So I had ten minutes in which to be pithy as keynote for the Letters About Literature - awards ceremony (two links in there), and I thought I did all right. I got some nice compliments after the ceremony at any rate. Since I have no idea if I'd ever be able to use it again, I thought I'd share. Here was my speech...
Joe (Davich of the Georgia Center for the Book) asked me to talk a little bit about the future of reading and where technology fits into it all. Certainly, our world of books is rapidly changing. As an author/illustrator I now have several options of how to share my stories with you. They can be in hardcover, paperback, magazines, e-readers, or even as apps. Such as my story, LULA’S BREW. This one doesn’t even exist as a physical book - it is solely electronic. And yet, it’s been downloaded over 10,000 times.
Even with this changing technology, one thing will remain constant - reading is all about stories. My title may change. They may stop calling me an author/illustrator and call me a “content provider” instead. But whatever they decide to call me, I will still always create stories - picture books, articles, and even three novels so far - two of which are currently being shopped around in New York. Cross your fingers for me, please!
But it’s important to note that success in this business is built on the back of failure. For every book I’ve sold to a publisher, I’ve got dozens of stories which have yet to be published - an entire bureau full. My stories have been rejected over and over again. It sounds awful, doesn’t it? I’ve had to develop a thick skin. But its the nature of the business. I can’t take it personally. There are only so many tiny slots to be filled and a lot of people are trying to fill them. Its why publishing a book is such a big deal. And it doesn’t stop me from creating. If anything, it drives me and makes me create more.
The creative mind is like any other muscle, it works best for you when you get it in shape. And once its in shape, its impossible to hold it back. People often ask me where I get my ideas. But ideas are not like four-leaf-clovers. They are not rare. Stories surround us, they are everywhere. It’s up to us to choose which stories are worthy of our time and of being shared. My problem has never been where do I get my ideas. My problem has been ‘How do I make them stop!’
When Joe asked me to speak to all of you today, he said something I thought was interesting. He said its rare that people get to watch the evolution of an author or illustrator’s career. Certainly, he’s watched the evolution of mine. When I moved to Atlanta, I had one book under my belt. I now have fifteen. So for as difficult as this business can be, it can be done. I’m living proof.
But I still remember that first day when I decided to embark on this adventure. I sat at my computer and started doing research. The first things I learned were really depressing. I learned that it takes years to get published. That even though most people think they have a book in them, most of them never get published. And that most people think picture books are easy to write and can be shot out in a day. Um.
Here’s a true story...
Dr. Seuss was at a cocktail party where he met a brain surgeon.
"Oh, you're that man who writes those children's books," the Doctor said. "Some Saturday, when I have a little extra time, I am going to write one of those."
Dr. Seuss replied, "Ahh yes. And someday when I have a little free time, I'll do brain surgery."
One of my favorite quotes is by Mem Fox. She said, “Writing a picture book is like writing ‘War and Peace’ in Haiku.” Truly, try presenting a story, with strong characters, a good plot, a story arc and a satisfying conclusion in 300 words or less, and you’ll soon realize that writing picture books is probably THE best training for writing that there is. Every word counts. Every idea must be clear and concise. And they must appeal not only to the children to whom they will be read, but to the parent who will be buying them. As Mo Willems said in “Library of the Early Mind” - “One of the great ironies of my life is that I am a writer for illiterates.” Think about it.
I share all of this with you because I am addressing a room full of writers.
I’ve had the honor of being part of the judging process for Letters About Literature for a few years now. And while the letters are culled before the judging committee receives them, it still becomes quickly obvious which ones will be considered as finalists. Some of the letters are so vastly advanced, they immediately rise to the top. It then becomes an issue of which will be first, and second, and so on. And we argue over them. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t. But what we do agree on, is the promise for our future in the winning letters we receive. Because the letters are amazing.
The winning letters are from students, you guys, who are obviously passionate about reading, or who are passionate about one particular title. You know the one. The sort of book you can imagine will still be in your backpack in college, dog-eared from being read over and over again. I envy the relationship some of you will have with that one special book. A book so profound, it spoke to you on a personal level and changed your perspective on the world and how you want to live your lives.
And then, for this contest, Letters About Literature, you wrote about that book - beautifully. Because most of the time, a true reader is also a writer. The letters we reviewed were not only well-written, they were eloquent and thoughtful, revealing moving personal stories that often-times brought tears to our eyes.
For to be a writer, a really good writer, not only must we begin as readers, we must also share our weaknesses and insecurities. As Gene Fowler said, “Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” And while that sounds terrifying, vulnerability and fear are merely the shadows of bravery and courage. They are the tools of a writer. Without them, we would have nothing to stand against, or to write about.
Because it takes extreme courage to write about our deepest pain or our hidden aspirations. It takes courage to admit a book spoke to us, that we connected with it in some of the darkest or most secret corners of our mind. Which is why a good librarian or bookseller can be a hero. Make no doubt about it, placing the right book in the right hands can change a life. Some of your letters reflected that.
The letters you are about to hear admit to challenges, hard times, obstacles, and finally, they show extreme bravery. Not only to get past whatever difficulties you were facing in your lives, but to also stand up here and read your letters aloud, face to face - admitting your vulnerability in public.
Which is why I am inspired by YOU, the students who submitted these amazing letters. Julian Barnes said, “It is easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren’t writers and very little harm comes to them.” But that’s not who will be speaking here today.
Today we are going to hear from our future leaders, scholars, politicians, and heroes. Our brightest stars. You are all readers, but perhaps more importantly, you are all writers. You have things to say. Some of you may keep journals, I hope you do. I filled dozens of books with my thoughts when I was your age. They are my treasures now and invaluable resources as I write for young people.
Whether you keep journals or not, it’s obvious you’ve already begun to share your stories. Your letters promise bright futures and I look forward to discovering what you will do as you become adults.
But most of all, I wish you a lifetime of happy reading.