The Sandbox

My first book came out in 1988, which is a long time ago no matter how you slice it. The world of children’s and YA literature was very different then. To me, it felt like a sleepy backwater of the publishing industry, a place where writers didn’t get the money or the attention of the “grownup” lit departments. Nor the respect. At parties, people often asked me when I was going to graduate from kiddy lit and start writing real books. Now they ask when I’m going to write the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games.

What we did have more of, back then, was the freedom that comes when the world isn’t paying a lot of attention. You could write a YA mystery, then a picture book, then a quiet literary middle-grade novel, and nobody would say boo. Possibly that wouldn’t have been a smart career move even then, but nobody in publishing ever told me not to do it. My agent told me, “Write the book you want to write.” My editor told me, “Write the book you want to write.” And when I described what I wanted to write, my editor invariably said, “That sounds wonderful.”

Let me hasten to add that my fabulous current editor not only let me write the book I wanted to write, a historical/fantasy hybrid called Falcon in the Glass, but she also gave me a contract and an advance. But I know that this kind of freedom is becoming rarer in publishing.

Back in the day, most children’s and YA publishers accepted unsolicited submissions.Few universities studied children’s books, and there were no MFA programs in writing children’s literature. At a writers’ conference, a prominent editor told us that it was a waste of time for authors to try to market their published books. Let the publisher take care of it, she said. Write your next book, she said. Write the book you want to write.

I don’t want to wax unduly nostalgic. Money and respect–what’s not to like? People in universities have written articles about my books, and I teach in a great MFA program. And pleasing our fans and taking a more active role in promoting our books only make sense.

But sometimes I miss the feeling of just dinking around in my sandbox, oblivious to the world. Pursuing whatever might catch my fancy. Not worrying about trends and promotion budgets and who’s on top this week. Just playing–writing for the joy of it.

Is this possible at all anymore?

There’s no going back, but I think we can still capture some of the lost magic of the sandbox. I think we have to, because that’s where true and original stories begin. I’ll give over the rest of this post to Joseph Campbell in his interview with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth.

Create a sacred place, Campbell says. “You must have a room, or a certain hour a day or so, where you do not know what was in the newspapers that morning…[Find] a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are, and what you might be. This is a place of creative incubation…Get a phonograph and put on the records–the music–you really love, even if it’s corny music that nobody else respects. I mean the one you like, or the book you want to read. Get it done and have a place in which to do it.”

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Sandbox

  1. For me, all the urgent bells and whistles and buzzings of emails and facebook notifications and text messages is making it harder and harder to access that sacred place. Things things are like the inescapable "noise" in Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking series. Somehow I've to find a way to block them out with greater consistency. Thanks for the reminder of how important that is to my creativity.

  2. I hear you, Susan! Playing in that sandbox feels so absorbing that I get annoyed at being pulled out by the so-called "demands of the marketplace." Makes me want to … throw sand! And stick out my tongue. (But then I might get a sandy tongue, right 🙂 So I'm just trying to do that metaphorically, hunkering down and writing stuff that I know will never get published. It feels wicked and subversive and loads of fun. How 'bout you? Hey, if you're ever on the East Coast maybe we can meet for a writing sandbox playdate 🙂

  3. I hear you, Susan! Playing in that sandbox feels so absorbing that I get annoyed at being pulled out by the so-called "demands of the marketplace." Makes me want to … throw sand! And stick out my tongue. (But then I might get a sandy tongue, right 🙂 So I'm just trying to do that metaphorically, hunkering down and writing stuff that I know will never get published. It feels wicked and subversive and loads of fun. How 'bout you? Hey, if you're ever on the East Coast maybe we can meet for a writing sandbox playdate 🙂

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