Why You Should Travel Now More Than Ever, Especially with Kids

When I was a kid growing up overseas in the ‘80s and ‘90s, first in Nigeria, then Japan, it was cheaper for our family of seven to buy around-the-world tickets than fly directly to Michigan where our relatives lived. My parents took full advantage of this pricing oddity. We visited every country we could. This was before Google, before Airbnb, before Uber—before the Internet. It wasn’t easy. My dad would wash dirty diapers in hotel sinks at night after we visited at least four hotels to find the cheapest rate, all of us lugging our bags (without wheels) around town.

Of the memories I have of our family adventures, I regularly come back to two in particular.

The first is from a visit to Singapore when my dad, a Christian, stood at the top of the stairs leading to a mosque, talking with the imam. Both men were at ease, showing each other courtesy and respect. I wasn’t impressed at the time. The rest of us wanted to go do something else and my dad was holding us up, but I’ve never forgotten the image of two strangers of differing faiths making time to be with each other. There was no wall of suspicion between them. They delighted in their conversation.

Another, more general memory, is of my mom talking with craftspeople: jewelry makers in New Mexico, basket weavers in Japan, soap makers in California, furniture makers in China. She could hold up the family to talk basketry with a local artisan in a market the way my dad could hold us up at a mosque, or a museum. To this day, if she revisits a place, she seeks out the artisan she spoke with months, or even years ago.

It strikes me that the sheer force of humbly showing up at a shop or a house of worship in an unfamiliar town or country is a blazing sign of wanting to bust through cultural walls to be with the people on the other side. At which point the people on the other side are nearly always willing to be with you, too.

We’re living in a moment in history when we are entrenched in our own identifiers, suspicious of those who look, live, politic, and pray differently than us. We talk about The Wall (you know the one,) all the while building our own walls, emblazoned with memes, that keep us from truly seeing and being with each other.

My son, now eight, has been traveling since the day he was born. We used to tuck him into a Baby Bjorn, strap him on, and carry him with us wherever we went. Once, we took him on a fan boat ride through a jungle in Vietnam. It was hot and the boat was loud, but he seemed happy. Possibly, the thrill of it worked its way into his bloodstream. He loves to travel. He has a gift for making friends and a natural curiosity that reminds me of his grandparents.

After the 2016 election, my husband suggested we travel this summer to explore family roots in the Netherlands and visit a dear brother in France. To me, this idea didn’t seem wise. The future seemed—and still does—not just precarious, but grim. Shouldn’t we save money? Ride this out? See what happens? Shouldn’t we huddle up?

I think about how carefully I watched my parents as a kid and how their steady, joyful openness while traveling formed my perception of the world as a place in which we are all connected. I want the same for my kids. I want them to know that huddling up and hiding behind walls of our own making stunts our shared humanity. I want them to engage in enthusiastic conversations about baskets, and religion, and whatever else, with zero thought of changing other people’s minds but with a willingness to change their own.

My son has a new patch on his backpack that says, “Think Peace.” He feels this communicates a nice message to the people he will meet in the Netherlands.

Now, more than ever, is the right time to travel, have fun, and say hello to a neighboring city, or state, or a country you’ve always wanted to visit. Bust through some walls. Meet the world. Be reminded that we’re all in this together.


Preparing for an Author School Visit

Quirk and Quill

dog-reading-294x214For checklists and the mechanics on conducting a successful author school visit go to your publisher’s web site and search ‘school visits’. Random House, for example, features a site called Set up a Visit that outlines basic information you and the host school should follow.

Because even the best planned events might experience some sort of hiccup I also read numerous posts on the subject from authors who shared their experiences in the trenches of elementary schools. Here are my top ten tips to minimize some of those hiccups:

Tip # 1

Alexis O'Neill Alexis O’Neill

Before you do anything, sign up for blog posts from School Visit Experts. Alexis O’Neill offers a place for published authors to find and share advice on how to create and deliver quality programs for kids, teachers, and librarians. It’s an awesome blog about author school visits. Even if you’re not yet published, sign up and…

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Just Because You Can’t See It, Doesn’t Mean It Isn’t There

This morning I had a frustrating discussion with a student from another class (whom  I know from teaching in our after-school program).

