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.


On writing biography and nonfiction


Although I’ve always loved to write about real people, I didn’t actually set out to be a biographer. There were times I refused that role and worked exclusively on fiction.

But I am a biographer and nonfiction writer. In fact, I’ve been teaching these forms to graduate students at Mount Mary University. I have some expectations when I teach and so I thought some of you might want to know a few simple rules — I don’t think of these as guidelines. They’re really rules because if you don’t abide by them, you’re writing fiction.

1 — Always try to find two sources who agree on the details. This rule could save you a ton of embarrassment because you chose to believe one source only to learn that source was inaccurate or had a personal agenda that shifted or twisted the truth of an event.

2 — Never ever make up quotes. This means you only quote what witnesses heard and reported or the subject wrote or said and you attribute each quote to the source.

3 — Never make up scenes. But you can interpret them based upon what witnesses say. For instance, Myra Friedman told me that Janis Joplin was concerned about the way she looked and feared she was starting to look old. She also told me that Janis had a great sense of humor. Any story that Myra told about Janis in the book, Janis Joplin, Rise Up Singing, also includes Myra’s views on whether Janis was worried or purposely being funny or provocative.

4 — Use a self-effaced narrative style. This means you are the one telling the story, but you’re a bit invisible, like a reporter. But you can write in close 3rd person and choose language to demonstrate the passion you have for this subject. For Janis Joplin, Rise Up Singing, I believe I wrote from the perspective of a fan crush….a fan who loved her flawed hero and was devastated to learn that Janis died because of a drug overdose when became my cautionary tale.

5 — Do not make up a narrator. Ever. This means you can’t create a fictitious bystander and set that narrator in scenes to tell the story of a famous person or event. That would be historical fiction.


In my newest book, Adopted Like Me, My Book of Adopted Heroes, the narrator is me telling the story from the perspective of someone who appreciates the heroes. The book contains 20 heroes who grew up in formal adoptions and in informal adoptions such as kinship care or guardianship. My goal is to help adoptees and their families recognize that adoption is only one aspect of a family and that they can achieve many great things through the strength of the relationships created by family. You can pre-order the book on Amazon or Barnes and Noble or your favorite local bookstore.

Buy online from an indie bookstore
Find an indie bookstore near you


Link to this Book

Considering the act of writing in a snowstorm






The view from my front door is pretty enough to remind me of Camelot. But winter in Wisconsin is cold and gray.


I’m not actually writing in a snowstorm. I’m writing in my house which is warm except where I actually sit at my computer; this corner is probably the coldest corner of the house. In fact, it’s so cold I sometimes wear fingerless gloves while I type. So here I am typing and for the third week in a row a storm is brewing outside. We’re being promised 3 to 7 inches, depending upon which weather guy offers the news.

This is the coldest, darkest part of a Wisconsin winter, made even more so because I’m writing and reading constantly but without the sense of joy and light that being totally in a creative zone can bring. So I yearn for warm weather and sun inside my own head and outside.

My writing includes proposals for Mount Mary to bring new offerings to our graduate writing program and it includes emails to students suggesting major revisions. These are all worthwhile pieces of writing. But they’re not the sort of creative writing that leads to all things imagination. There is one small glow — I’m writing a picture book biography of my friend and poet Lenard D Moore.

Lenard will be performing his poetry in a spoken word performance at Mount Mary on April 9. He’ll be accompanied by the Dennis Klopfer trio. Immediately preceding this event, the English graduate program is hosting a wine and dessert pairing/author reception. There is a donation request for this part of the event to help offset the cost of bringing such strong writers to our campus. If you’d like to learn more or make reservations, please go to this link:

But back to this picture book I’m working on. Lenard, who is a master of haiku seems to have always measured his life in seasons and so I’m using that metaphor to write about what it was like for Lenard to grow up in the rural south. Writing this is the glimmer of light that I hope will keep me warm until spring finally comes.