Start at the Beginning

Notes from the Writing Life

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Login
    Login Login form
Subscribe to this list via RSS Blog posts tagged in poetry
The Many Paths to Publication Part 5: An Interview with Tim Myers

Tim Myers is a terrific writer, teacher and storyteller. I was a huge fan of his best-selling book Basho and the Fox for many years before I met him in person. When I did, I discovered we had much in common, including the fact that we both write in multiple genres, and I became as much a fan of the person as I am of the writer (when you read this interview, you'll understand why). In addition to being an award-winning short story writer, songwriter and poet, Tim is the author of eleven picture books, including If You Give a T-Rex a Bone, Looking for Luna, Basho and the River Stones, The Out-Foxed Fox, and Dark-Sparkle Tea, and he has another four picture books in the works. He has recently published a new book of poetry, a new picture book, and a non-fiction e-book, Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood, which won the inaugural Ben Franklin Digital Award from the Independent Book Publishers Association. He graciously agreed to visit the blog this month to talk about his many paths to publication.

 

Dashka: Tell me a little about your latest picture book.

Tim With River Stones new version

Tim: My latest children's book is Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe, from Sterling. My children and I played endlessly with dinosaur figures. But my sons also especially loved vehicles--I sometimes wonder if the young mind makes any meaningful distinction between dinosaurs and large trucks or construction equipment. So I wanted to combine the two, and got the rather shrewd idea of a giant car wash that caters to city dinosaurs. (If dinos still existed, I might be a billionaire).
And how awesome is this? I just found a "Three Boys and a Dog" blog post where the wonderful mom-blogger not only read the book to her kids but baked chocolaty dirt onto their dino-figures so they could play Dino Wash Deluxe in the yard!

Dino Wash cover

Dashka: I love how creative mom-bloggers are. And now you've entered the parenting blog world yourself, while also publishing a book of poetry.


Tim: I recently published Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood which made #5 on Amazon's "Hot New Releases in Fatherhood" list, was featured on the Parents Magazine site, quoted on Disney's BabyZone site, won the Ben Franklin Digital Award, and has gotten excellent reviews. One of the chapters is appearing in "Motherlode," The New York Times parenting blog. I also recently published Dear Beast Loveliness: Poems of the Body which got a great review from the nationally-known poet Grace Cavalieri.

 

Dashka: You made different publication choices with each book – Glad to Be Dad is an e-book, Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe came from Sterling Children's, which is a subsidiary of Barnes and Noble, and Dear Beast Loveliness comes from BlazeVOX which calls itself "an independent publisher of weird little books." Why did you go the route you went for each?


Tim: I wish I was in the position to pick and choose which publishers I work with. I don't mean that I ignore such choices, but I've found that my work is too varied to be submitted to only certain publishers. So I do a good amount of research and submit work to all kinds of different houses. (And get rejected all the time). My primary goal is to make good books and connect with readers. And a writer really can't predict whether a book will be a commercial success or not, or whether a particular publisher can make that happen. Again, I'm not crazy--I'm delighted if a big, high-status publisher will take on a book of mine! But my heart pretty much burns 24 hours a day for art, so I follow any route that will ease that wonderful, joyous burning.

Glad Dad cover image high res

Dashka: And you haven't been afraid to plunge into the digital deep end. Has publishing changed a lot in the course of your career?

 

Tim: Anyone can see what an absolute tsunami the digital revolution has been for human culture. And of course huge particular changes have come to the book industry too. Years ago, before I'd even published anything, I'd get long, thoughtful letters back from publishers at major houses about the manuscript they were passing on. That doesn't happen now (though my experience with editors at major houses has made me tremendously impressed with them). And the push to self-promote has also changed the landscape almost beyond recognition. People say it all the time: new opportunities, new challenges. Part of my response to that has been--I'll put this in Wall Street terms, so it'll sound intelligent instead of desperate--to diversify.


Dashka: It's great to diversify -- and you're a pretty diversely-talented guy anyway. Even so, it can be hard to keep all the balls in the air. Do you find it challenging to write and publish in multiple genres?


Tim: I find it beyond exhilarating to write in different genres, and since I'm also a storyteller and a song-writer, this kind of variety is mother's milk to me. In fact, I know I could never specialize; I'm a generalist in a specialist's world. And there are real disadvantages, career disadvantages, to being a generalist. But as I always say--What's life for? To satisfy my soul with art--that's what I'm after. Holy cats--if I wanted money and fame, there are a lot smarter ways to go about it!


Dashka: I sometimes hear people say that writing in multiple genres dilutes your "brand" as an author – an accusation I'm sensitive to, since I also write fiction, non-fiction, poetry and children's books. What do you think about the idea that we need to brand ourselves as writers?


