On Writing and Complacency




I have become, in certain ways, a complacent writer.


I have spent many years of hard work, frustration, persistence, tears, rejections, and near surrender to make a career out of my craft, and only in the last few years have I begun to feel confident in my writing and publishing, the hard-won expertise that most people who aspire to the type of writing I do look on with jealousy. I can write a book in a weekend if I have to, or churn out a magazine article in a few hours. So I should be basking in having achieved my lifelong goal, that of being a well-published writer. I give talks at conferences, mentor writing students, and edit other people’s writing. Unpublished writers ask me for the “magic formula” that will help them get published, too.


So why, then, am I complacent? Simply put, if something comes easily to you, the need to hone and polish and struggle and work to create a well-written paragraph or page or book is no longer as all-encompassing as it once was. Writing is, in large part, a skill that has to be learned, not nearly as mystical as most people think. As Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration,” and he’s right. I’ve mastered quite a bit of the perspiration part, the butt-in-chair, the nuts and bolts and how-to’s.


And then it’s easy to become complacent. But any voracious reader who has ever devotedly followed the works of an author knows how disappointing it is when that author is writing by rote, using the same devices or characters or tired plot points in book after book. They know what works, what has sold, and they stick with the formula. I wish that I could do this, in a way, and just keep happily churning out four, five, six books a year or more. But I’m not comfortable with complacency, and I’ve also been burned enough to know that I can have the publishing rug pulled out from under my feet at any moment, given the vagaries of publishing and nomadic editors and sales numbers and library budgets.


So I am hoping that, by confessing my complacency to the world, I must start challenging myself again by embarking on different types of writing. I still love writing books that teach kids about all the cool things in their world, and will always consider that my greatest accomplishment, but I’d like to reach other audiences as well. I want to use words to excavate thoughts, not simply clothe or decorate them. I want to use my writing ability to help create change or share ideas and information that the world desperately needs. I don’t need to write for my own “fortune and glory,” as Indiana Jones puts it, because I have been lucky in being published many times. And as I am an addictive journal keeper, I don’t need to write for myself, to chronicle my life or capture my thoughts. Frankly, talking to myself gets pretty boring after a while. (And I like what David Sedaris says about keeping a diary for 33 years, which takes a little of the mystique out of it: “It’s an invaluable aid when it comes to winning arguments. ‘That’s not what you said on February 3, 1996,’ I’ll say to someone.”)With the specter of ego glaring over my shoulder, I want to make sure that these new avenues of writing aren’t about me, the author, but rather about what the words can do. This blog addresses regenerative development, and basically that’s what I am attempting to do with my writing: regenerate my writing by developing it in new ways.


So here we are: this blog category is called Rewording (thank you, Tedrowe, for putting it so well) because that is what I am embarking upon: taking my writing in a new direction to keep pace with the wonderful new experiences and ideas and knowledge that I am encountering in my work with my blog partner, Tedrowe. Rewording, technically speaking, means to put something into different words, to restate it in a different way. In my case, it’s a step beyond, or maybe a turn-around: to put my words to different uses. It’s a risk, in a way, because I’m making myself vulnerable again by stepping out of my comfort zone, and on the whole, children’s writers don’t garner a great deal of respect or credibility in the world of adult writing. And if I am at the end of one cycle in my creative life, and beginning another, that’s an inherently unstable and somewhat frightening place to occupy. But it’s also where change takes place. But I don’t want to be complacent, or to squander the gift of words that I have been given. So—deep breath—here goes.

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