Let me preface by saying that from June to September of this year, my department wrote a new short story unit of study.   Although the goal of the unit was to introduce close reading strategies and routines for independent reading, we carefully chose stories based on our overarching theme of justice, injustice, and oppression, and we paired each story with a corresponding nonfiction current events article.  For example, Joan Bauer’s “The Truth About Sharks,” about a teenager wrongfully accused of shoplifting, was paired with an article about wrongfully accused convicts and the compensation they receive (or don’t receive).  Langston Hughes’ story “Passing” was paired with an article about Rachel Dolezal and discussions ensued about how the time period of each caused main character Jack and Dolezal make the choices they made.  It’s a pretty challenging and engaging unit that I’m proud of and that most students have really been enjoying – and that’s saying a lot because middle school students don’t often express their pleasure in what they’re learning.

So this morning, when this student came to tell me that we should consider reading things that are less dated, I was shocked.  When I asked what he meant his reply was…interesting.   One direct quote: “You mean to tell me, that in the whole big, gay United States, that gay people are oppressed?  When they can get married now?”  He felt the same way about black people.  Racism?  It just doesn’t really exist anymore.  I did try to explain that he is lucky that he lives in a very diverse section of New York City where he doesn’t directly see acts of injustice against minorities on a regular basis, but that they do exist.  His arguing was relentless.  I literally had to pull up news articles to show him that, yes, gay and transgender people are bullied and murdered, black people are killed and oppressed, etc. “Yes,” he said, “but out of how many people?  That’s not really a lot of people then, is it?”  His basic argument was that we know all this stuff already, so why do we have to learn about it.  “School is supposed to further our knowledge,” he said as if I wasn’t doing my job.

At first, I felt super combative.  “So what you’re saying is that you should never read anything you know something about?” I asked.  And, “So it’s okay for transgender people to be killed as long as it’s a small percentage?”  And, “It’s going to be your job as you grow to educate people who don’t know as much as you do.”  I realized I was wasting my breath because he just kept saying that we know about gay people and black people, and I switched the focus, explaining that his job was to become a better reader, and the strategies he was learning were going to help him do that.  That regardless of whether or not he agreed with the content, the goal of the unit was to teach him close reading skills of fiction and nonfiction so that he could apply those skills to help him understand difficult texts.

He said okay, but that he still didn’t think we should be “reading about things we already know.”  I sent him back to homeroom because the bell was going to ring.  I spent a good part of the morning trying to figure out if his argument was really about familiarity with these topics or about feeling uncomfortable with them.  Should I have pursued the argument further?  I don’t know if it would have made a difference, and I had a class of 30 waiting for me.  How can we convince students like this that there’s a greater world out there, and we’re part of it.  That we can’t ignore what’s going on just because we don’t see it or it doesn’t affect us directly?  I’m surprised that with all the access we have to media, some kids are still living in a bubble.  It worries me.

Something To Say



Last month I taught a journal-writing class to a group of women at my church. Though I practically cut my teeth writing in my journal, I no longer write regularly. I justify myself by claiming that I spend my days writing other things, which absolves me from any sort of journal-writing guilt. Honestly though, at the end of the day I feel like I simply have nothing left to say.

The details of my life are mundane:

I eat, I sleep, I work. Repeat.

Of course, there are variations, but not many.

I eat, but I eat the same things on a weekly basis. (We follow a set menu at the Gingerbread House because of picky eaters.)

I sleep, but not much because my body keeps a monk’s schedule, awakening usually at 3 or 4 am.

I work: I write, I shovel, I cook, I clean, I drive, I organize.

These days, there’s little that’s noteworthy but for the snow, and even that’s lost its newsworthiness, as it simply keeps coming.

But then two weeks ago, I found myself in a situation that I had to write about:

I am sitting in an examination room at the Seacoast Cancer Center. I am not here because I have cancer. No one in the waiting room knows that though, and I feel like a fraud. There are people with real problems out there — one woman wears an eye patch, one came in a wheelchair. One man carries a cane, while another carries what I think must be a chemotherapy bag.

And here I am, because of anomalies in my blood work at my yearly physical.

