This is a transcript of Recommended Season 4 Episode 7.
AD READ: TheNOVL andInternment by Samira Ahmed.
This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. Today, Laurie Halse Anderson and Mikki Kendall talk about books that have shaped how they write.
Laurie Halse Anderson is a New York Times bestselling author whose writing spans young readers, teens, and new adults. She has been nominated three times for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, is a National Book Award finalist, and has been short-listed for the prestigious Carnegie medal. Laurie was selected by the American Library Association for the 2009 Margaret A. Edwards Award and has been honored for her battles for intellectual freedom by the National Coalition Against Censorship and the National Council of Teachers of English. In addition to combating censorship, Laurie regularly speaks about the need for diversity in publishing. Her latest book, SHOUT, is a searing poetic memoir and a call to action.
Hey, my name is Laurie Halse Anderson, and the book that I’m recommending is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.
It’s one of my favorite books, and I think it has a lot to do with why I became a writer. I hate to use the word self help, because for a lot of people that conjures up not-helpful things. But it’s a workbook. I think Julia Cameron likes to say that it’s for blocked creatives, whether that creativity wants to come out in words or music or dance, all kinds of different creatives. It’s a little bit modeled on the 12-step program that I know she’s fond of in terms of people who have some substance abuse issues or other addictions in terms of helping you explore yourself, but it’s removed from that.
When I’m talking to writer’s groups, I say, “There’s a little bit of woo-woo in this. If you dig the woo-woo, it’s gonna be awesome. If you don’t dig the woo-woo, you don’t have to pay attention to it.” But she’s got a couple of different techniques that really, really helped me transform myself from somebody who wanted to write into somebody who was actually writing.
In the mid-1990s, which was 100 million years ago, I was working at a Waldenbooks bookstore in a mall outside Philadelphia. I had young kids and I had a bunch of different jobs. I was freelancing for a newspaper, freelancing for trade journals, and trying desperately to figure out how to write well, and earning lots of well-deserved rejections from every single
publisher. I didn’t study writing. I don’t have an advanced degree. It was slowly dawning on me that I had no clue what I was doing. I was really beginning to wrestle with a lot of the emotional stuff that can get in the way of writing, like, “Oh, you’re a fraud. Oh, who are you? How dare you think you have something to say.” All those gremlins that take up residence in your brain.
I think her book came out in ’92, so it wasn’t a hardback when I first bought it, thank goodness, ’cause I couldn’t afford hardbacks. And I had a nice
discount at the bookstore, so I bought it and it changed my life.
When I started to write … Totally fumbling in the darkness, having been a kid who loved reading from about fourth grade on and who had been making up stories and writing poetry from about fourth grade on, but had been a little bit scarred by the traditional writing process as it was and sometimes still is taught in schools, I thought I had to understand everything ahead of time. I had no experience since I was a little kid of just
letting it flow. I was really locked into trying to be an adult and operating from my intellect, from my brain, like, “Here’s a plot and here’s a character.”
One of the things that she talks about is writing morning pages. The first thing you do when you roll out of bed in the morning is you write three pages in your journal. There’s no prescription. You’re just trying to develop the habit of listening to the still, small voice of creativity within you. Those morning entries can often begin with, “Boy, this lady’s got no idea what she’s talking about. I have no creativity at all. I’m really tired.” Then all of a sudden, if you stick with it, the magic starts to flow out your pen and you’re like, “What’s going on?”
It was developing that creative habit that gave me the courage, and sort of with those morning pages. Then she also has recommendations for how to put other kinds of art into your life. Because if you’re gonna create art, you have to feed yourself art. Visual art, textiles, music, all kinds of stuff. But that habit of getting my head out of the way and beginning to listen to what was stirring somewhere deeper inside me, that started with this book.
Whenever anybody writes a book about writing, I always buy it, ’cause I’m always looking for a way to do it better, right, and to do it a little bit … Depending on where you are in your life or your career, sometimes you need all this help.
Our culture is so consumer- and profit-oriented that I think these books are really very nice companions to have focusing on the creative process itself.
My career started at a time long before Twitter. We were just beginning
to get email in the mid-’90s. Nobody had websites. There was no forum for communications, before even Myspace. I think sometimes new writers put the publication ahead of the creation of the work. Because there are so many avenues, right, to publish, and you’ve got pitch wars for agents. There’s a lot of great tools out there, but they’re not terribly helpful if you haven’t been able to kind of find your rhythm in your writing.
