I’ve loved books and wanted to be a writer for longer than I can remember. As a kid, I wanted to be a fireman and a writer, or a policeman and a writer, or a lawyer and a writer—but always a writer! I think that’s partly because my mother read wonderfully to me when I was very young. Reading to kids is the best way to get them to love reading and writing.
All through school, I wrote stories, essays, and poems. I still have my very first story, which I wrote in fourth grade. It’s called “Christmas for the Orphans,” and you can find it on my Web site!
When I grew up, though, I changed my mind about becoming a writer. It’s true! I decided that a writer’s life was too solitary and that I was already too much of a loner. But even after that, I kept writing—poems and stories and even the beginnings of my first book. I finally realized I was a writer, whether I liked it or not. Luckily, I’ve now found that writers can make lots of friends through their work.
For many years, I wrote mainly nonfiction for grown-ups. For a while I also ran my own publishing company, putting out my own books and booklets and computer programs. I’ve also worked as a musician, a bamboo flutemaker, a piano repairman, a printer, a produce clerk, a felafel maker, and an advertising salesman.
Around 1985 I got involved in storytelling and reader’s theater, and was soon performing professionally. My audiences were all ages, but I discovered I enjoyed young people the most.
So in 1987 I started writing also for kids. I sold my first children’s magazine story in 1989 to Cricket magazine, and my first picture book in 1990. Four more picture books were accepted in 1991—so at the age of 40, I became a full-time children’s author. And I can’t imagine a more wonderful career.
I get many more ideas for stories than I can ever use. For my retellings, the ideas come mostly from discovering tales in old books found in libraries and used bookstores. For my original stories, though, the ideas are instead like seeds from which a full story must grow. The “seed” could be a situation, or a magical object, or a theme, or a character name, or even a catchy title.
Ideas like that can come at any time, but usually when I’m not looking for them. Often my mind is just wandering, and a thought twists into an unusual and interesting shape, or two thoughts collide and unite to form something new. I might also get an idea from a dream, or from misreading or mishearing something.
Whether I’m retelling an old story or making up a new one, I need to think a lot before I start writing. I jot down ideas about how the story should go and what should be in it. Some of my best thinking has come in the middle of the night or while taking a bath.
Most of my stories also need research, including library trips and Internet searches. If I’m retelling, I try to find varying versions of the tale, and I also study the culture it comes from.
As a writer, I’m a terrible perfectionist. My first draft is mainly for ideas—to set them down and see how they work, without worrying too much yet about what words to use. But after I print out that draft, I erase it from my computer. Then I retype the story, making changes as I go. Retyping it all helps me get new ideas, find better ways to say things, and create a smoother flow.
After that, I go over and over the story—both on screen and on paper—looking for ways to improve it, and changing whatever’s not right. I look at every paragraph, every sentence, every word. I might write a paragraph ten different ways before I’m happy with it. I might spend a half hour searching in a thesaurus for the exactly right word. I don’t stop going over the story till I can’t find anything left to change.
While revising, I often read the story out loud to make sure my writing sounds smooth and has punch. Sometimes what I read makes me laugh, and sometimes it makes me cry. Sometimes I get so excited, I pound on the desk and shout, then jump up and pace around the room.
Most of my stories have been very thoroughly tested. For instance, most have been read to critique groups I’ve belonged to—groups of writers who get together to comment on each other’s work. Many of my stories have been reviewed by other friends or experts as well. And almost all have been read to kids on my visits to schools, libraries, and bookstores. Like other writers, I can always use help to find weak points in my writing.
As I collect comments and spot problems, I return to the computer for still more revising. I keep making changes till the story is sold—and then, with comments from the editor, I make more. In fact, the story might keep changing right up to when it’s printed, and sometimes after that! With researching, writing, and revising, a story can take me years to finish—or you might say it’s never finished at all.
Here are some things I try to do with my writing:
Create joy, spread delight. I think these are important nutrients for human growth, and we don’t get enough of them.
Offer helpful ideas and models. I often write about alternatives to violence, or about strong female characters.
Share favorite stories. I like to retell folktales and other old stories that grip me and demand to be spread around.
Show other cultures. America is not the whole world, and it helps to know there are other kinds of people and ways to live.
Stir the imagination. I believe exercising the imagination is important for our mental and spiritual well-being.
While each of my stories is an artistic creation in itself, it is also a building block in a larger creation: my career as a children’s author. This career has been exciting for me, and I’ve learned a lot as I’ve worked on it. For instance, I’ve discovered there’s much more to being a successful author than just writing stories. There’s also answering mail and email, talking on the phone, visiting schools, libraries, and bookstores, appearing at conferences, and writing articles and speeches like this one.
Besides that, I’ve spent a lot of time working on my Web site, which has now had over 2/3 million visitors. And to top it all off, I’m once more engaged in self-publishing, with books and ebooks for both grown-ups and kids.
For me, a lot of the fun of being an author is going out and reading my stories to kids. I get high on kid energy. Some people are surprised that I’ve never raised a family of my own. It surprises me too! But in a way, I have many children—all the kids who enjoy my stories.
I feel very lucky, because I’m doing exactly the kind of work I want. Some people can’t do that, because they have too many responsibilities. Others could do it, but they don’t—because it seems too hard, or they don’t want to live on less money, or they’re just afraid. So they stay unhappy. If there’s one thing I want to tell young people, it’s this: Follow your dreams.
July 4, 2001
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