The room I’m in is depressing, even though they try to make it otherwise. The walls are painted sage green. Three walls in a lighter green and one in a darker green. Everything else is khaki neutral: floor tiles, chairs, examination bed, sink, countertop. I, on the other hand, wear an incredibly bright pink sweater. I stand out.


There’s nothing here that’s particularly interesting. No major plot points, no great descriptions. So why did I feel compelled to grab a notebook out of my bag and write?

I suspect it was because this was something out of the ordinary. That is, it was out of the ordinary to me. It was a different beat in the regular rhythm of my days. So I wrote it down.

However, what I see as ordinary might not be what everyone else sees as ordinary. Is that not one of the reasons why we read? Is that not one of the reasons why we seek out diverse books? Sometimes we want to read about someone whose life mirrors ours. We need understanding. We crave validation. Other times, we want to slip into the shoes of someone entirely different and experience what constitutes their “ordinary.” We need a universality of emotion, even if the details are different. That is our humanity.

I value those stories, whatever they are and wherever they may take place. They are a connecting link in time and place and situation from one person’s heart and soul to another person’s heart and soul.

I don’t believe in ordinary. I believe in connections.

The Resolution of Resolutions




It’s January and many of us made—and happily abandoned—resolutions. I made only one, with my family, and that is to go at least three musicals. We’ve already seen one and I’m feeling pretty sassy about that.

When I was a teenager, I often resolved to exercise more. One January I headed out for my first run. Somewhere I got the idea that I’d lose lots of weight if I wrapped plastic wrap around my torso, so off I sprinted, layers of plastic squeaking under my shirt, up our street. I went perhaps 1/20th of a mile and, panting and overheated, gave up.

I’ve never been good at sprinting. I am better at making plans, and then, when I fail to meet my goals, making new ones.

Writers are often great goal setters.

Some of my writing resolutions have been: Write for two hours every day. Or: Write 1500 words a day. And there was: Finish the novel by summertime.

Sometimes I followed the resolutions, but more often they get forgotten or deliberately, almost defiantly ignored.

I think what gets in the way is another meaning of “resolution.” A photo with high resolution is one with great clarity. The closer you look at it, the more detail it yields. You can get very, very close, and the photo still looks crisp.

But the closer you look at my resolutions, the fuzzier they become. Write for two hours a day. Which two hours? Is thinking about the plot considered writing? Does that include “research” on the Internet? What about correspondence—is that considered writing? Any self-respecting wordsmith can parse his or her own meaning here.

Write 1500 words a day. Does that mean new words? Or can you use a revision as part of that word count even though it feels like cheating? Does brainstorming or thinking out character traits count?

Finish the novel by summertime. Okay, that one feels more finite, but then we have the definition of “finish.” Crummy first draft? Revised third draft, ready for critique? And is it still summer in September? What about Indian summer, which comes to my town in October?

A third meaning of “resolution” comes to play too. How can we be done with things, bringing them to resolution, without a high-resolution resolution?

So I am mulling over how to keep myself from writing resolutions without much resolution. My work in progress is coming to a close. I could tinker with the ending for months, trying many forms and possibilities. But that wouldn’t bring the project to resolution.

I resolve: to send the draft by the date I just wrote on my calendar, February 10, 2015. Now that’s a resolution about resolution, with resolution.


News From the Hill


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The Writing for Children and Young Adults winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts is underway, and it’s so good to be back. I’m here as a graduate assistant, along with Adi Rule, Katie Bayerl, Debby Dahl Edwardson, Jenny Green, Christopher Hart, Maggie Lehrman, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, and Zu Vincent, to welcome the new class and to assist the Darling Assassins as they graduate.

Though we’re only three days into the residency, we’ve been treated to fantastic lectures and fabulous readings already. National Book Award winner and faculty member Will Alexander gave the opening lecture, a thought-provoking examination of the uses and abuses of flat and round characters. Cynthia Leitich Smith has rejoined the faculty and lectured on magic, myths, and metaphors, giving insights into world- and character building. New faculty member and VCFA alumna Kekla Magoon encouraged us to consider using alternate ways of telling our stories through narrative structures (i.e., form, different points of view, or non-linear structure).

