Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Writer Wednesday: Donna Washington

~ * ~ Winter Holiday Edition ~ * ~

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Donna Washington...

I never expected to be a published author. Well, not until I was very old with thinning hair and lots of wisdom to share. I never expected to be a storyteller, either. I attended Northwestern University and Rives Collins, a professor and storyteller, saw me in a piece of theatre where I was playing a storyteller and he announced that I should do it for a living. I became a writer because I was telling stories out in California at a conference and a woman walked up to me and asked me if I’d ever considered writing books. I hadn’t, but she gave me her card and asked me to call her. I put her card in this giant bag I was carrying around and I lost it. Three months later I was cleaning out the bag and found her card. I called her.

“Hi. This is Donna Washington. I met you at a conference out in California a few months ago. You asked me about writing books. Were you serious?”

“Yes. I was just thinking about you.”

My initial thought to her statement was, ‘yeah, right’, but I persevered. “What sort of books do you publish?”

She got really quiet. I decided that she was either embarrassed or insulted. If she published out of her basement, she might be embarrassed. If she didn’t, then she might be insulted that I didn’t know who she was.

“Let me send you some books.” She offered.

That’s when I was certain she published out of her basement. Who would send you a box of books if they were legit?

The next day a courier arrived with a large box of books. I opened the box and on the top was Shel Sivlerstein’s A Light In The Attic. I called her back and apologized all over myself.
Katherine Tegen turned out to be an editor at HarperCollins Children’s books and we began a long collaboration that has produced four books. Our latest project is called Li’l Rabbit’s Kwanzaa, which is published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s books.

Li’l Rabbit’s Kwanzaa came about because I had librarians and teachers all over the country asking me to write a book that happens at Kwanzaa time but is not about Kwanzaa. They wanted a story not a primer. I went back to my storytelling roots and decided to go with a beast fable. In the tradition of Anansi the Spider and Brer Rabbit and Coyote the Trickster I wanted a little fellow who was not afraid to jump into something big. I structured the story around the traditional narrative of a short quest where our hero sets out to accomplish a task and meets creatures along the way that help him or her reach their goal. Because it takes place at Kwanzaa time I wanted to incorporate the themes of community and the importance of stepping up and doing your part to make the world a better place. It also had to be fun and a touch on the gooey side at the end since I want the readers to feel like they’ve had a good hug when they finish. What else are happy holiday books for if not that?

Being a writer is fun, but I don’t always like writing. In fact, sometimes it is like pulling out my fingernails one at a time to get started. If I get to a block in the middle of a story or I know the piece isn’t done but I can’t think of anything else to do to it, I just start writing on something else. Eventually, I clear away the debris and I can continue on the piece that was frustrating me. Li’l Rabbit’s Kwanzaa sat on my laptop for almost three years before it was ready to send to my editor.

Most of my published work is not in picture books. I have contributed a number of articles to books on education, storytelling, storytelling in education, and magazines. At some point I should collect it all up and link to it from my site, but that would require more technical know how than I possess. I should probably ask my fourteen year old to help me.

I am a verbal writer. Very often I have to say it out loud before I can get it onto paper. I talk to myself while I’m in the shower, cleaning house, driving, and doing my nails. Writing is not my primary job. It is a part of me and sometimes I am lucky enough to produce something for publication. In real life I am a full time professional storyteller who travels all over the country and internationally. I do everything from folktales and traditional narratives to personal contemporary stories. I have been writing and telling for twenty-three years and I don’t see an end in sight!

If you are a budding writer or just thinking of getting into the writing business there are lots of people with lots of advice. Here is the advice I offer.

1. Write. Write on a regular basis. Make sure you are spending time working
on your writing. Understand that not everything you write is brilliant and not
everything you write needs to be published. Write for your own enjoyment.

2. Read. Read and read and read and read and notice how work is put together. What
is it you like about your favorite books or articles? What do you dislike about
others. What do you want to emulate, what do you want to avoid?

3. Think. Think about what you want to write and come up with different ways to approach the same idea. Think up more ideas than you can ever write in a lifetime and make notes about them. File them away and take them out every now and then and look at them.

4. Listen. Sometimes we get upset if someone doesn’t like our work. Listen to what they say. You can’t please everyone, but you might learn a thing or two about how other people perceive your work if you listen. Yes, you may get offended. Yes, you may shut your computer and vow not to write again. Yes, you may sulk for a few days. We can’t help that sort of thing, it is just who we are as artists. Take a deep breath, get over being offended and get on with it.

5. Be Realistic. Right now, on your laptop, you may have the next Harry Potter or you might have the next Winnie the Pooh, or you might have the next Where the Wild Things are or you might have the next Lord of the Rings, or A River Runs Through It, or Ivanhoe but probably not. I’m not saying you don’t, I’m just saying the odds are low. So, keep your sights on the stars and keep writing, but if you don’t become a gazillionaire the first time someone buys an article or a book, don’t be crushed.

6. Enjoy the ride. Not everyone can or wants to do this job!

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Thank you Donna. That was great! I love that you added some very useful advice. It seems like it would be common sense, but as a writer I know how easy it can be to lose sight of why you started to write in the first place. I also love how you sometimes have a hard time making yourself sit down to write. The fact that Lil Rabbit's Kwanzaa took so long is an inspiration to me. I often take breaks from frustrating projects and go back to them when I can see it more clearly. So it's nice to see a successful outcome to all that hard work.

As always, I want to thank all of you for stopping by. If you're curious, as I was, Kwanzaa is a week long celebration honoring universal African heritage and culture. It is observed from December 26 to January 1. More information can be found at The Official Kwanzaa Website.

Happy Holidays!

Kristin :)

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