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Just a Spark or Steady Fire?
by Anna Grossnickle Hines
SCBWI Bulletin November/December 1980

For almost seven years now I've been reading all the good advice in the SCBW Bulletin. During that time, I've attended conferences and workshops whenever I could scrape the money together and I've written and sent out stories.  I've even had editors interested from time to time and collected a fair number of encouraging personal rejections as well as my share of form letters.  But somehow I've never been able to pull it off.  Something or other always came up and I let whatever it was come first.  A few weeks ago, though, something happened to me and I'd like to share it.

    I've known I wanted to make children's books since I was seven years old.  I remember sitting in my Daddy's big chair with a Little Golden Book edition of Heidi in my lap and telling my mother, "When I grow up I want to make books for girls and boys." "Then you should do it," she said.  So, while the other kids changed their career ideas from doctor to teacher to ballerina to fireman, I stuck with children's book maker.

    But even though my mind was made up more than twenty-six years ago, I've had a lot of things to do in the meantime.  First, of course, was just plain growing up.  I did make a number of little booklets for practice along the way.

    Then there was the problem of finding out what I needed to know.  In college, the painting teachers said I should consider more serious art, that illustration was beneath my potential and certainly not worthy of their time.  One told me, "Only Picasso gets away with painting children." The graphics teachers said my goal was too narrow and I should branch out into commercial design and advertising.  I quit college, read some books on illustration and did some experimenting with printing techniques.

    In the meantime, other things were happening.  There was marriage, supporting my husband, and having babies.  Two little girls.  After that there was getting my life back together when the marriage failed, and more education.  A BA in Human Development and an elementary teaching credential.  If I couldn't study books, I figured I'd study children.

    Still, I hadn't lost sight of what I eventually wanted to be, when I grew up.  I had continued experimenting with writing and illustration.  Even sent one book to Viking.  It was after my graduation that I stumbled onto the Society of Children's Book Writers and attended the conference in Santa Monica.  At last I had found some real direction, answers to my questions, and some people who believed I could do it.  Notably Don Freeman, Marjorie Thayer and Frances Keene.

    Armed with my new information and self-confidence, and lacking regular employment, I plunged seriously into writing, researching the market and sending out manuscripts.  A good percentage of the rejections were encouraging personal letters.  I took another workshop and even had a notable New York agent interested in my work.  I was answering her letter when the phone call came offering me a teaching job.

    Two kids to support and a chance to get off of welfare.  How could I turn it down?  After all, I could still write in the summers, couldn't I?

    I could and I did.  And when I was home sick I would type up the letters and send out the manuscripts again.  I married a wonderful supportive fellow who sends me off to conferences and doesn't even complain too much if he ends up doing more than his share of the housework. But after three years of teaching, mothering and sort of writing, I was getting frustrated.  Too many problems.  Not enough time.  I decided to give up teaching.

    Now for the writing!

    Oh yeah?

    First there was getting organized, and starting the garden now that I had time.  Then there was this little shop that wanted me to sew some of my dolls and toys to sell and we could use the money.  And the craft faire seemed like a good idea, too, and there were Christmas presents to make and school volunteering and jury duty and then my oldest daughter's problems took so much of my attention and then I was pregnant and there was morning sickness and more reorganizing and more sewing and then the new baby and Christmas again.

    Then one day, I went to the bank and I had to fill out a form.  Name, address and birth date were all easy.  But occupation was a zinger! Not teacher.  I was sure of that.  Not housewife, mother, homemaker or domestic engineer either.  Though I was certainly all of those, I didn't feel comfortable identifying myself as such. I had done some writing.  I still had my manuscripts and I believed in them.  But did I really dare put "writer"?  No, I didn't.  I put homemaker and went home depressed.  Once, when told that I wanted to do children's books, an art teacher had said coldly, "So does every other housewife." Was that me?  Just a housewife who, like all the rest, wanted to do children's books?

    For a few weeks I defended myself.  I love my family, love making special gifts for them, helping them grow, growing with them.  What could I possibly be doing that was more important than helping the newest member of that family discover the world?  Her first snow, a tree in bloom, pat-a-cake?

    Yes, but . . . kept poking itself into the middle of my defenses.  Of course, that is all important and I wouldn't give any of it up but what about the books?  Was it just a pipe dream?  Did I really have it in me?  Was I afraid to try?  As long as I came close and backed away, I could hold onto the thought that I could have made it if I just hadn't had so many other important things to do.

    But what if I gave it my best effort and still didn't quite make it?  What if I really tried and failed?

    Somehow I knew that not to give it everything I could would be a far greater failure.  A failure in living my life fully, not just a failure to publish.  I also knew that having and enjoying my family wasn't the obstacle.  I was using them as an excuse.

    I got out my notes, pen and clipboard.  I wrote letters and sent out the old manuscripts again.  And between diapers, feedings and peek-a-boo, worked on a long unfinished story I found tucked in the files.  I finished that one and started another.  I had a couple of dreams about writing.  Good dreams.  And then one afternoon, I suddenly knew I was a writer.  Not a going-to-be-someday writer, but a right-now-for-real writer.

    It's not a matter of writing time.  Some days with laundry and teething and short naps, I'm lucky to get in a good five minutes.  And occasionally, with company coming for the weekend, I don't get any.

    It's not a matter of getting published, either.  I believe that will happen eventually, but even if it doesn't, I still know I'm a writer.

    It's something else.  Something that's changed inside me.  A long smoldering ember that has sparked from time to time but never burned steadily until now.  I can't really explain the difference but I feel it.  Somehow I know that the only way I can fail now is if I quit and I know I'm not going to quit because I'm a writer.  I have to do it.

     At long last I realize that my life is never going to stop interfering but that I don't need to wait for that to happen.  I may not have a quiet studio where I can shut the door for several hours a day, but I have my clipboard and I can write sitting on the sofa with a baby hanging onto my knees.  I can stop in the middle of a sentence to comfort her after a tumble.  I may not get exactly the same thought back, but the new one might be even better.

    Writing may not be my number one priority every day, but it definitely has a permanent place on the list.  I've learned several things by working under these conditions, some of which I had already heard from SCBW conference speakers.

    For one thing, with so little time, I don't dare procrastinate.  Just sit down and get started.
    Secondly, I've learned not to be quite so concerned that what I write be perfect the first time.  With the chance of interruption it's essential that I get my ideas down quickly and I can't always wait for them to gel in my mind.  I can always revise it or throw it out later.

    Thirdly, I've heard writers advise that one stop writing when excited rather than stuck.  This makes it easier to pick up and get started again.

    At this moment I feel the most anxiety I've experienced in the months since my revelation.  I have just finished another story and the problem now is deciding which of four ideas burning inside me just has to be written first.

    The most important thing I have learned is simply this: a person who is going to be a writer can make excuses; one who is a writer doesn't need to.

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