by Shannon Stocker

You know how you have to make a total mess before you can really begin cleaning? Like how you have to pull all the books off a bookshelf to alphabetize them, or empty all your drawers before reorganizing?

Well, that’s going to be this blog.

So bear with me. I’ll get there, I promise.

Those who know me know that I also write outside of the picture book genre. I write for Chicken Soup, my memoir is currently circulating somewhere in the publishing house abyss, and I’m working on my first middle grade novel. Because of that, one of the most common questions I’ve gotten from other writers is, “How do you organize your time between genres?”

The short answer is this: I don’t.

Inspired yet?

But seriously, one of the most difficult aspects of writing in different genres is switching gears. For example, my memoir voice and my picture voice are two very different things. It’s not like I can drop F bombs in my picture books. If for no other reason, then, I often worked on only one genre in any given day while I was writing my memoir. Sometimes I’d actually take the whole week, only changing genres when I felt thoroughly able to compartmentalize. But once I made that decision, I’d use my first few hours to make a big ol’ mess, reading scattered notes and writing crappy first drafts, and then I’d slowly tidy the room…revising over and over again until my work sparkled. And that worked well for me.

Until it didn’t.

On Friday, October 2, 2020, I brought my daughter Cassidy to the hospital for an MRI. We suspected migraines.

But they found a tumor.

Cassidy was immediately admitted; a biopsy, done first thing Monday morning, confirmed the doctors’ suspicions.

Cassidy had brain cancer.

Through tears during that first night in the hospital, I started a Caring Bridge site to keep friends and family apprised of Cassidy’s journey. The move felt a little like self-preservation, if I’m being honest. I didn’t have the bandwidth to answer all the texts and emails flooding in.

The next month trudged by in a slow, vomitous haze as doctors tried to figure out what kind of cancer was growing in her brain…and what kind of mutations were growing in the tumor. As soon as we thought we had an answer, another hospital would disagree. Her biopsy sample got lost. We had to consult with multiple facilities to determine the best course of chemo. Every ounce of energy, every second of time disappeared into the tornado that surrounded my family. Each time we thought we had enough strength to stand, reality shoved us back to the ground. The mess just kept getting messier.

October 2020 was easily the worst month of my life. And for perspective, I’m a coma survivor.

Once Cassidy’s port was implanted, chemo began the next day. Then again, the week after that. Then again. And again…until one day, we realized we’d found a rhythm. For six, seven, eight weeks, the writer in me pined for an escape. Some way to shelve reality, even if only for thirty minutes. But it was in that moment, when I felt my creative spirit drowning in sadness and fear, that I realized I had actually been nurturing it all along. Even during the worst month of my life, I’d somehow found a way to keep breathing.

Because Caring Bridge posts had been my creative soul’s lifeline.

In that messiest of messy moments, when darkness siphoned all hope, that is when Habit opened the door and ushered herself in. Habit helped me reorganize. Habit opened my laptop. Habit tidied my thoughts.

I didn’t even see it coming. And when it did, I didn’t immediately recognize it for what it was. I was just hurting.

So…I wrote. And I cried.

A lot.

In early January, I wrote my first picture book manuscript since the fall. Yes, Storystorm and 12×12 both nudged me in that direction…but Habit carried me through. Then, Cassidy created a YouTube series called “Candid with Cassidy: Fireside Cancer Chats.” Again, Habit helped me write summaries for each weekly episode.

We cannot expect to be creative when tragedy strikes. Sometimes, life sucks. And in those moments, we must allow ourselves freedom from expectations. We must allow ourselves to flounder. To feel lost.

To grieve.

But, if we have nurtured good habits, then eventually those habits will become guiding lights.

And if our habits included nurturing our creativity, then, when it matters most…creativity will nurture us.

Shannon Stocker is an award-winning author and proud word nerd who lives in Louisville, KY, with her husband, Greg, and their children, Cassidy and Tye. Her debut picture book, CAN U SAVE THE DAY (Sleeping Bear Press), released in 2019, her nonfiction PB bio about Evelyn Glennie entitled LISTEN: HOW ONE DEAF GIRL CHANGED PERCUSSION comes out with Dial (Penguin/Random House) in 2022, and several of Shannon’s nonfiction essays have been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul. Shannon currently serves as SCBWI social co-director for Louisville, a judge for Rate Your Story, and she created the blog series, Pivotal Moments: inHERview, highlighting transitional life stories of female picture book authors. Cool facts: Currently writing her memoir, Shannon is a medical school graduate, a coma survivor, an RSD/CRPS patient and advocate, and a singer/songwriter who once performed two songs, including one original, as part of an opening act for Blake Shelton. Shannon is represented by Allison Remcheck of Stimola Literary Studio.

Visit Shannon at shannonstocker.comFacebook, or follow her on Twitter @iwriteforkidz and Instagram @iwriteforkidz.