Priscilla Chaves and the Art of Designing Book Covers

This week we’re lucky to have Priscilla Chaves, a book designer, visit the Tolllbooth!

Priscilla designs books of all genres—fiction, non-fiction, cookbooks, children’s books, and more.

Ever since I worked with her last summer when she designed the cover for my novel, Crossings, I was curious about her job as a book designer. I learned that as a designer, she designs the front and back cover and spine of the book, and that she also designs the interiors. She works for Cedar Fort Publishing.

Welcome, Priscilla. 

What was your path to becoming a Book Designer?

I’ve always been interested in art since I was a little girl. In high school I took a few design classes and knew it was something I wanted to pursue. At college I studied design and loved it. After graduation I looked for design jobs, and the book design job found me.



What is your typical process to design a book cover?

Our authors are sent a design form where they tell me what they envision for their books. Once I receive that, I normally brainstorm ideas that go along the lines of the author’s ideas. Most of the time, I’ll draw sketches and pick the ones I think look best. Then I research ideas and look for images and typography that will work well on the cover. I’ll transfer those ideas to Photoshop and start designing. After the concepts are complete, I take them to my meeting. If it’s approved, great, if not, I go back to the drawing board.

In my case, she read the opening of my novel and other info I had sent to the publisher. Then she sent me an email that included some screen shots to see if she was heading in the right direction at capturing my “vision.” I gave her feedback. Then we talked about hair color. (Which meant I went back into the text and made sure it appeared in the first pages; it had been revised out of those pages.) Next, she finished the cover of Crossings, both the images and typography, showed me what she had designed, and got final approval from the publisher. Later in the process she designed the spine and back cover, and then the interior (working with an editor). I feel she did a wonderful job at capturing the tone and essence of my novel.


How do you collaborate with your authors?

Our first communication is when I introduce myself, and discuss their design document for their book with them. Frequently I check in to make sure I’m getting the right vision they want for their book. Normally there’s back and forth until we decided on something we both like.



In addition to the outer cover, what other aspects of book design are involved in preparing a book for publication?

The interiors of books are a collaboration between the copyeditor and myself. We choose text and flourishes that are compatible with the cover and go from there.




Where and how do you find the inspiration for your ideas for the covers?

I enjoy walking around bookstores and looking at other ideas. Covers that catch your eye stand out, so I try to emulate that in my own work.

Could you share a few of your favorite covers that you have designed?

Daughter of Ishmael, How to Become a Pirate Hunter, Chasing Red, In Spite of Lions, The Gnome Exchange Program: North Pole Rescue.

(These covers are all included in this interview.)




Thank you, Priscilla, for visiting us in the Tollbooth today.

~Sarah Blake Johnson

Fear, Creativity, and Courage…in Front of People

The first time I remember feeling a paralyzing, shameful kind of fear, was when I was twelve.  I had dreams and even bigger plans (as most twelve-year-olds do) to become famous. Well, if not famous, at least I wanted to be seen. I had my eye on an acting class at what I considered to be a prestigious community theater, but instruction was expensive. Really, really expensive. I begged, pleaded, and somehow managed to convince my parents to sign me up. I waited for the first day of class with bated breath. I imagined all of the wonderful things that would follow once I stepped foot on stage.  As I sat in cushy theater seats and waited for class to begin, I practically closed my eyes and wished for my fairy godmother to make me

But what unfolded was not at all what I had imagined. An hour later I huddled in the back of our family car in tears, begging my dad to never make me return. I couldn’t bear to tell him what had happened. It was too awful. Too embarrassing. Too…revealing. In one hour I had learned this: I had nothing important to say. How could this happen in a short sixty minutes? I’ll give you a hint: improv. The class was working on improvisation, which essentially means, “winging it.” We were supposed to get on stage (in front of people!) and act out whatever the instructor desired, with other students I had never laid eyes on, or let alone had spoken to (in front of people!). In my whole “become famous” plan I had forgotten one small fact. If I wanted to act, I must get up and act (in front of people!). Almost famous

I wouldn’t call myself a shy kid. But at age twelve, I had already cultivated a healthy fear of looking stupid. I watched the other students get up on stage and easily make the audience laugh. They were clever. They were funny. And they were smart. In my twelve-year-old eyes, I was absolutely none of these things. When my turn came, I blurted out some sort of incoherent sentence and then bolted behind the piano and waited for the torture to stop. Afterwards, I slunk to the darkest section of the cushy theater seats and cried. It turned out, I wasn’t special at all. I had nothing to contribute. Fear had got a hold of who I thought I was. My dad, bless his fatherly heart, didn’t make me go back.

