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by Doreen Cronin

Inspiration is a slippery thing, impossible to catch when you’re trying and ironically, easiest to catch when you’re really, really busy doing something else. About a year after CLICK CLACK MOO was published, I decided it was time to take a leap of faith. I was an attorney at the time working long days and plenty of weekends to boot. I wanted to pursue writing as my career, so I finally quit my day job and shortly thereafter, we moved out of the city and out (well, up, actually) to the suburbs. I was going to write all day. All night if I wanted to! I had my own office in the house, I had plenty of writing time. No day job to get in my way! I sat and I sat and I sat—and I thought and I thought and I thought and I waited and waited and waited. You know what never showed up? INSPIRATION. I didn’t write a thing for almost a year. DIDN’T WRITE A THING. I had written so much more when I was working long hours and always pressed for time. Oddly, inspiration struck when I had no time for it back then. WHAT? NOW? A story about a worm?? It’s 1:00 a.m. and I have a brief due tomorrow! But when your brain is working, its working overtime. The harder I worked at my day job, the more my brain was spinning with ideas.

What I learned in The Year of Not Writing (besides that we really should move back to the city), was that more often than not, inspiration shows up in the work. I write every single day. I absolutely do not write well every single day. In fact, I rarely do. Ninety percent of what I write is unusable. Horrible. Hideous. Embarrassingly bad. Boring. Unoriginal. Most of it will never see the light of day. But if I wait for inspiration, they will find my rotting corpse hunched over my desk and a blank screen on my computer. Which came first—the inspiration or the work? Very rarely, for me at least, it’s the inspiration. Usually, the uninspired work comes first and somewhere in the first draft or third draft or 18th draft, something from that work stands out, pops out, screams for attention. That’s the inspiration. Only you have to write it first. So frustrating!!

Where to start? Anywhere. I’m an introvert—so I’m listening way more than I’m talking—which is helpful. If you are chatting on your cell phone, or sitting near me on the F train, or at the next table in a restaurant… I’m eavesdropping. Bits of things, pieces of things are the best. Almost anything taken out of context can be a great story starter, title, or dialogue. I’m also partially deaf, so I mishear things all the time —which also makes for strange word pairings in my brain (and plenty of awkward conversations, which is okay, because of the introvert thing—I’m used to it.). Mistakes are great inspirations. Embarrassment is great inspiration. Fear excels at the art of inspiration. If you are not lucky enough to be a hard-of-hearing introvert, re-write an old idea. Write about a time you were deeply embarrassed or scared to death. Write about what you wished you had said in a recent awkward conversation, instead of what actually came out of your mouth (maybe that’s just me).

In the heart of every story is conflict—or a problem. Find yours. Use yours. Give your problems away to your characters. See what they do with them. If you can’t come up with a character, use a stand-in. Here, squirrel, here’s my problem. I’m afraid of ________. Just start writing the story about the squirrel afraid of public speaking—even though this would seem to fall into the category of a problem with little consequence for a squirrel. Just write it. Ninety percent of it will be unusable, hideous, boring, nonsensical. But it will start you down a path where you don’t know what’s coming. That’s where you want to be. That’s where inspiration likes to hang out.

When I die, some poor soul will come along and have to dig through my office. If I was alive, I’d be mortified at how many bad ideas, bad writing, and manuscripts completely lacking in originality will be unearthed. That’s the work. Maybe it will inspire somebody…

Doreen Cronin grew up in Merrick, New York, with her parents, two brothers and a sister. They lived in a red house with a big backyard and a neighborhood full of kids. Her dad was a police officer and he was very, very funny! Doreen decided that she wanted to be a police officer when she grew up, too. Or maybe even an FBI agent! When she actually did grow up, she realized she wasn’t actually brave enough to do those jobs!

It was her first-grade teacher, Mrs. Cooper, who first told Doreen that she was a writer. Mrs. Cooper gave her extra writing assignments to encourage Doreen. It was extra homework, but she loved it! She also loved the library—it was one of her favorite places to spend time.

Doreen graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1988 and St. John’s Law School in 1998. After practicing law for a few years in downtown Manhattan, she left my job and decided to write full time. She’s been writing ever since!

