I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.
On May 30 my new middle grade novel The Wish List #1: The Worst Fairy Godmother Ever was published! For a long time, I called it my “peach sorbet.” It was an idea I worked on when I was tired of thinking about my “important” project. A literary palate cleanser. Not anything serious.
(If you know my story, you can skip to the challenge!!!!)
For better or for worse, I was a writer who grappled with tough topics. I went for it all—unlikeable characters, themes filled with conflicts, questionable morals, provocative endings. Although I found these books grueling to write, I told myself that the work was worth it—these characters and ideas were calling me. And up until 2014, I felt pretty good about it. I had a great agent. There were editors willing to read my next WIP. My family might have been confused about why I wrote such dark, sad books, but they supported me. 100%. I was not deterred by the mixed reception my last novel received.
That changed, when teaching at Highlights in Sept 2014, I got some bad news that had followed other bad news: the editor who loved my newest WIP (a story I had taken two years to write) could not get it past the acquisitions committee.
The novel needed to go in a drawer.
I began to doubt myself.
I don’t know a writer who hasn’t experienced doubt and fear, and yet, when it happened to me, I felt unprepared. As my friend Laura Ruby says, we writers are people with thin skin. In the writing process, that can be a good thing. We feel empathy. But when you are not feeling safe? That thin skin can crush you.
I wondered if perhaps my writing career was coming to a close.
Lucky for me, I was surrounded by friends. I also had the best kind of work to do—writers to counsel—writers who trusted me to help them work on their novels. It gave me some time to think about the advice I was offering them:
Step away from the manuscript!
Try some writing exercises!
Re-imagine your story!
I also found myself talking (in an excited way) not about my serious novel but about that peach sorbet. I remembered some sage advice editor (and subsequently book doctor) Deborah Brodie once offered me. She said, “Eat dessert first. Write what makes you happy.” At the end of that retreat, I stood at the podium and read to smiling, enthusiastic faces. I made myself a challenge:
For the next six months, I was going to PLAY.
I was going to work on all the things that made me happy, books I had convinced myself I couldn’t/shouldn’t write: picture books, humor, essays, an adult novel, poetry, and most important, my peach sorbet: a chapter book about a very bad fairy godmother. I was going to write fast. I was not going to edit myself. I was going to access my subconscious with drawing and writing and listening to new music and having fun. If I liked an idea, I was going to try it.
I was going to eat a lot of dessert.
Amazing things began to happen.
As I played, I found a new voice. And confidence. And other things, too–that I write about all the time in this newsletter. I found that when I turned off my phone and walked without interruption, new ideas emerged. My memory map trick worked! Working with clay gave me time to think. Doodling—pencil to paper—gave me the answers to my questions.
(There is a lot of scientific evidence about the benefits of play. Studies show that when we play, we develop imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. All good things. Right?)
As Picasso once said: Every child is born an artist. The trick is remaining one as an adult.
When the challenge was over, I had written two nonfiction picture books, an essay, the beginning of an adult novel, ten picture books, and what I hoped could be the first chapter book in a series. A lot of it was terrible! But some of it wasn’t. I sent the best of it to Sarah D. Fingers crossed.
And after much more re-imagination, edits and discussions, I got my very own Happily Ever After (no wand necessary).
So here we are. I am grateful. I am delighted. Most of the reviews are really good. (One is REALLY BAD. Oh well!!!) And I’m getting ready to reveal the cover for Book Two. Play is a part of my daily process. Really it saved me.
The lesson is to believe in yourself. And experiment. This week, take my challenge. Write what you don’t think you can write. Without expectations.
Will you celebrate with me?
Feed the world with official fairy godmother cheer! Tweet or post your wish to make someone else happily ever after. Use the hashtag: #BeAFairyGodmother
xo sarah aronson