But for me, these kinds of books that really double down on, “Let’s look at the creativity. Let’s find that … What are you feeling? Does this tie to my life? does this tie to something else I’ve seen or experienced or gotten angry about?” Then just follow these threads that … For me, this is why the morning journal’s very helpful. When I’m just coming out of sleep in
the morning, provided I don’t have to go take care of somebody or jump on an airplane, that’s a very fertile time. ‘Cause in that in-between time between dream state and checking your email … That’s when all the creativity stops. But that’s when I’ve found that my magic self, my muse self, is ready to play.
I had a really busy writing year in 2018, and I’ll be on the road a lot in 2019. But by the time we get to summer, hopefully things are gonna quiet down enough that I can unplug from the world. I have no idea what I’m gonna write next. This book, Artist’s Way, is really great when you’re like, “I got nothing, but I want to create something.”
Imagine if you were with somebody who you knew was really looking out for your best interest, right? They were gonna help you be your best self and support you and make you feel so safe that you would take risks in your art and you would try something new and be willing to experiment. That’s what this book does for me.
This culture we live in … It likes to make rock stars out of people. We lift up people, but we don’t lift up the creativity sometimes. There’s a lot of performative stuff that can get in the way. One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed in the kid lit community and YA lit in the last 20 years is we now
have more opportunities to gather together in retreats. A lot of buddy author groups will get together and do small unconferences or retreats together. That’s a really, really healthy space. That’s when you can focus on, again, feeling safe and exploring places that you haven’t dared go yet. For me, these books are the closest I can come to that in my own home
without anybody else around.
I go to a lot of teacher conferences and librarian conferences and writer
conferences over the course of every year, and it’s really fun, ’cause it’s like visiting your extended family. We all care so much about the children of America, all of them, and trying to create great works of art for them, but also for the child and the teen in all of us, right? ‘Cause no matter how old you get, most people have a couple of rough patches in their memory. Reading sometimes about other kids or other teens can help with that.
But what I would love to see would be to make more space in these kinds of gatherings, librarian, educator conferences, writer’s conferences, for actually sitting down and writing and not just talking about books all the time. There is something … The way that when you get a lot of great voices in a room and they hit that right chord, right, and the harmony’s good, and the sound of the singers together is much more than the sum of the
bodies in the room … I believe, and I’ve had this experience, that when people write within this space together … Not talking, but just the energy’s there. It’s really energizing, and it’s healthy, and it’s good.
When I was preparing for this interview, I went for my copy, and I have given it away again. I have given away dozens of copies of this book. I’m still always recommending … It’s been out for a long time now, but I continue to recommend it because the advice at least works with me. So I have to go buy a new copy now that I realize I’m out of it, so thanks for having me do that.
Thanks again to Laurie Halse Anderson for joining us and recommending The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Her memoir SHOUT, published by Viking Books for Young Readers, is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at halseanderson.
AD READ:The Fifth Doctrine by Karen Robards
Mikki Kendall is a writer, diversity consultant, and occasional feminist who talks a lot about intersectionality, policing, gender, sexual assault, and other current events. Her nonfiction can be found at Time.com, the Guardian, Washington Post, Ebony, Essence, Salon, XoJane, Bustle, Islamic Monthly and a host of other sites. Her media appearances include BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, WVON, WBEZ, TWIB, and Showtime, and her fiction has been published through Revelator magazine and Torquere Press. Her comics work can be found in the Swords of Sorrow anthology, the Princeless charity anthology, and in Spitball: The CCAD anthology of 2016.
My name is Mikki Kendall, and the book I’m recommending is Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber.
Sybil is a book about a woman who is ostensibly suffering from disassociative identity disorder and is a very deep dive into the different personalities, the way that this has supposedly been created by the abuse from her mother, and her eventually developing a single identity as opposed to the … I think it was 12 disparate identities at one point, she had.
I first read this book when I was eight. I had a cold, I wanna say, or maybe the flu. I was home sick. My aunt was in graduate school at the time, and I was rummaging through her bookshelf for stuff to read. Read a lot of inappropriate books that two-week period. I started reading Sybil and was about halfway through it before anyone realized I probably shouldn’t be reading it. There was a brief attempt to take it from me. It turns out that sometimes it’s not very effective trying to take a book from a sick kid. Puppy eyes work so good when you’re hacking up a lung. So good.