Visit her online at

Doreen is giving away a set of signed CLICK, CLACK, MOO books (Click Clack Moo, Giggle Giggle Quack, Duck for President, Click Clack Boo)!

Leave ONE COMMENT on this blog post to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

clickclackmooWhat a lucky duck–I got to meet the moovelous Betsy Lewin this week. The whimsical illustrator of Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type and countless other barnyard books visited our local elementary school and entertained the kids with a mix of slide show, drawing lesson and Q&A.

Two Kindergarten classes filed into the library with clipboards and crayons, eager to learn from a master cartooner.

But first, Mrs. Lewin showed photos of her 120 year-old Brooklyn brownstone. Her living room is filled with souvenirs from her world travels–Africa, Australia, the Galapagos–places where she has observed animals and gained inspiration. When she showed her husband’s studio on the fourth floor, she pointed out that it was far bigger than hers, not because he was more important, but because it also housed a photography studio. Ted Lewin paints his realistic watercolors by studying photographs. He pays neighborhood kids to model for him. “Anybody want to move to Brooklyn?” she asked. (My hand went up!)

Mrs. Lewin brought along her cartoon friend, Weirdly, to show the children how to draw expressions: mad, sad, excited, laid back and cool, mischievious, shy. “Weirdly helps me draw ‘sound’ words like BOOM and CRASH because sometimes I can’t imagine what they look like,” she explained.

She also showed her first draft cover for Doreen Cronin’s Duck for President. The original cover depicted a national political convention. The point of view is Duck’s, looking out over the crowd (we see his back and tail, wings outstretched). In the front row there’s Farmer Brown, some cows and chickens, Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin. Red, white and blue balloons are falling from the ceiling as the crowd holds signs with slogan spoofs like “The Duck Stops Here,” “I like Duck,” and “A Veggie in Every Pot.”

Then her publisher decided they didn’t want political sayings on the cover, so they asked her to write signs with all 50 states. She soon realized that wouldn’t work. “Which states should go on the front cover? Which states should go on the back? It wouldn’t be fair. What about M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I? That’s too long!”

duckforprezUltimately they decided to put Duck on the podium with just three signs: DUCK, Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin. PERFECT!

The hilarious moment came when Mrs. Lewis showed a photo of someone in a cow costume, typing away. She said the photo was sent to her in an unmarked package. Then she asked, “Does anyone know what Doreen Cronin was before she became a children’s author?” One kid had an answer. “A cow?”

Much to his disappointment, no. Ms. Cronin was a lawyer, just like Mrs. Lewin’s brother, a judge, who had sent the funny cow costume photo. (Yep, lawyers are some of the funniest people I know. My own father included.)

Next, Mrs. Lewin showed the children how to draw a lion with a few easy steps. She broke it down into wiggly lines, circles and half circles and then had the kids decide how they wanted to draw the eyes–happy, sad or angry–with just a slant of the eybrows. She had the first row stand up to show the rest of the audience how different each lion was, as different as they were. “And that’s what makes you so special,” she said. “You’re the only you in the whole world.”

After some questions and answers–her favorite books as a child were Winnie the Pooh and Call of the Wild–she asked the children for suggestions of what to draw. An animal lover and observer all her life, Mrs. Lewin grew up in rural Pennsylvania surrounded by farms. She would watch the animals intently so she could remember how to draw them. She doesn’t need to look at an example as she creates. She can draw anything!

Mrs. Lewin draws with quick strokes, and it’s amazing to watch how these simple lines and squiggles magically come together  to form monkeys, elephants, rocket ships and knights in shining armor. Two lucky ducks, I mean kids, even got their portraits drawn.

The most interesting part of the presentation was when Mrs. Lewin showed the difference between her original black and white drawings for her debut 1979 book, Cat Count, and the new full-color edition. In the new release, she gave two dancing felines a blue room lit with the shimmering, sparkling light of a disco ball. The way the dots played on the page gave the scene a magical feel, as if it could lift right out of the book and tango around the room.

I’ll use the saying “lucky duck” one last time: how fortunate children are to have such marvelous books illustrated by a true genius. Thank you, Betsy Lewin!

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As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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