Boy oh boy, am I happy to host Linda Urban today. We met eons ago at a writing retreat facilitated by then editor Linda Zuckerman, both unpublished but eager to learn. She is a peach of a person and a terrific writer. I am particularly taken with how she can, in her novels, evoke character with a few deftly chosen words and phrases. And I adore how she leaves lots of white space for the reader (by that I mean room for the reader to fully participate in a story) in her books. But enough about what I think — let’s get to what’s on Linda’s mind!
I’m sometimes invited to speak to teachers about my notebooks. I love writer’s notebooks. I love the freedom that comes with quick writes, the scrapbook quality of having kept observations and overhearings, the usefulness of having a place to keep my anxieties and stresses so they aren’t hanging around in my head all day saying pay attention to meeeeee!
My notebooks can be messy and disorganized, which is why they work for me. They don’t need to be neat because, for the most part, I don’t reread them. Like legendary graphic designer Michael Beirut (see his notebooks here) I don’t often return to their pages looking for gems to decorate my current work-in-progress or inspiration for a new one. Usually, my notebooks are a place to process, a way to think out or notice, and the very act of doing so is enough.
But this week, I have been looking back at a few of the notebooks I kept during the writing of my new book MILO SPECK, ACCIDENTAL AGENT because I need to remind myself of how ugly the process of writing a novel can be. Just like the kids I speak to at school visits, I can look at that pretty finished book and forget it was ever an unruly stack of scenes without connection. I can forget how murky the path was, how often I was tempted to forget the whole writing thing and sign up as a substitute teacher.
And right now, as I’m only ankle deep in a new book and trying to learn how to write it, it is helpful to be reminded that I have been on a road like this before. Not the same exact road, to be sure. What is it they say? Every book only teaches you how to write that book and for the next one you begin again, dumb as ever? Okay. They probably don’t say dumb. But remembering how dumb I’ve felt in the process of creating other books is helping now. It is reminding me that this feeling isn’t new. That I almost always feel this way.
So yeah, it is a little reassuring to see proof of a past muddle and know it got sorted. But there’s been an even more important by-product of being reminded in this way. I’ve also been reminded of what it is the kids I write about feel. Every day, kids go to school and are required to take on something they don’t know much about, to overcome the newness and the frustration and the doubt and to master it. And then to do the same thing an hour later in some other subject. This is a part of their daily existence and it shapes the way they experience the world, as well as the opinions they form about their identity and abilities. How can I ask that my own work be any less of a challenge if I want it to be worthy of their readership?
These are not new thoughts for me. In fact, my notebooks demonstrate that I have had them before and that they’ve given me courage in the past as well. Plus, they’ve been a crucial part of the content of my fiction. Milo Speck is a small boy in a big world (Ogre-sized, actually). He has a talent for mechanics and a facility for making plans, but he’s not a gifted “chosen one”. He’s a regular kid who has to try to apply what he knows to strange and difficult challenges. Sometimes, his efforts fail. Sometimes, they have results he does not intend. He muddles through. He tries again. And I do, too.
Linda Urban has been writing for children for just over ten years now and still isn’t sure what she’s doing. Nonetheless, she has published six books, a couple of which have won awards. Her picture books are MOUSE WAS MAD and LITTLE RED HENRY, which Publisher’s Weekly called “irresistible”. Her middle grade novels include A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT, HOUND DOG TRUE, THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING, and the newly-published MILO SPECK, ACCIDENTAL AGENT, which she hopes you will read and that when you do, you will laugh really hard.