For me, the book was fascinating for a host of reasons. In my eight-year-old head, this was not a true story. Since, apparently in 2011, the real Sybil, the woman the book is supposed to be about, has said that she faked it. But it was the most fascinating thing, because she could be so many people. For some eight-year-old logic reason, I was completely enamored with the idea of being able to change completely who you were based seemingly on
your mood. To change your voice, your clothes, everything, and then you’re a different person.
Okay. This is also gonna make people judge me. Some of my favorite scenes are actually when she decides, basically … There’s a scene where she basically decides that she doesn’t like … One of the alters decides they don’t like where she lives or where she works, and they sort of relatively dramatically completely overhaul her living situation just by making the decision that, “Hmm. You’re gonna apply for a new job. You’re gonna
move into a new, better place. You’re gonna get away from this person who wasn’t very nice.” There’s a guy that likes her. One of the alters starts to flirt with this guy because he’s nice. The other one really goes hard in checking him out.
Some of my favorite scenes are really just her kind of waking up and realizing, “My life sucks today. Oh, but now my life is much better today,” and having to navigate the different worlds that the alters are taking her to.
I did not have the happiest of childhoods, and I, at the time, sort of thought I was stuck, right? That nothing else was going to be possible and there was no way out kind of a thing. For me, realizing that someone as an adult could just make a decision and change things … I know this is gonna sound really strange because of the content of the book, but for me, Sybil was one of the first things I read that, because it was not about little kids and sort of being directed by adults in what they did, that really said to me, “Even if you don’t like how things are, you get to change it. Maybe you can’t change it right now, but when you’re an adult, you get to do what you want. Other people don’t have to understand it. You can just do it.”
Around the same time, I read Alice in Wonderland and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
There’s a scene in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry where she gets her revenge on the white girl that’s been bullying her. There’s also a scene in Alice where Alice basically ignores what everyone is saying to do what she wants, and she gets to be victorious. Somehow in my eight-year-old brain, these books all scratched that same “you are capable of taking control of your future” itch.
I reread it after the announcement came out, I wanna say in 2010, 2011, that she had made it up. Somebody saw me actually on the train reading it and wanted to know what it was about, and I was explaining it. I’m not sure I explained well why it was still so worth it to read it, ’cause it was definitely one of those, “You know that woman said it was fake.” I’m like, “I know.” But then she becomes the greatest storyteller of all time, right? She’s managed to virtually create all of these characters and convince multiple people that these characters are real, that they are absolutely 100% real and must be addressed. I thought that that was fascinating, because if she was able to convince a trained therapist and all of these people around her, then either this is the greatest con ever run, or it is the most elaborate fantasy life possible.
The person said, “I never thought about it that way. I never read the book? Is it a good book?” It’s actually a really well-written book. Aside from anything else, I think Sybil is a really well-written book.
I think the book is part of why I, even now, am probably more interested in writing the character than I am in writing the setting. I will describe the setting. But you know how people get into very elaborate descriptions of wallpaper and flooring and that kind of thing? That really doesn’t interest me in my own writing. I’ve learned not to have my characters be in a white space, but I really almost am less interested in what is happening around them and more interested in what is happening inside their heads. Does that makes sense?
I am, as I used to politely say, a voracious reader. I have read probably tens of thousands of books at this point, because I am one of those people that reads in the bathroom and while I’m eating breakfast and on the bus, and while I’m walking down the street sometimes. You know. I would say that the books I like most tend, much like this, to be very character-focused. My reading life tends to be one where I am most interested in the people in the book and what is motivating them and what is making them make their
choices, and less so in sort of those elaborate … Very pretty. I’m not knocking these books. But these elaborate things where the setting is a character, but the setting isn’t necessarily thinking or or anything. It’s not alive. They just have made it all about the city in a way that sort of makes the people props in the giant dollhouse of the city kind of a thing. I don’t necessarily care for those books.
I think everyone should probably at least read Sybil and kind of look at the actual structure and how she made this work. Not necessarily that you have to imitate it. But I think in terms of character work and a lot of introspection into what people were thinking, it was really well done.
Thanks again to Mikki Kendall for joining us and recommending Sibyl by Flora Rheta Schreiber. You can follow Kendall on Twitter at karnythia.
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