Here we are at the very end of the year, a time when many people look back at what they accomplished in the previous twelve months. Not me, not usually. I might mentally note what I got done, in a vague way, but I am mostly a fan of looking forward. I’m not thinking, “what happened?” so much as “what comes next?”
Except this year “what happened?” is more of “wait, what DID happen? What WAS that?”
Here’s what I accomplished (“accomplished?”) writing-wise in 2022:
Revised a middle grade. I needed to try a new angle on this story. I will keep some elements of this new plot, but on the whole it didn’t work.
Wrote a draft of a chapter book. A lot of it is good, but it has no plot or structure or throughline.
Wrote some (14k words) of a middle grade. It’s a mess. It needs a plot and character motivation and heart. I really want to make this one work but every time I dive in it’s like writing with honey on the side of a tree (sticky, messy, hard to see what it even is).
Wrote seven new picture books. One will be a Real Book (news on that soon, I hope, because it was a really interesting process and I’d love to talk about it); the others are either spending time in the Drawer of Doom (from whence they may not return) or have been revised dozens of times and are awaiting judgment.
Ok. Sure. So that was some stuff. I did stuff. I did the work (trademark, this newsletter). But every time I started something new, I had this feeling of “Oh, I’m so excited! This one will be great!” that was quickly laid over with a blanket of “Wow, this is not great. What’s even happening here?”
It was a feeling I knew, because it was the same feeling I had in 2010-2014 when I was learning how to write picture books. But! I know how to write! Why am I feeling that feeling now? It took some journaling (thank you, morning pages) but what happened was that I leveled up. All the books I was trying to write had some more complex thing going on than I had personally successfully executed before. I think a lot about that Ira Glass quote about the gap, about how when you’re starting, you have good taste but don’t yet have the skill to make your creative work as good as you want it to be. And one thing that I didn’t realize about that quote was that it doesn’t only apply to when you’re starting. If you keep learning and growing as an artist, you’ll hit that gap over and over again. So this year was a frustrating one on one hand, but also exciting, when I think about the sort of stories I’m trying to tell, and knowing that I’ve bridged that gap once, so I can do it again. I haven’t decided if I’ll make a specific goal for writing in 2023 or if my only goal will be to write a lot, to have that volume, so I can get across this new gap.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Rick the Rock of Room 214, my 2022 picture book release. Don’t tell the other books, but Rick is my favorite. I got to work with Ruth Chan again, and I made a story I’m really proud of. It was a Junior Library Guild selection, got a star from Publisher’s Weekly and was called “The Back to School Book of the Century” on ShelfTalker.
Finally, I moved this newsletter to Substack.
I’m lucky to have started my Substack newsletter with a decent number of subscribers from my 5+ years on Mailchimp. In the almost 3 months since I’ve started, a lot more people have signed on (hi, all you new people!).
A particularly cool/fun thing about Substack as a newsletter platform is the ability to comment on the posts. If you only read these in your email inbox, do know that you can click through to Substack and leave a comment or join in the conversation if you’d like.
I really, really appreciate those of you who have trusted me enough (or wanted the extra monthly essay and the bonus weekly posts) to upgrade to a paid subscription. Switching to Substack was a financial win in the first place just because I was no longer paying $23 a month to Mailchimp.But as someone lucky enough to be a full-time writer (“full-time writer”?), I am always doing the math on how to make enough money as an author while also not working 19 hours a day and burning out. To be frank, 2020 and 2021 were terrible years for my writing income. 2022 has been better. This is not a plea to get you to upgrade to paid (although you are certainly welcome to!) but more to say that I appreciate Substack creating a space where writers have another potential income stream.
So! Hi! If you’re new, I am the author of several books for children. In this space, I write about the creative process, specifically how to carve out time for meaningful creative work and inspiration when we’ve got smart phones and streaming television and families or plants or dogs who all need to be fed.
I am someone who has struggled particularly with breaking up with social media because of my love of people noticing me and liking me, even as I acknowledge that the long-term process of spending years on a book and having people like it is vastly more satisfying than the seconds-long process of writing a vaguely humorous tweet and having people click a heart on it.
Once I did manage to detangle myself from social media, I found that the writing was still hard. Maybe even harder, because I didn’t have that frequent social media reward. It’s hard to write something, know it’s not good yet, and sit quietly, waiting, writing more, hoping you’ll figure it out.
