Work and Joy: Lessons from Simon the Juggler

At the gym where I’ve been taking a morning fitness class lately, there’s a racquetball court with big windows that I pass on my way out.  Sometimes, I’ll see people hitting a ball around in there, but mostly, it’s empty in the morning.  Yesterday, though, there was a man – maybe about fifty years old – doing tricks with a red and white striped hula hoop.

I stopped to watch. He twirled it on one arm, moving it smoothly from his shoulder to his hand and back again.  He tossed it up and caught it.  He did the same thing on the other arm.  More hula hoops leaned against the wall – five or six, all striped in bright red and white, and different sizes.

I looked back at the two women at the reception desk. Did they know there was a man playing with hula hoops on the racquetball court?   One of them smiled at me. She did. “That’s Simon, the juggler,” she said, then added, “That’s not all he does. It’s his dream job.”

The other woman nodded. “He practices every day.”

They went back to their paperwork, and I went back to watching Simon.  He was facing the other way, toward a plain white wall streaked with racquetball smudges, but he performed for it as if it were a circus crowd of thousands. The hula hoop rolled off one of his outstretched hands, down his arm, over his neck, down the other arm, and into his other hand.  I stayed back from the glass, quiet, so I wouldn’t disturb him.  But inside, I was applauding wildly, even after I left Simon to his practice and stepped out into the cold January air.

I wondered what his other job was. Was he going to work in an office cubicle after this?  Would he pack up his hula hoops and head to a law firm, or hospital operating room, or the post office?  It didn’t matter – not really. He’d made a choice to practice what he loved.  And what a gift.

I spent last weekend at a writing retreat in Vermont, surrounded by creative people who are doing what they love. It was a wonderful, spirit-filling weekend. There were readings and hours of quiet writing, hot fudge sundaes with gummy bears on top, and a raging bonfire, too.

There were quiet conversations about this work that we love – our joys, our worries, and our fears that surround it.  And oh, do we have those.

But today, I thought, heading home from the gym to my writing room, I’d worry a little less about how the pieces of this mystery are or aren’t coming together. I’d let the words roll down my arms like colored hoops, and I’d appreciate this time to practice work that I love.

Today, I wanted to write like Simon.

Thoughts on Inspiration, Part 2: The Fine Art of Faking It

Writing is special. It is.

Telling stories for a living and having other people connect with those stories is magical.

And that’s part of the problem when it comes to inspiration. Sometimes, honoring the magic of writing prevents us from doing the work of writing, especially when we buy into the belief that we shouldn’t write unless the great and almighty voice of Inspiration is visiting on that day.

When we accept that idea, we go about your business of day jobs and picking up kids and making lasagna…waiting for Inspiration to come.  And the more we wait, the further away she drifts until it feels like we might never write anything worthwhile again.

For me, the best invitation for Inspiration to show up is a nicely set table…or desk as the case may be.  When the laptop is humming and the notebook open, the planning pages laid out just the way she likes them, with the colored pens and Post-It notes, she starts to snuffle outside the door. The clincher, though, is me, inside the room, working without her.  If I show up to work, with or without her, it’s a whole lot more likely that Inspiration will consider showing up, too.

So how to get started?  Here are five things I do to feel inspired when I’m not.

1. Go to your writing place.  For me, that place is now the room we built off the back of the house, a tiny room for only writing and not the business of writing.  But it doesn’t have to be anything that fancy.  For years, it was a corner of the kitchen table after my kids went to bed, the third table by the wall at my local coffee shop, and the study carrel near the books on tape at my public library.

2. Brew a really nice cup of tea.  Fact: I have special, nicer tea for when I’m feeling like I need to make a writing time feel more sacred.   Or hot chocolate. Or water with extra lemon. Or whatever your writing beverage of choice might be.

3. Find a focus object. Sometimes, I’ll change my computer background to an image that relates to my project – a tornado, a snowflake…something beautiful or powerful. Sometimes, I’ll put an object on my desk to ground me in the world of my book. This symbolic act can make writing more of a ritual, and that helps to honor the magic while still honoring the work. I know a writer who lights a candle when she starts a new book, and I think that’s lovely.

4. Protect the time.  Set a timer, and stay off the Internet. Silence your phone. The muse is a jealous sort and isn’t likely to show up if you call her and then start texting with someone else.