But the highlight for me was hearing Katherine Paterson speak. Bridge to Terabithia was the first book that gave me an adult-sized catharsis in a child-size body, and I have been a devoted Katherine Paterson fan ever since. I have seen her many times — I was even privileged to have lunch with her and her husband at VCFA a few years ago. She is warm and wonderful and real, as down to earth as a person can be. I asked her if I could take her home with me. She replied that she wasn’t very portable. So I took a picture with her instead. She is the visiting writer this residency, and everyone is thrilled to have her with us.

In addition to the lectures, we’ve heard readings from several of the faculty, including one given by Alan Cumyn about a hot pterodactyl boyfriend. Some of you may remember the residency a few years ago when Libba Bray made several references to hot pterodactyl boyfriends. Alan took the challenge, and we were delighted to hear a portion of it. Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend will be published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Speaking of Alan, Uma Krishnaswami announced that her term as chair will finish at the end of this semester, and Alan will be taking on the role of department chair.

Aaaand, for a final note, there will be a study abroad component of the program offered beginning this summer in England at Bath Spa. It will be led by Martine Leavitt and Tim Wynne-Jones. Sounds like it’s time for a post-grad semester, yes?

Sending you all greetings from the hill, where the snow squeaks and the NECI cookies abound. xo



Quirk and Quill 2014 Favorite Books


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So many books, so little time. How does one choose?

squirell acorns
We Kid-Lit writers read books the way voracious squirrels gather acorns, consuming the precious finds to feed our passions, spitting out the empty shells to guide and inspire our work. If you’re looking for a good book to read or give, here are favorites offered by my VCFA 2009 grad class–The Super Secret Society of Quirk and Quill, aka S3Q2.

Carol Allen

Brown Girl DreamingBROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson. I loved this memoir written in verse. Woodson is an award winning writer, and in this book,  she managed to trace not only her own development as a writer but her family’s participation in the Civil Rights Movement. The family, split among Ohio, South Carolina, and then Brooklyn, not only witnessed televised and personal experiences with the “Movement,” but they did so from an upbringing as Jevohah’s Witnesses.  Woodword’s poetic talent leaps off the page, and her references to the differences of Whites and Blacks in our nation’s history, while not in-depth, are powerful enough to take the reader right to the scene.

Danielle Pignatarro 

I'll give you the sunMy favorite book this year -not including any published from S3Q2- was I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson. It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that made it so amazing. The two different points of view, spanning years, created perfect tension that allowed things to be revealed at the perfect moments.  I tried to read it slowly, but it was impossible to do so. I had to know what was going to happen next.


Varian Johnson 

Brown Girl DreamingMy favorite book of the year was BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson. The use of poetry and well-placed line breaks allowed me to contemplate and measure each verse. The memoir was powerful but never heavy-handed. It was rightly chosen for a National Book Award, and I expect it to take Newbery gold as well.


The Fourteenth GoldfishAnother favorite book is THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH by Jennifer Holm. The novel shows us a new take on the grandfather-grandchild relationship, but is never heavy-handed or didactic. Holm uses deceptively simple language to showcase very powerful moments for both Ellie and Melvin, her grandfather. While everyone doesn’t get what they want at the end of the novel, they all get exactly what they need.


Linden McNeilly

My top three were:

Brown Girl DreamingBROWN GIRL DREAMING, by Jacqueline Woodson:  I loved its close take on life, her use of essential details without bogging down or getting ham-handed, and overall core message of strength and family. I am not always drawn to novels or memoirs in verse, but she sold me with her use of spare, poetic language that was not cloying, singsongy or trite.

endangeredENDANGERED, by Eliot Shrefer: Vivid, excellent plotting, fantastic use of the political and personal to establish setting and tension, and authentic in its close look at life with the bonobos. I couldn’t put it down, and my husband, who reads almost no kidlit, felt the same way.

evidenceEVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN, by Lindsey Lane: What a book. She uses many alternate voices, and a changing time period to continually spiral around a tragic event that feels unknowable, yet affected a whole town. She is an absolute master at voice, and the way she was able to move the plot through changing narrative was very admirable.


