At a recent conference, I had the wonderful opportunity to hear Newbery Award-winning author Laura Amy Schlitz talk about her writing. She is a story-teller at heart, so just listening to her was a delight, but my favorite moment came during her account of how she came to write Good Masters, Sweet Ladies, the book for which she won the Newbery Award.
Ms. Schlitz began her writing career with a successful romance novel. Buoyed by that accomplishment, she decided to write her first “real” book—sure to be the great Venetian novel. She went to Italy, studied, and worked for years to produce the 700+-page manuscript. She sent it off to publishers and waited for their excited responses. And waited. And waited. You can imagine the rest. No one wanted her novel. Saddened, she decided she wasn’t an author after all and decided to focus on her career as a school librarian.
As luck would have it, she found herself in need of some car-repair cash (as any librarian can easily imagine) and eagerly volunteered for a curriculum-development task, writing some monologs that could be used in the social studies units on medieval life. Encouraged by the response to the monologs, she sent them off to publishers, they landed at Candlewick, and the rest is Newbery history.
The story itself was fascinating, but my favorite part was when she brought out the enormous ribbon-bound manuscript of her failed novel and threw it on the ground with a thump. She stood up on it like a pedestal and said, “Stand on your failures. They are what push you forward.”
What a fabulous lesson for children—and adults. Creativity requires risk taking, and with risks come failures. So be it. We stand on them and move forward.
I hoped to find Ms. Schlitz’ version of this story online but wasn’t successful. I was able to find two different Q&A sessions with her (here’s the other), both focused on the novel Splendors and Glooms. You might want to share some of that information with students as well, particularly the “half-hour, one-page trick” that keeps her writing. Here’s how she describes it.
I unplug the phone, get a glass of water, and vow to keep my hands moving for 30 minutes. If the house is on fire, you keep your hands moving as you are rushing to safety. After a half hour, I’m usually in, but that first half hour is painful. And often, a half hour is all I’ll do. I get a cookie to reward myself and I leave it because this little rebellious dwarf that I put to work cannot be bullied or I won’t be able to get another half hour out of her the next day. I have to be really nice to myself.
It is so easy to imagine ourselves as writers–stuck, idea-free, frustrated and criticized–as very different from successful authors. Ms. Schlitz helps us remember it’s not so. I’m grateful. I suspect your students will be, too.