FearNow, thinking about it, I wonder what could have happened if I had faced my fear and tried again? As I got older I pushed back at fear in other ways….learning new skills, public speaking, writing, but I never ventured out onto the acting stage again. Steven Pressfield says in The War of Art, “Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.” It is in our human nature to face our fears. He goes on to say, “Mental toughness is a skill and like any skill it can be developed. Learning how to overcome fear is just like building a new habit.” Humans want control. Humans want to conquer and that includes taming ourselves. Some of us have had more practice at facing our fears than others. But I love what Pressfield says. Overcoming fear is creating a new habit; a habit of courage.

A few months ago I had the chance to rewrite my only “acting class” story. My eight-year-old daughters’ theater school sent out an email inviting parents to attend an open acting class reserved for adults. Even as I read the email my heart rate increased. For a moment I thought, just delete it. No one will ever know that you saw it. But, I couldn’t. The twelve-year-old in me whispered, “Come on. You can do it.”courage

Seth Godin says we need to practice overcoming our fears, even in inconsequential ways. He says, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people…?” This acting prospect seemed to fulfill the above requirements. I was determined to put my dramatic and traumatic childhood improv story to rest. I emailed a small group of friends and said, “Look at this opportunity! Doesn’t it sound fun?” I hoped they couldn’t sense my fear in the email. Luckily, I have very courageous friends. We went to acting class. And lo and behold, it was an improv class. We had to act stupid, and silly, and make people laugh…and we did it all (in front of people!). Let me add, it helped enormously to have friends who were by my side.

I'm clearly super excited to face my fear.

I’m clearly super excited to face my fear.

I’ve learned that fear and creativity are forever linked. What makes you afraid in your creative life is something that you must face and conquer in your real life. Years ago, the thought of writing a novel made me want to vomit. I hardly whispered it aloud. But that fear underscored what I had to accomplish. The more we practice facing our fears the braver we become. Surround yourself with people who inspire you and demand that you face your creative goals with zeal. And when you can’t muster zeal, surround yourself with people who have compassion but also tenacity. It is brave to live our creative life out loud. There is courage in choosing creativity, but we must surround ourselves with only the most honest, and bravest of innovative allies who help us, succeed or fail, in front of people.

(Additional sources:


Jen White has a degree in English teaching and also earned her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in writing for children and young adults. SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE is her debut novel and was born from the real experience of Jen being accidentally forgotten at a gas station with her younger sister and cousin.  Jen currently tries not to boss around her five children and husband in San Clemente, California.



6 Ideas for Creative Inspiration


Interior of Nileometer (measures the Nile level) Photo by Sarah Johnson

What is your creativity metaphor?

A whispering muse?

A well of water? A waterfall?

Forest trails?

What does a writer (or artist) do when the muse hides, the well freezes, or the trails fade or are overgrown? Ideally the well always is overflowing, the muse is always whispering in our ear, the trail is easy and clear and the words flow. But when words seem flat on the page, here are a few ideas that can help get creativity flowing again.

Write. Write and write and write. Write until the words flow. National Novel Writing Month taps into this approach.

Don’t write. A walk always helps me when I need inspiration. Kate Messner recently found a solution to a plot problem while hiking. Her post is an insightful read.  When Tim Wynne-Jones’ well ran dry, he stepped away from the computer and traveled for a year. Check out his great post.

Read. Read. Read more. Jane Smiley, when not satisfied with the way her writing was moving forward, decided to read 100 novels. She describes her journey in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.

A class or program. Take a writing class, online or in your community. Or get a copy of The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. This is a wonderful book that assists artists after a “creative injury” or artists who are looking for more inspiration in their creative path.

Writer’s groups or online writing communities. This is a great way to connect with other writers.

Live life fully. Susanne Langer wrote, “Imagination must be fed from the world: by new sights and sounds, actions and events and the artist’s interest in ways of human feeling must be kept up by actual living and feeling.”

What other activities do you suggest when creativity is having a slow day or a slow month? We’d love to hear your ideas.

Taking Time to Meditate: A Tool for Writers



We writers love our tools. From software programs like Scrivener, Evernote, and Google docs to apps that block online distractions, we all swear by our systems. Some of us even write using treadmill desks and stability balls to keep our backs in shape. But have you ever considered adding a meditation practice to your writer’s toolbox?

I’m always looking for a competitive edge. Will exercise, coffee, vitamins or a good night’s sleep help me to write better? So, when I read that science has proven meditation actually restructures the brain, I was intrigued. After all, in Silicon Valley where I live, companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook have been offering “Search Inside Yourself” training for years.  Classes like Neural Self-Hacking and Managing Your Energy make for lunch hours that “maximize mindfulness” and spark creativity.

