happy now?”
But she let the typewriter hum away and sat on her bed, reading. The book that changed her life? It was THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST by Anne Tyler. One scene with Macon and Muriel lying in bed struck her:
“Just put your hand here [Muriel’s caesarian scar]. I’m scarred, too. We’re all scarred. You are not the only one.”
Those words made Kate want to get up off the bed and work that same magic. Those words transformed—they were broken-hearted but they also healed. Again, a contradiction. But one that Kate could not ignore.
So she began to look around her room. She watched the curtains flutter in the breeze and she noticed how their shadows looked like wings. She began to imagine a story about a woman who was paralyzed, lying motionless in bed, but staring at the same curtains and imagining how they could lift her up.
Kate began to write. Everything else disappeared. “It was like I was playing a piece of music I already knew, as if my fingers knew exactly what to do.”
But as soon as she realized her own dreary reality—a girl alone, sitting at a typewriter, she thought “wait—I can’t do this.” And she stopped writing.
The scary thing is that she realized this was the work she was meant to do. And the fear of that epiphany paralyzed her. She didn’t write for another seven years…