Sue LaNeve

We were liars

I’ve just begun BROWN GIRL DREAMING, and already understand why it is such a favorite. But of the books I’ve completed, E. Lockhart’s WE WERE LIARS gets my vote for my favorite. Emily’s unique voice and opening lines sucked me in with an intense gravitational pull. Her development of setting, characters, and relationships begged me to slow my pace to savor her unique plotting. But her slow reveal of what my gut screamed would grow as dark and forceful as a black hole kept the pages turning, rapidly. The twist caught me so off guard, I shouted OH MY GOD, nearly giving my husband a coronary. This was delicious fictionone and only.

A special 10-year-old in my life led me to another honoree published a couple years ago, Katherine Applegate’s THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. This particular boy prefers non-fiction but he inhaled this tale so consider it for your reluctant or avid reader. I was drawn to its core, the power of kindness.

Annemarie O’Brien

THE+FAMILY+ROMANOV (2)My two favorite books this year were BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson and THE FAMILY ROMANOV: MURDER, REBELLION & THE FALL OF IMPERIAL RUSSIA by Candace Fleming. I’ll focus on the latter since the former is getting well deserved coverage. I’ve read numerous adult books about the fall of Imperial Russia and the Romanov family over the past twenty-five years. I can’t think of a book aimed at young adults that is as thorough and engaging as Fleming’s. Her book is so well researched and written even adults would enjoy it. Unlike most of the adult books out there, Fleming’s book is the only one that also brings the peasant point of view to life with true accounts inserted in each of the chapters. If you like non-fiction, THE FAMILY ROMANOV is a gem and a story you won’t be able to put down!

If you’ve reached this point in the post, you’ll likely agree that Jacqueline Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING deserves all of the honors it has already earned and will likely continue to receive. So even as we honor the work of all the authors listed above, this post is for you, Jacqueline Woodson

A Little Bit of Light



IMG_0553At 6:01 am on December 22 many years ago, I decided it was time to make my way into the world. It was a Wednesday, just before dawn of the winter solstice. Hannukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, had just ended, and Christmas was only days away. I left the hospital on Christmas Eve swaddled in a red stocking, and wearing an infant-size Santa hat. At least, this is what I’ve been told. This is what the photographic evidence confirms.

This is the date that has been my celebratory day ever since. Friends often said what rotten luck it was to have a birthday so close to Christmas. Having never had a different birthday, I couldn’t comment, but it didn’t seem like rotten luck to me. I had been born. The alternative might have been worse.

As I got older and my responsibilities grew, the light of my birthday dimmed. There were presents to make, Christmas letters to write, cookies to bake, gifts to wrap, stockings to stuff. The wise men in the nativity set were supposed to move closer to the baby Jesus each day. The advent calendars needed daily attention. There were songs to be sung and Christmas stories to be told.

The short days, a brief blip of light in what seemed like a sea of darkness, were never long enough. It was overwhelming. Birthdays? Just another year older. I could never remember how old I was anyway.

Then, a few years ago, I was given an epiphany for my birthday. My birthday fell on the winter solstice. Though the solstice marks the change of season, it also heralds a season of more light. Yes, the days are cold and they are still short, but more light is on the way.

Starting today, the rays from the sun won’t have to stretch so far to touch each one of us (here in the northern hemisphere). It is a day of hope in a season of hope, brimming with glorias and good cheer, with peace on earth, good will toward men. I don’t think I could have chosen a better day, if I had had the option.

I share that birthday epiphany with you. If the days seem dark and overwhelming, step back from all the clamor and commotion and see the light. It’s on its way.

Sending love and light from all of us here at Quirk and Quill.

An Author Interview with Stacy Nyikos: WAGGERS


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Stacy Nyikos WAGGERS BOOK COVERToday I welcome Stacy Nyikos, fellow VCFA alum, to Quirk and Quill to talk about her new picture book, WAGGERS (Dec 2014: Sky Pony Press) illustrated by Tamara Anegon and appropriate for kids aged 3-8.

Who is your key dog character(s) and what kind of dog is he/she? 

Waggers is a Razortail Whippet. The famed Razortail Whippet isn’t actually a breed recognized by the Westminster Kennel Club, but that might be because I made it up. Waggers needed his very own category. His tail is that unique. I have a feeling there are a lot of un-identified Razortail Whippets out there just waiting for Westminster Kennel Club to recognize them, too.