This process – the process of knowing writing is hard, but also knowing there is a reward that waits far down the road if I sit with it and keep going – that’s what this newsletter is about.
Thank you for joining me.
And now! In honor of these first three months (and in honor of being on the verge of ripping the December page off our calendars) here are the top 10 essays you might have missed, since they are from the Mailchimp Beforetimes. Click through to check them out and comment on them, if you’d like.
I started doing Deep Work (as recommended by Cal Newport).
A month later, I posted about how, thanks to Deep Work, I had completely revised a novel.
I wrote about stepping away from social media to access what I call the river of inspiration, which is honestly something I still think about all the time.
A month later, the process of consciously seeking my intuition had already profoundly affected my creative practice.
So much of social media is just giving us little jobs.
I got comfortable with being uncomfortable, and this is kind of a funny one, because at the beginning of the post I announce that Help Wanted: One Rooster, a book that went under contract in 2014, would be coming out in 2021, which it clearly did not. I think it’s coming out in 2024. It’s going to be such a huge party when that book finally comes out.
I learned that I really had to be intentional about limiting the amount of information I allow to come at me, but when I do, the rewards (like the ability to think) are absolutely worth it.
I wrote about how you can look at what you were obsessed with as a kid to figure out how to write a book that only you can write.
They’re called works of art because they take work to make them.
I challenged myself to write picture books based on short stories and also told you about Rick the Rock of Room 214 and what it looked like from first draft to final manuscript.
Thanks for being here with me. I write these essays mostly to work through whatever I’m processing and thinking about, and I’m so happy when any of them resonate with you. It makes me feel a lot less alone.
This is not a dig against Mailchimp. I loved how easy it was to use and how customizable and pretty I could make the emails. But Substack is a better platform for writers.
Maybe I should write a longer post on this, but the way I do it is by being married to someone who has a steady job with health insurance. This is not ideal. I’d love to make enough to theoretically buy my own health insurance if I had to. I’ve got some money stuff I’m working through (probably enough for a whole other newsletter, never mind a longer post), but let’s say I’m focusing on ways to make money.
See above: me writing thousands and thousands of words this year that were not good enough.
Thoughts and Links
Portland! (Maine!) I’ll be at the Portland Stage for a Play Me a Story production of Rick the Rock of Room 214 on January 7, 2023 at 10:30 am, and signing books afterward. These productions are always a blast. Come say hi!
Travis Jonker of 100 Scope Notes’s year-end round-up is always one of the best, and this year he puts Rick the Rock of Room 214 on the list, highlighting the amazing way the cover feels (like a rock!) (kinda).
Matt Bell reminds us that we’re not failing, we’re practicing.
Here is a great essay from Jenny Odell about how social media warps our sense of time. I loved How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy and have preordered Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, her next book, because if it’s anything that essay or like How to Do Nothing, I already know I love it.
I wrote about applying non-standard plot shapes to picture books via the book Meander, Spiral, Explode. Here’s an article in Nautilus about how you should look at your life similarly (that is, don’t get discouraged if your life doesn’t fall into a standard plot arc mountain shape).
I like this post from Oleg atabout his neighbor doing weird nighttime exercises -- and why not? Do your thing, as Oleg says.
Thank you tofor linking to Enchanted Lion's Unruly Kickstarter. I am of course 100% in favor of picture books for children, but I am also in favor of seeing how the art of the text-plus-illustrations format can be adapted to books for adults.
Books I read recently and loved
Disclosure: book links in this newsletter are affiliate links to Bookshop.org, a site which supports independent bookshops.
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I just emailed this to you but will also post here--those essays sound ripe for a class series taught by you!
A few things:
1) I bought RICK THE ROCK for my kids for Christmas and am so excited to read it with them. It is so stinking charming.
2) Deep Work was a life-changing book for me when I read it a few years back.
3) I’m so glad to have found you/your substack this year. The community angle of SS is just not possible on Mailchimp and I’m so happy to have somehow stumbled upon Do the Work. I always look forward to your posts
4) MUSHROOM LULLABY is so sweet. Simple, too, which means (I’m sure) that it was anything but simple for the author to write
5) Happy holidays and new year! Looking forward to more of your posts in 2023!