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The River of Inspiration, Part 1
On last week's episode of The Story of the Book, all about failure, Lindsay says something important, which is that in order to be a writer, you have to fail a little every day. What you write is never exactly how you want it to be (failure!). The book on the page never holds up to the book in your head (more failure!).
We need another word for this kind of failure, the failure that is the action of doing hard things. Because that's not actually failure, that's success. Failure is deciding that because the book on the page doesn't hold up to the book in your head, you should stop writing altogether. Success is showing up every day even when it's hard, even when you don't know how to write what you need to write.
I learned recently that there are two types of stress: eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress). Eustress is the nerves and fear that come from doing a scary but good thing (like writing a book, for example). Can we make eufailure a word? It's too bad that failure is such a loaded word, so that embracing or courting failure as the regular practice of doing creative work sounds like, well, a failure. If not eufailure, then what? Growth? A jumble of any other positive word? Drive?
In the end it comes back to our old friend: work. The good failure of being a writer and writing regularly, of rewriting, revising, being messy and getting better is work. Of course, work is a loaded term too. "Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life." Yeah, right.
Writing feels most like failure to me when I'm not sure if I have the skill to make the writing good enough. Doubt feels like failure. My two-step cure for the failure of doubt is: 1. Do the work, and 2. Intuition. Getting words on the page reminds me that I know how to fill a page with a story, and then it's by tapping into my intuition that I figure out how to make the story better.
Intuition and inspiration are braided together for me. I have to listen to my gut in order to listen for the ideas. I like to imagine inspiration as a river, and my goal is to be standing in the middle of that river of inspiration. If I'm in the river, I can only hear the ideas. I can only be distracted by the inspiration. And yet: social media can tie a rope around me and pull me to the riverbank in an instant. Why?
Social media shouts over my intuition, which is sometimes just a whisper. I recently listened to the Happiness Lab podcast episode about emotional contagion, and it clarified for me why social media is louder than intuition.
For me, my intuition, my gut, is strongly linked to my emotions (gut feelings), and now that I know about emotional contagion, I know that social media actually causes me to catch other people's emotions. And since the algorithms prioritize anger, outrage, sorrow, and strife, those are the emotions I'm catching. I need to write from a place of putting my own emotions on the page, of being true to the feelings that I know are true for me. So as soon as I catch someone else's outrage, it blocks me from accessing that place of intuition. Then I'm listening to their intuitive insights instead of my own -- other people's emotions are like someone talking in a movie theater: it's hard to concentrate on anything else, even if I want to ignore them.
I'm pretty annoyed about this. I'm trying to dig deep and tap in to my inner voice, and yet there is an alluring and loud and outrage-driven internet machine that keeps interrupting me and belching. Somehow that's the daily struggle we face: do we do the hard work of writing, or do we hop out of the potential river of inspiration to stand on the, I don't know, clogged freeway of metaphorically belching angry inspiration-blockers? It seems like an obvious decision, and yet, I still wander away from the river and toward that interstate.
Will you indulge me in a quick story? In 2009, when my kids were 5, 3, and 1 (and Ramona wasn't born yet), I planned our summertime by writing activities on slips of paper and putting them into a jar. Every day, we would pull an activity out of the jar, and do what it told us to do. The jar commanded us to do things like visit a museum, write letters to friends, go to the beach, bake cookies.
One day, the summer jar told us to go on a coin-flip drive. That's where, at intersections, you flip a coin to see where you're supposed to go. You leave your destination up to the universe. After half an hour of meandered driving we landed at a parking lot outside Smitty's Cinema, which is one of those movie theaters where you sit at tables and can order food.
There was a line of people outside, parents and kids. The kids were whining. The parents looked annoyed. The line wasn't moving, though. Everyone was just standing there.
"What's going on?" I asked someone.
"Monsters vs. Aliens is sold out," said a lady. "We're waiting for the other movie to open."
Something in my mind said, "Why don't you check. Just to be sure."
I went to the ticket counter and said, "Is Monsters vs. Aliens really sold out?"
The ticket taker looked at me, my baby, my two young kids, and said, "Let me check." A minute later he came back and said there were two seats left, and if I could hold the baby on my lap, and the 5-year-old and 3-year-old could share a seat, we could go in.
So we did. We squished into two seats just as the movie was starting, and ordered chicken nuggets and french fries and watched a silly movie.
Looking back on it now, everything about the coin-flip drive required accessing that river of inspiration, my intuition, and checking in with my gut. Everything about the summer jar did, honestly. I remember it rained for most of June, and somehow we would only pick outdoor activities on the rare days when it wasn't raining. I didn't have a cell phone in 2009. Would it have worked if I had? Would I have been able to hear that nudge that told me which paper to pull from the jar, the one that said, "Go check to see if there are any more seats in this movie theater"?
I used to be better at listening to what my gut was telling me to do. Better at hearing it. I'm not saying I want to toss my phone and my computer into the garbage (most days), but I do need to be intentional about how loud I let them be, how much I let their yelling into my head. Like I said in this newsletter last month, I can seek boredom. I can leave my phone at home, turn my computer off, go for a walk, write longhand.
The first part of my daily writing practice is to ask, "Can I do this? Can I live this creative life? Can I be a writer?" Every day, I have to ask. Every day is a new chance to step into that river. Some days the answer comes quickly, that today is going to be hard. But on the good days, I ask "Can I be a writer today?" and if I can ignore the honking horns of the internet long enough to have a moment of stillness and quiet, I'll hear that ocean-waves whisper of "yes -- yes -- yes -- yes."
Rick the Rock of Room 214 has a cover!
Look! It's the cover for my next picture book, Rick the Rock of Room 214, my second book with the incredible Ruth Chan. Rick is ready to rock your world (get ready for the rock puns, there will be many over the next six months) on August 30, 2022 (barring any supply chain delays). WAIT UNTIL YOU FEEL THIS COVER. Yes, I said feel. The texture on the rock is amazing. The star is shiny. The title is embossed. IT'S A GREAT FEELING COVER.
Links to preorder are on my site, and you can see some interior pages there too! (As always, if you want signed copies of Rick the Rock of Room 214, or of any of my books, order from Print: A Bookstore.)
Thoughts and Links
My amazing editor/writer friend Heidi Fiedler is launching a new class about picture book writing, and she gave me a discount code just for you! The class is called Making Magic, and believe me when I tell you that Heidi is the best. She is just the person if you're just getting started OR if you've been at it for a while but want a boost of energy injected into your picture book writing. You can find out more about Making Magic here, and, if you sign up, make sure you use the code JULIE20%OFF for a discount (registration just opened, and the discount is only active from TODAY to 2/26/22, so go for it!).
I love love super love the show Better Things, and the final season looks like it'll be even better than all the others, somehow.
How cool is this Polish library vending machine? (SO COOL)
Random product recommendation: Mother's Little Helper Tea from David's Tea. It's like Sleepytime Tea x1000. If it's near bedtime and I'm still too wound up, I drink one cup of this tea and within a few minutes I am verrrrry relaxed.
Mac Barnett mentioned in his newsletter that The Picture Book Proclamation was published ten years ago. Ten years! In 2011, I was surrounded by a pile of really weird manuscripts that confounded most critique partners, and that Proclamation gave me a lot of hope. It's fun to read it again now and still feel strongly in favor of all of it.
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