Aside from his destructo-tail, Waggers is really a sweet little man, who loves to do anything Moni and Michael want and will stop at nothing to protect their house from the most evil of all villains, the Sciuridae, also known as the squirrel.

I think you’re onto something, Stacy and the WKC should consider the Razortail Whippet as a new breed!

In 70 words or less, provide a succinct plot description of your story.

Moni and Michael are so excited to adopt Waggers. Waggers is too. His tail goes crazy. He can’t stop it. Moni and Michael don’t mind. Waggers is so sweet, and it’s just a tail. How much harm can it do?

Stacy Nyikos DESI PUPPY PHOTOWhat inspired you to write this story?

Waggers was inspired by our most recent family member, Desi, a German Shepherd/Rhodesian Ridgeback mix we adopted from the pound. She has got a tail on her that literally clears tables and pounds cracks in walls. It’s amazing it took me more than a week to realize she was the perfect protagonist for a story.

Stacy Nyikos STACY and DESI PHOTOWhat was the biggest challenge you had writing your story? How did you overcome it?

The biggest obstacle to this story was to take reality and fictionalize it such that it works as story, not fictionalized reality. That must sound weird, but it’s sort of like the difference between a person trying to act vs. someone acting, or, say, pretending to be excited about a present vs. being skin-tinglingly excited.

What other YA/MG books have you written? Do any of them feature a key dog character? If so, which ones? What are these stories about?

This is my seventh book. Five of the seven are aquatic picture books. The sixth is a middle grade fiction with dragons. This is my first dog book, and it has been so much fun. I want to write about dogs all the time now. Maybe it’s because of Desi, or maybe it’s because writing this story has been so much fun. Either way, I think Waggers is the beginning of a new trend.

What kind of story can we expect next from you? Is it about a dog? If so, what is it about?

My next story is a picture book called Tour de Trike, and it’s about a tricycle race. There are no dogs, not yet anyway. The YA I’m working on is set in a drowning world. There are no dogs in it either. However, I have the outline for a new MG called Dogspell. Tada!! It’s about a dog and a girl who swap places. Literally.

Stacy Nyikos DESI PHOTOWhat else would you like us to know about you or your story?

Hmmm…how about that that adopting a dog—which is what Waggers is all about—is one of the most exciting, most fun, most rewarding experiences, but it can be hard too. After all, a dog is a new family member. You have to get to know them and vice versa. There might be days when walking the dog is a drag (or you’re dragged). Don’t give up! It will get better. Or, you’ll fall in love with your dog and not care as much. Maybe a little of both. Desi’s tail has gotten better. She still clears a coffee table every once in a while, but I’ve seen her actually slow her tail when walking by one. And I’ve learned to put things up a little higher. But most of all, she’s become a part of our family. I can’t imagine a day without her.

Good advice, Stacy. Taking care of a new puppy or dog requires a lot of time and work.

Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? And why?

Gosh, that’s a tough one. I’ve been reading since I was three. Go Dog Go was my most favorite book then. It was the book that taught me to read, the one I memorized, the one I took with me when I ran away from home at the age of 3 to go to school. I followed our neighbor to the high school around the corner, found my way to the principal’s office. He said I’d have to be able to read to go to his school. I proudly whipped out Go Dog Go and read it cover to cover. I got a tour of the school after that, and I was in preschool the next week. Go Dog Go!

Stacy Nyikos AUTHOR PHOTOThats’ a great story and why am I not surprised that you’d want to start at high school?

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Everybody’s road to publication is different. Don’t be afraid to try anything, no matter how crazy, in your writing. And don’t give up. It can get hard, really hard some days. But the people who make it are the ones who stick with it. That advice has stuck with me through some pretty bleak moments, and gotten me through them.

I agree a 100%. It’s the writers who stick with it and struggle through the tougher times that finally see a contract.

Where can readers go to find out more information about you and/or your books?

My website is a great place to start. If they don’t find enough there, or on FB, Twitter, or my blog, drop me an email. I’d love to hear from you!

You can also learn more about Stacy and her books on Goodreads and Oklahoma Children’s Authors and Illustrators.