5. Make peace with the imperfect. If you regard those crummy sentences you write when you first sit down as the warm-up, the invitation that simply must be issued before Inspiration arrives, then you’ll feel less pressure to make them perfect. Look at writing without Inspiration as an act of courage, and be proud that you’ve shown up to do your job.

What about you? What do you do to feel inspired when you don’t start out that way?

Some thoughts on Inspiration, and writing anyway

How do you get inspired to write every day?

I get asked this question quite a bit…by writers and people who think they might like to be writers. It’s a question that popped up even more often when I was still teaching full time as well as writing, and even though my writing time has shifted from late-night to middle-of-the-day, the answer to that question hasn’t changed.

How do I get inspired to write every day?

I don’t.

I also don’t get “inspired” to do the breakfast dishes every day or exercise every day, but on most days, those things get done.

For the record, I like writing a LOT better than doing dishes, but I am trying to make a point here.  One doesn’t need to be inspired to do something in order to do that thing. One really just needs to get going on it.

Have you ever noticed that we don’t ask this question of people with too many other jobs?  I didn’t ask my mail carrier how she got inspired to deliver the mail today, nor do I ask my husband how he gets inspired to figure out the weather forecast.  I think that’s a real myth of writing…that we somehow need to be inspired or else shrug our shoulders and go have a cookie instead of writing that day. And it’s just not true.

Inspiration – true, holy-cow-I-need-to-write-it-down-this-very-second-because-I’m-channeling-the-goddess-of-creativity inspiration  — does happen, and when it does, it’s an amazing feeling and a true gift. But as a writer, I can tell you that it’s not a feeling that I have every day or every week or every month.  It strikes when it strikes, and that’s great. But if you want writing to be your job, you can’t really just wait around for those rare and sparkling moments.

The rest of the time, when I’m not feeling that rush of inspiration, I get myself writing the same way I get myself to go running or to yoga class on cold mornings, with some friendly, firm self-talk. “Hey, you chose this thing. Let’s go now. You’ll be happy about it once you get started.”

And so I sit down, and I start writing, and most often, I just write some stupid thing so I can say I started. But once I’ve made the commitment to show up for the work, something happens, and the next thing that shows up on the page is a little less stupid. And from there, if I just keep going and don’t stop to think about that stupid first sentence, some pretty good stuff shows up by the time I’m done.

So it’s really not about the inspiration. It’s about the showing up.

I’d also argue that inspiration is a whole lot more likely to strike when you’re there at your keyboard than it is if you’re upstairs watching Oprah.

It’s okay if you don’t feel inspired to write. If you want to be a writer, just write anyway. It will work out.

You should also watch this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, in which she says some of the same things I just wrote but way more eloquently.   Watch the whole thing – the ending is my favorite part.


Tomorrow, I’ll some thoughts on faking it and feeling inspired even when you’re not.

MARTY MCGUIRE Contest Winners Announced!

Many thanks to all who entered my winter contest to help spread the word about MARTY MCGUIRE and its upcoming sequel, MARTY MCGUIRE DIGS WORMS!  The winners are…. (drum roll, please)

Signed Copies of MARTY MCGUIRE DIGS WORMS in April:

Alisa Kohn
Debbi Michiko Florence
Marilee Haynes
Coleen Patrick
Kathy Schmidt **
Crystal Brunelle **
Cally Flickinger
Kellee Moye
Michelle Bowker
Dana Schreiner

** Starred teachers also won virtual writing workshops for their classroom efforts to share Marty!

And the winner of the $100 bookstore gift card is… Abi Kurfman!

Thanks – again – to all who entered and to everyone who’s been sharing Marty McGuire with readers far and wide. Book #2 is just a little over two months away!


I struggled a bit with my college economics class, but the laws of supply and demand always made sense to me.  Until now…

Can you make out those prices? They are silly prices.

I’ve been flooded with emails this week (most, from grandparents, for some reason) saying some version of “Dude…why is your book SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS?? It’s a nice book, but…um…”

So here’s the deal. OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW was popular this fall (yay!), and its first print run sold out very quickly, so at the moment, it’s mostly unavailable.  Amazon is out of stock and can’t get it from distributors, which has prompted one or two of Amazon’s affiliate sellers to raise their price on the book through the roof. Thus, the $700 price tag for a new copy and the bargain basement price of $613.46 for a used one with just a few wrinkled pages.

You obviously should not pay that price. That’s silly, even if you are my mom.