Tim: I understand the point about branding, but I think the idea is often over-applied, and if not fully understood it can actually be dangerous if you're committed to art. I have a piece coming out in the SCBWI Bulletin that goes into detail on my thoughts about branding.


Dashka: Oh, I'm looking forward to reading that! Hopefully you'll reassure me. Now tell me what it's been like to publish and promote a digital book? What did you know or think you knew about digital publishing beforehand? Did the experience change your feelings about e-books?


Tim: I really didn't know much at all, though of course I kept my head up and paid attention. But I got very lucky when Christopher Robbins, the publisher at a new and digitally-savvy niche publisher called Familius, took my Glad to Be Dad. Christopher is a veteran, and he taught me so much, and encouraged me as I learned on my own. I'm very grateful to him. I'd known for a long time that I had to get more involved in marketing and promotion, and he gave me the opportunity to do that in a big way. It was a watershed moment for me. Of course this also has its costs; time spent on promo is time not spent writing. But my hope is that some careful, constantly-tweaked combination of the two can help writers both write their best and connect with others as much as possible.


Dashka: Many people say that it's a great time to be a writer, because there are so many publishing options. But it can be overwhelming, too. Any advice for writers who are trying to figure out how best to publish their books? Anything you wish someone had told you along the way?


Tim: Overwhelming--yes! It's like when you go to the store to buy mustard, look at the 900 varieties on the shelves, and realize you'll need a graduate seminar in order to make a choice. The thing is, though--well, I find a couple of principles very helpful here. First--it looks worse than it is. I don't mean to minimize it; the world of creative production is in something like an uproar right now--look at the music industry. I find myself thinking a lot these days about the Oklahoma Land Rush. My point, though, is that it looks more intimidating from a distance. Have faith in your ability to learn and adjust, then get in there and do it. And besides--some of the fundamental realities will never change; the basic relationships between writers, gate-keepers, editors, and readers tend to stay the same. To make my point even more specific: Don't freak out. Don't get me wrong; I've done my share of worrying about all the change. But that anxiety was mostly just wasted energy.


Second--and this is closely related--it's like when you're playing basketball. Say you steal a pass and break for the basket, and you've got a couple of people to go around before you can lay it in. The thing is, you've got to give it all you've got--but you've also got to stay relaxed. This is a paradox, but a true one. Staying relaxed means you can keep your head and react as conditions change. And that's really important in the shifting world we find ourselves in today. But the main thing is--it's ALWAYS a great time to be a writer, whatever's going on in the world! It gets harder, it gets easier, you get a door slammed here, you get a break there. But you get to write!


Dashka: Thanks for that reminder. Sometimes we all get so caught up in the push to publish and promote that we forget why it is we do what we do in the first place! And thanks for stopping by Start at the Beginning!

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog

One of the most exciting things about having a new book is being able to develop new assemblies and writing workshops to go with it. The past couple of weeks has been a whirlwind of different kinds of Dangerously Ever After themed events, in bookstores, libraries, faires, festivals, and schools, and I've loved doing all of them, whether it's assemblies, readings, signings, crafts or a combination. But the thing I love most of all is doing writing workshops. After I've spent an hour writing with kids I feel like I've just swallowed a six pack of batteries, but without the indigestion. I'm usually jumping up and down, grabbing people by the elbows and imploring them to just LISTEN for one moment to the pure unadulterated genius of children's imaginations. If you could bottle the stuff, there would never be a dull moment anywhere. My job, as a writing teacher, is usually just to unstopper the bottle. Those weird thoughts you usually have to push aside so you can concentrate on school -- for the next 45 minutes, they get to be front and center.

The beginning of a writing workshop usually involves giving permission. "Can we write in pencil?" Yes. "Can we write in pen?" Yes. "Can we do a rough draft?" Yes. "Can we draw pictures?" Yes. "Can I make stuff up?" Yes. "Can it be funny?" Most emphatically, yes. There are a lot of rules in school, many of them sensible, but I have the privilege of suspending most of them for the time we're together. 

One of the rules I like to suspend is the one about who's "good" at writing, and who isn't. This is an unwritten rule, but most of the kids know it. The kids who are "good" at writing are usually the ones who find the pen-to-paper mechanics easy, the good spellers, the ones with neat handwriting, the ones who feel confident about their opinions. But in a writing workshop, those rules don't apply. Kids with lousy handwriting and absurd spelling can be great writers and so can shy kids and silly kids and kids who have trouble knowing what to say. The rule-breakers usually do just as well -- sometimes better -- than the rule followers, because, as I always tell them, "I like to be surprised."