Thank you Stacy for joining us at Quirk and Quill! 


Fear & Killing the Muse


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“My whole anxiety is for myself as a performer. Am I any good? That’s

what I’d like to know and all I need to know.”

— Robert Frost (Letter to Kimball Flaccus, October 26, 1930)

Fear. There are about a zillion different fears in the world, and many are given names. Did you know there’s a name for the fear of belly buttons (omphalophobia)? And a fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth—arachibutyrophobia. Try working that into your next casual conversation. There are writing related fears, too: The fear of books is Bibliophobia; fear of making changes is tropophobia. There’s a fear of working on computers- cyberphobia. And worst of all, the fear of making decisions: decidophobia.

So with all that trepidation around us, controlling our every anxious breath as we try to create stories, what can we do?

The list of recommendations is long: breathe mindfully, meditate, take long walks, drink soothing tea, brainstorm, draw pictures and design story boards, pick up your writing in the middle of a sentence. But we all know that these can be crumple zones of weakness when it comes time to wrestle with the muse. The muse can be amazing, but she’s fickle and she’s mean.

My solution: stop believing in the muse.

It’s a hard notion to let go of, because that muse is So. Darn. Real. You know the feeling when you are in the groove, singing along with language and emotion. The work is just falling out of you, like you’re the sky and lovely, fat snowflakes are coming out of nowhere, spreading beauty in all directions. You can almost feel her leaning in, guiding your hands over the keys imperceptibly, breathing her powerful breath into your inhalations.

But she’s not there.

You don’t like that? Okay. Let’s not fight over it. Let’s pretend she doesn’t exist, just for a moment. Let’s pretend that everything you’ve ever written or thought to write or dreamed of writing someday actually came from within you. Let’s pretend that nothing else made it happen, save a combination of grit, determination, timing, good fortune and the kindness of family members or good friends that helped pave the way. Maybe your favorite aunt gave you your first (dented) typewriter. Okay, that’s a kind of blessing, but it’s not the muse. Maybe the beauty of your newborn son’s face inspired you to write a gorgeous poem or song. That’s love, not the muse. Maybe you dreamed your plot, and it all spilled out of you before you even got a cup of coffee, you were so busy listening to the—

Don’t say it. She’s not there.

Everything you do is you and the magic of your life.

Everything you dream is yours, and you can make it true.

We are our stories, our fantasy plots, our beloved and dastardly characters. This is US. Humans were made to tell stories: We teach our young with story, we spread news, we warn of danger. Stories are the grist of our survival. Without them we would have died out before the mastodon.

I believe that the muse is really the gentle puffs of magic I make myself when I am working. It’s a mystical by-product of imagination. When I get in the zone I lose time, sound and my surroundings. I make that dream world by simply showing up to do my work.

I am not saying that every time I work I make great stuff. Some of it is junk—okay A LOT of it is junk. But I have to make the junk in order to make the good stuff. It’s all a matter of creating the most raw material possible. Isaac Asimov, back in 1981, wrote an editorial about writing and rejection for his Science Fiction Magazine, December 21, 1981. He talked about knowing that work can be unworthy, despite the effort:

            That is the possibility all of us live with. We sit there alone, pounding out the words, with our heart pounding in time. Each sentence brings with it a sickening sensation of not being right. Each page keeps us wondering if we are moving in the wrong direction.

            Even if, for some reason, we feel we are getting it right and that the whole thing is singing with operatic clarity, we are going to come back to it the next day and re-read it and hear only a duck’s quacking.
            Despite fearing the duck, Asimov wrote and wrote and wrote.

We all should. If there is a muse, she’ll only visit when you are so hard at work you don’t notice her slipping in.

In 1939, during World War II, Great Britain’s Ministry of Information made a series of three motivational posters to stiffen resolve in the event of Nazi occupation. Though thousands of copies were printed, they were never used and eventually were lost. In 2000, a copy of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was rediscovered in Barter Books, a second-hand bookshop in Alnwick, Northumberland. Since Crown Copyright expires on artistic works created by the UK government after 50 years, the image is now in the public domain. I use it as a daily reminder of where the “muse” lives.
Let’s get back to work.