So what’s a snow lover to do?  Here are a couple options…

If you want it now, I know two terrific indie booksellers who still have a handful of copies, and they ship: The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid, and Books, Inc. in the Bay Area.  (I’d always rather have you buy my books from an indie bookseller anyway.)

Or if you can hold tight just a couple weeks, Chronicle tells me that the second printing is scheduled to be in the warehouse & ready to go on February 7th, in plenty of time for Valentine’s Day.

Real Revision: An Interview with Lauren Oliver

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that my first book for teachers, REAL REVISION: AUTHORS’ STRATEGIES TO SHARE WITH STUDENT WRITERS, was released from Stenhouse last summer. I’ve celebrating with a series of author interviews on the topic of real revision…the nitty gritty, make-the-book-better strategies that some of my favorite authors use when they’re revising a project. Since most of the author interviews in the book are with middle grade writers, I wanted to feature some authors of my favorite YA novels in this series

Today…we’re chatting with Lauren Oliver, the author of terrific YA titles like DELIRIUM and IF I FALL as well as her new middle grade fantasy, LIESL AND PO.


Thanks for visiting, Lauren! How do you tackle the revision process? A little at a time as you write? Or all at once after you’ve finished a draft?

I’m definitely of the “write-through” philosophy. I write a full draft—a pretty messy first draft, often—and then I revise all at once from the beginning.

Do you have a favorite revision strategy that helps with any particular part of the process?

I definitely believe in taking a break between the first and second drafts; it helps you get clarity and perspective. And then I make a very manageable goal for myself: I tackle ten pages a day, for example, and I spend all my time making sure those ten pages work.

How do you revise to make sure your pacing works for the story you’re telling?  Were there any parts of your original manuscript for this book that ended up being cut?

I tend to write way too much material and then have to prune it back, and I often rely on my editor to help guide me in this capacity. It can be rough to do the slash-and-burn thing, which is why it’s important to have readers you trust and on whose opinion you can depend.

What strategies do you use when you’re revising to make characters feel real & believable?

I think that it’s important to know your characters the way you know your best friends. You have to understand them in a deeper context and framework than just the world of the story. It’s only with strangers that you think of people in terms of superficial identifiers (blond hair; tall; pretty). When you get to know people more deeply, you know their quirks and habits, and you see them as the sum of those details (loves bananas but hates apples; chews loudly; cries at Hallmark commercials). I try to ask myself questions about each of my characters—favorite foods, music, etc—and also to think deeply about their wants and needs.

What was the biggest revision job for this particular book?  (timeline changes, new chapters, rearranging scenes, etc?)

To be honest, Liesl & Po underwent very little revision. Probably the most significant piece was making sure that all of the different threads of the book were resolved, and then also going through the text with a fine-tooth comb to check for inconsistencies or repetition.

Did this book keep its original title, or did it change along the way? Where did the title come from?

It kept its original title—it seemed a natural fit to name the book after two of the major characters, whose friendship forms such a critical part of the story.

Anything else you’d like to say about revising this book?

I’ll say about revision in general: it’s fascinating because really every single book requires a different set of editorial revisions and skills. That’s kind of the amazing thing about being a writer—you are constantly challenged by new books and projects, and constantly forced to reevaluate your process. It’s a beautiful thing.

Thanks, Lauren!

If you’d like to read LIESL AND PO (and it’s wonderful, so you really should) you can click here to find it at your favorite independent bookseller.

And if you’d like to read more author revision stories, I hope you’ll check out REAL REVISION. There’s a preview up on the Stenhouse Publishers site, and you can order the book from your favorite indie bookseller, direct from Stenhouse, or elsewhere online.

I’m giving a TED Talk!

While I got the official invitation in December and have known about this for several weeks, it’s still surreal, like maybe I’ve been imagining the whole thing.

But today, TED announced the speaker lineup for its 2012 Conference in Long Beach, and there it was…in black and white (and polka-dots!)

The full TED 2012 speaker lineup is here, and truly…every time I look at the list, I’m absolutely blown away.

Weeks ago,  I’d clicked on a Twitter link saying that TED put out a call for proposals for its 2012 session called The Classroom.  I thought, “Wow, that would be pretty amazing,” and filled out a simple online form. Then I went to bed and promptly forgot about it. When I got the email that said “Get ready to give the talk of your life,” I was sure it was a mistake.

