Chaos vs calm….some thoughts on writing process

sun and storm




Writer Bruce Black ( invited me to be part of the My Writing Process Blog Tour. I think he might have realized that we’re a bit like salt and pepper or sun and storm in personality. His blog on process demonstrates a calm that I covet, while my own writing process is definitely a storm!

Writer JL Powers will be following me ( JL is an amazing YA writer who also developed, a children’s literature blog that focuses on themes of social justice. But before we turn to JL, I’ve got to tell you a bit more about what my chaotic, storm-riding writing life is like…

bessie   What I’m working on: · Call me chaos. Seriously, I have got to get more organized about my writing!  I’ve   always got a few projects going at once so I’m researching Bessie Smith’s life for a possible biography, I’m tweaking a picture book biography, revising a novel about a ghost sister and I’m working on the proofs for an anthology Things I’ll Never Say, Short Stories About the Our Secret Selves. The one thing I’m not doing right now, which makes me feel like a total slacker, is working on a brand new piece of fiction – which I think of as the heart of my writing. I crave being in that creative space, but, all these other projects create a chaotic vortex and I think something has to be completed before I’ll feel free to tackle new work.

How my work differs from others of its genre: My biographies always have a clear narrative perspective so, when I wrote the biography of Robert Cormier (for those who might not know who Robert was, he was an iconic YA writer who was also one of the most censored authors in his lifetime and even ten years after his death), I wrote from the perspective of what it would be like to be a teen growing up with Robert as his or her father. My research focused heavily on interviews with his 3 daughters; I was sorry that I was unable to meet his son because of schedules. My biography of Amy Tan, aptly named Amy Tan, Weaver of Asian-American Tales, speaks directly to teens about Amy’s own mother/daughter relationships. In contrast, Janis Joplin, Rise Up Singing is written from the perspective of a fan crush, a fan whose heart broke when Janis self-destructed.

Why I write what I do: I write biography because I think we can learn so much about how we want to live from the lives of real people that we admire. I write fiction to explore the world and expose the hearts of imperfectly marvelous loveable teens. They’re usually good girls who make bad choices but, in the anthology, I wrote a story from a guy’s perspective. He’s a good guy who just makes bad choices. But we learn from those choices in our own lives and I hope my characters learn from theirs.

How my writing process works and sometimes fails me: My writing process works because it involves a LOT of revision. I think I revise my work anywhere from 10 to 15 times before I feel like it’s any good at all. But all these projects can undermine the creative sense of discovery. Right now, everything’s on a deadline. That is something I need to fix.


I consciously choose to remove anger and fear from my life…








My friend Bethany Hegedus wrote an amazing picture book about a grandfather, family and the search for peace.  Reading Grandfather Ghandi reminded me that my own life is often lived in a whirlwind of activity and movement from one thing to another, coupled with the strangely engulfing fear that I’m losing something. But what? I worry that I’m losing time to write even when I’m writing. More important, I fear I’m so busy I’m losing the chance to connect to friends and family. And they might be losing the same.

The whole cycle of being too busy to live fully in the moment turns anxiety to anger and fear. I don’t like how I act when I’m in that space. I need to change it.

For instance, this morning, I woke up aware that I still haven’t resolved a recent telephone conversation with my daughter in which I was super-crabby, sitting with my shoulder wrapped in ice, hating that I hurt, and wishing my daughter were with me rather than 6 hours away. I took it out on her by being wickedly critical of everything and everyone. I was far from peaceful and far from feeling the light of my life. I imagine it made her feel she was in the dark corner with me. So, this morning, when I saw this pledge on facebook, I decided I’d take it. Then I’d share it. But I also want to take this opportunity to publically apologize for allowing myself to be caught up in the busy-ness of life rather than the light of conscious being. Here’s the pledge to live your life as light in case you want to join me — and now I’m going to call my daughter and tell her I love her.

The “Live Your Life as Light” Pledge

I pledge to listen to my anger, to see what it has to teach me.

I pledge to not bully or cause harm, with words or with weapons.

I pledge to look for the light, to see it in every situation.

I pledge to find my own unique tools and talents.

I pledge to forgive myself and others. I pledge to live my life as light.


While I’m writing…..

Posted December 27th, 2013





I listen to music while I’m writing, revising and editing. So this year is ending with work on Things I’ll Never Say, Short Stories About Our Secret Selves (Candlewick, spring 2015) and music by Cloverton, which is so different than the music I usually listen to — those of you who know me, know that I’m more a Joan Jett and Pink sort of fan.

The anthology is also a reach for me because I’m not a secret keeper myself. It came out of a workshop I participated in at Mount Mary called Untold Stories–a workshop facilitated by the Voices & Faces project based in Chicago, a project that uses writing to change the face of violence in our culture. We were encouraged to write from  the perspective of a different gender and I found the voice of a boy named Luke who….well, you’ll just have to wait until it comes out to know his secret. The stories I’ve received provide a breadth of young adult experiences. They’re about the good and bad things that can happen when we choose to keep a secret or share a secret or break a secret. I don’t want to say too much about this anthology until it’s closer to publication. So I’ll just recommend that you stay tuned.

This has also been a year in which I have come to fear that I can’t teach full time and manage to stay with a novel long enough to do the sort of revisions it takes to really nail a novel. It’s been frustrating to sit day after day with characters who just haven’t felt like talking because my head is full of student work and the details of our English Department’s day-to-day responsibilities. So I’m turning to something different for awhile. I’m working on a lot of short stories and poetry in the hopes that this shorter work will fit inside my days. I’m also hoping that playing a bit more–at writing and, well, just playing at life– will clean out my soul a bit and maybe make room for the work of a novel.

As a result of the Untold Stories workshop, I volunteered to facilitate a ten-week workshop for women at Sojourner Family Peace Center. I worked with some amazing women to create Empowerment poems and prose as they moved through the series which we called Writing as Healing.  They inspired me and gave me hope. That hope and inspiration are what drew me originally to Cloverton. That music, by the way, can draw me to tears.

And so I’m ending this year with a prayer of sorts for us: ”I hold close those whose days are long because their lives have taken difficult, sad turns. I pray that as the days get longer, their own choices lead to better places and I pray that horizons expand and they discover hope and meaning in the task of living each day with a conscience.”

Happy New Year.