Last week, a little boy named Jaspre's hand shot up in the air when I asked who in the class hates writing. But by the end of the workshop, he'd written a fabulous story about planting a piece of wood and having it grow into a play structure. Yesterday I got a letter from him. "Dear Ms. Dashka," he wrote. "Thank you for teaching us about making good stories." 

 

 

Because Dangerously Ever After revolves around a mix up between rose seeds and nose seeds, I've been having kids write seed stories and poems. We always begin by writing one as a group. Here's one written by a group of second graders at Francis Scott Key Elementary School in San Francisco last week:

We have a black seed.

It’s round like a circle.

It’s pointy like a porcupine.

It’s the size of an ant.

It wants to be planted in the playground

because

it will grow into a porcupine!

 

And here's one written by a group of fourth graders at Bridgeway Island Elementary School in West Sacramento, California:

 

We have some seeds.

They’re red.

They have little spikes.

They look like mutant pigs with wings.

They can fly.

They have afros.

They’re enormous and skinny.

They smell like week-old hamburger and old-lady perfume.

They smell like skunk spray.

They look like robots.

 

We plant them in the bottom of the swamp.

We plant them in the bottom of people’s throats.

We plant them in the dump.

We plant them on people’s heads.

We plant them on my brother’s back.

Instead of water they need ogre saliva.

 

When they sprout they look like

the globe with a stick figure body and gorilla feet.

They look like little mutant pigs with wings.

They look like sweat with eyeballs.

When they eat paper they double in size.

 

They’re useful for cooking.

They’re useful as abstract pieces of art.

They’re useful for eating.

They’re un-useful because they enslave humanity.

They’re called the Big Bang and they can do anything.

They’re used to burn things down.

They’re used as an antidote to heal spider bites.

They’re used to do your homework and your chores.

They can clone themselves.

They cost $750.000 each.

 

Pure genius, right? 

 

 

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog

The other night a friend invited me to a dance performance at ODC in San Francisco – a competition in which audience members decide which choreographers will receive a $10,000 grant to develop new work. I went in knowing nothing about the choreographers or the pieces and left feeling electric with inspiration -- nothing feeds the artistic impulse more than art itself. (“Her response to any performance, any work of art, was the desire to make another, to make her own,” A.S. Byatt says in The Children's Book, describing the “relentlessly busy inventiveness” of Olive, a writer of children’s books. That’s it, exactly.)

What struck me at this particular performance was that choreographers and writers share a certain way of thinking about the creative process. We both make art that unfolds sequentially, over time, and we both use a vocabulary of words or movements that we manipulate in similar ways – repeating and reversing them, placing them in conversations (duets) or interior monologues (solos), seeking to build tension and then resolve it. In a discussion with the audience after the performance two of the four choreographers whose works were performed said that their pieces were inspired by poetry – albeit in very different ways. Liss Fain (“Speak of Familiar Things”) was inspired by a poem by Wallace Stevens called Debris of Life and Mind” from which the title of her piece was taken. Choreographer Katie Faulkner, whose piece “Until We Know For Sure” was both the evening’s winner and my personal favorite, came to poetry from a different angle. She was aiming, she said, for a “poetic economy.” 

As a poet and picture book writer I knew just what she meant – both forms are like a tincture of narrative, requiring the writer to distill paragraphs into a single potent line. It was this distillation that Faulkner was aiming for. “I kept throwing stuff out because I wanted to stay interested,” she said, adding that she had been feeling bored by her own “movement palette” – her artistic habits of mind.

All of us, when we’re cutting things out, worry that we’re cutting out the good stuf. But Faulkner’s piece felt neither minimalist nor abstract. In fact, it was the warmest, funniest, and most human of the four we saw that night. An exploration of a relationship between a man and a woman, it left me feeling as if I had just read an entire novel about the two people and their time together. By cutting out everything extraneous, she had allowed what remained to breathe, blossom, and expand, to achieve its full power. 

I scribbled down Faulkner’s comments about throwing stuff out because I’m in the midst of a series of picture book revisions right now and so I’ve been contemplating the alchemy of addition by subtraction. Creativity, for me, begins in a rush of generation – words, ideas, plots, jokes, descriptions, images, phrases – that “busy inventiveness” Byatt describes. To try to constrain or direct the flow would stanch it completely – I have to let it all spill on the page. But then, the process of subtraction begins. At first, I don’t want to cut. Sure a few things can go, but so much of it feels essential. But as I begin to subtract, I find that something happens to the words I’ve left behind. The pure lines of the story emerge from the unwieldy blob of words. The unencumbered sentences seem truer, more potent.

It’s hard to do – heartbreaking sometimes. All the same, scissors can be the most useful implement in the writer’s toolbox.

Sign Up For My Newsletter
Find me on Facebook
Follow Me