Wait…they want me to speak at… not that TED. It can’t be that TED, right? This must be some…different TED.  Or maybe a smaller, not-quite-as-amazingly-cool sister conference. FRED, perhaps?

But then more emails came, and a request for a bio and speaker photo, and then,  a list of speaking tips called “The TED Commandments,” engraved on a slab of marble that arrived at my door via FedEx.  Seriously – you can’t make this stuff up.

It was that TED, all right.

Once I understood that the invitation was real, I went through a short terror-and-stomach-ache phase, thinking about giving a talk to these incredible 1500 people.  But then my husband looked at me and said, “You’re going to be fine. And this is the coolest thing ever, so you really need to just let go and enjoy it.”

That seemed like good advice, because truly… what an incredible gift. The opportunity to speak to people who care so passionately about making a difference in the world, making it better and more beautiful.

The opportunity to sit in the audience for the full conference, to hear speakers that include:

An urban naturalist who photographs birds’ nests.

The curator of the Met’s Costume Institute.

The most accomplished organist in the world.

A two-term U.S. Poet Laureate.

A peace activist who helped end Liberia’s civil war.

The co-founder of LinkedIn.

Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Philippe Petit, the man who walked between the towers.

A psychopath expert.

The writer of Toy Story movies and Wall-E.

…and on and on…

I decided I’m not willing to lose even a second of this experience because of nerves. So I’m writing and revising and practicing now, and getting ready for my six-minute talk on March 2nd. My TED Talk is about the power of what-if, world building in dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, and how we might encourage young people to use those same world building strategies to problem solve for our real life future.

In the weeks after the conference, the talks will be shared online, just like all the other TED Talks, and I’ll be sure to share a link when it’s live.  In the mean time, I’m going to check that speaker lineup once more…just to make sure it’s still real.

OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW’s fox…in real life!

OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW illustrator Chris Silas Neal just shared this YouTube video on his blog, and it was too amazing not to pass along. Remember this spread in our picture book?

Well, the BBC shared a video of a real-life red fox doing just the same thing. I watched this over and over again because even though I’d heard and read about how a fox hunts in the snow, I’d only imagined what it might look like. Check it out…


Starting a New Book

I’m starting a new book on Monday morning.

Not starting, really. Because there have already been many months of research and brainstorming, timeline-drafting, character-building, outlining, and scribbling of scenes.  The story is written in my head. But on Monday morning, after the kids are at school, I’ll open an empty page and type Chapter 1, followed by…something.

For me, this is the scariest moment of the whole writing process, and no matter how many books I write, the days leading up to that empty page are always full of choking what-ifs. Learning to answer those what-if questions for myself kindly and firmly, the way I’d talk with one of my kids, is what gets me sitting down to write.

Me: I think I’ll clean out the linen closet today.

Other Me: You need to start that new book. I know you don’t like starting, but you’ll be really happy once you’re a few pages in.

Me: I can’t start with the linen closet looking like THIS!

Other Me:  The linen closet has looked like that for five years, and it’s never bothered you before. Get to work.

Me: But I still don’t know how to start it. What if I get the beginning wrong?

Other Me: You will. You always get the beginning wrong, and it works out okay. You’ll fix it later, once you discover what this story is really about.

Me: But maybe it’s not about ANYTHING AT ALL!!!!

Other Me: Stop that. You sound like a harpy, and you know very well that’s not true.

Me: Fine. But seriously…what if this book is the one I can’t finish?

Other Me: You say that every time you start a new book. In five pages, you will be happily skipping along. So really…light a candle and just start.

Me: I need some chocolate.

Other Me: It’s in the cupboard. But you’ll feel better if you have tea instead.

Me: You are not being very supportive, you know.

Other Me: (looks pointedly at writing room door)

Monday is the day. And so when the tea is brewed, I’ll go down to my writing room. Maybe there will be ducks diving on the lake outside my window, amid the ice chunks that are forming, and that will help. I will do my best to quiet the shrieking what-ifs, and I will open a new, white page. And begin.


The second MARTY MCGUIRE book is less than three months away!  There’s nothing like a final cover to make it seem real.  My editor sent this today…

And hey… there’s still time to enter my Spread-the-Word-About-Marty-McGuire contest.  You could win a $100 gift card for your favorite book store, signed books, a virtual writing workshop for your school or library. Details are here – good luck!