This August was my third SCBWI national conference in a row. Part of my planning for it involved making a new dummy, and I had about 4 months to pull it together.
The problem was that I decided I wanted to make a new dummy before I had a solid, workable story. So there was a cart. And it was in front of a horse. And I did a lot of thumbnails, sketches, and freaking out before I realized that I was not doing so well with that need-to-have-a-new-dummy cart standing in front of a story-that-isn’t-working horse.
This isn’t the first time I’ve done this. I’m great at rapidly generating a ton of ideas for stories and scenarios, and I’m not great at testing them to see if the story itself makes sense or feels cohesive. After a month, I had drawn out an entire 32-page dummy before I got the confirmation from a critique group: the story was just not working. I was very frustrated, and I wanted to drop the story entirely. But where had I gone wrong?
Instead of going back to the dummy for edits, I wanted to go further back, to the root of where I was working from. I wanted to look at my process. I wondered what would happen if I were to observe it, without trying to make any solutions or justifications. What would I find?
I came up with this process of self-reflection that I thought might be helpful to other kidlit people when doing long-term visioning and improving their creative practice. The process has four steps:
Step 1: get it all out
I took out a sketchbook and wrote about how I work, and the “things” I was experiencing. It was important at this time to not self-censor (“that’s not relevant”) or try to immediately develop solutions (“what if I try x?”). I kept in the “personal” stuff (“I want to exercise more”, “call mom more”), because with creative work, personal and professional all seems to bleeds together.
This step in the process is all about unloading and unraveling. You need to know what you are working with before you can start to work and understand it.
Step 2: look for patterns, and identify problems
At this point I want to see everything at once and start to identify categories, themes, and patterns in the way that I work. Do I just sit at my drafting table and hope for the best? Am I working on a knife’s edge (deadline to send postcards, portfolio, etc. to the printer) so that even getting a flat tire on my bike would throw my entire schedule off? Based on this writing, what large problems or issues are surfacing? What gets lumped together? What needs to be teased apart?
Some other things you’re going to want to ask yourself: what are the implications of the way that I’m working? How are my patterns influencing my outputs, my relationships, my career, and my future goals?
You might also think about whether or not these behaviors, in context, are inherently “bad” or unproductive. I’ve noticed that there’s a trend and reward for artists with massive output, usually through social media. But you can’t always have the firehose going at full blast; you need time to process and learn, try different techniques.
Step 3: small interventions
So now you see that you’ve had some time pulling your work style out of your head, pulling it apart, looking at all the pieces, and re-sorting it all, what do you do? It’s time to experiment. NOW is the time to develop little suggestions for yourself, based on the evidence you’ve collected.
What are the indicators of me about to fall into these patterns of work that aren’t so useful? How can I keep an eye out for these behaviors? Are there any tools I could try using to prevent me/alert me when I’m about to go down this path?
My big takeaways (after going through this process): I identified that I can generate story ideas well, but I need time to build/live with those stories before I can tell whether or not they can be capital-S Stories. If I understand that this is what I need to do to work well, I can prepare and plan (to the best of my ability) so that I don’t end up spinning my wheels.
It feels great to go through this process. But once you’ve reached this point, you’re at a critical time where you need to remember to regularly check on yourself. Which leads to...
Step 4: Reflect, and repeat the cycle
After awhile, do this process again: write about the way you’re working, what’s going well, what’s frustrating. Identify another problem you’re coming up against (you will have them). Use this as a calibration tool; a repeating process to support your creative practice. Try to not wait for a crisis to realize that you should have been addressing these smaller problems all along. Then you really will have some work to do.
So why this is important for the field?
There’s an interview with the poet Stanley Kunitz where he talks about how writing gets harder with age. "The poems are there, but they lie under the debris of the life. One has to dig for them very much harder than one had to at the beginning, when poetry is so largely, in one's youth, a glandular activity."
In his keynote at the LA conference, Jon Klassen talked about finding inspiration, and the danger of being inflexible. He stressed the importance of “taking care of your machinery.” I would go further with this metaphor, encouraging kidlit folks who plan to be in it for the long haul to understand their machinery. Observe it and see how it functions, where it works well, and what areas need special attention. And like machinery, different areas function differently in response to outside forces, so your machine is something that needs to be checked and tuned up regularly.
Particularly in the run-up to a national conference, it’s easy to get pulled into the frenzy of preparing dummies, working on stories, working on your portfolio, making postcards, submitting, and social media. The hard part that doesn’t get talked about much, is not just creating good work, but understanding the way you work, and cultivating your practice so that you’re making the best art/writing/output you are capable of making.