So when a friend told me about an 8-week mindfulness mediation course offered by Teri Dahlbeck, an executive coach with a background in neuroscience,, I agreed to give it a try. Dahlbeck introduced me to the work of several meditation teachers, including author Sharon Salzberg. “The adult brain is capable of neuroplasticity—that is, forming new cells and pathways,” Salzberg writes in her book, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation. “Throughout life, the brain rewires and reshapes itself in response to environment, experience and training. And meditation is one of those brain-changing experiences.”


Practicing mindfulness has nothing to do with New Age crystals, Tarot cards, religion or runes. It’s simply a way of training our attention so that we become more aware of our inner feelings as well as what’s happening around us in the outside world. There is no one right way to do it too; you can focus on the breath, a mantra, an image, do a body scan, etc. The important thing is that meditation cultivates three key skills: concentration, mindfulness and compassion—also known as lovingkindness. For writers, these brain-changing skills can have game-changing results. Here’s why.


Concentration: Meditation helps improve our powers of concentration. Making it a daily practice reinforces habits of discipline and the ability to let go of distractions. If I’m stressed, the chatter in my mind often intensifies, robbing me of the ability to write. Niggling thoughts, worries and doubts flit like gnats in and out of my brain, blocking my creativity. So how do we find that heightened mental state known as “flow,” where the outside world falls away and we feel alert and able to focus with laser sharp intensity? Meditation can help get us there, in part because it eases anxiety.  images-1

In a post on the link between meditation and creativity in writer Jane Friedman’s blog, author Orna Ross says, “It’s not easy putting yourself out there, day after day, in words. It makes us a little crazy—vulnerable, edgy, raw sometimes. Meditation soothes those edges and creates a place of safety from where we can take risks.” Ross, too, cites the science behind the claims. “Brain scans show that meditation reduces activity in the amygdala, where the brain processes fear. It allows us to become, as Flaubert suggested we should, steady and well-ordered in our life so we can be fierce and original in our work.”

Mindfulness: Remember the adage, “show don’t tell”? Mindfulness teaches us to observe our emotions and notice where strong feelings are felt in the body. I often ask my writing students, what did you notice today? My goal is to get them to slow down and focus on moment-to-moment awareness. To pay attention to what’s going on in and around them, including how things smell and taste and sound. If we’re nervous, for instance, how do we hold our hands or move our bodies? Do we bite our lips, grit our teeth, or jiggle our legs? Emotions are rarely a single, solid sentiment. Anger, for example, may also include feelings of frustration, helplessness, sadness and fear. Realizing this can help us all write better scenes.

“Try to have a direct physical and tactile experience as you’re performing everyday activities,” Salzberg instructs. “Feel a water glass against your hands as a cool hardness. When you sweep the floor, sense the exertion in your arms, the tug on the muscles of your back and neck.”

With practice, my awareness too has begun to improve. I’m noticing how emotions like anxiety can cause my chest to swell up like an overinflated balloon. Or how the scent of a cup of chamomile tea and the steam rising in my face can cause my shoulders to drop and my breath to slow. The things your characters notice speak volumes about them. So, if you want to slip into someone’s skin, practice focusing on “just this moment now.”

Compassion or LovingKindness: In order to understand how our protagonists feel, writers must have empathy and compassion.

imagesI believe that the best way to create authentic, complex characters, whose humanness readers can recognize no matter how badly they behave, is to walk a mile in their shoes. Meditation encourages us to extend this kind of lovingkindness to others as well as to ourselves.


Whatever our excuses are for not writing—or not succeeding at our writing—it’s always tempting to throw in the towel. With other kinds of work, I know I can finish the job if I just put in the hours. But writing is different, because we can’t force creativity. In meditation, I’m encouraged to be kind and gentle to myself even when I fail. Whether my distractions are positive or negative, I’m learning how to accept interruptions, gently forgive myself for wandering, and then keep on keeping on. “If you have to let go of distractions and begin again thousands of times, fine,” says Salzberg. “That’s not a roadblock to the practice—that is the practice. That’s life: starting over, one breath [one page] at a time.”images-4


Helen Pyne

Writing Inspiration

What inspires your writing?

Hints of spring waft in the air and birds sing, and I consider what inspires me in my writing. Walking in nature is one of my favorites. Other writers a big inspiration to me, so I asked several to share what inspires their writing. I hope you enjoy their answers as much as I do.

Sandra NickelSandra Nickel

Madeleine L’Engle once said that being a writer can sometimes feel like you’re a battlefield with ‘a dark angel of destruction and bright angel of creativity wrestling.’ I think life can feel this way sometimes too. And I am drawn to write by both the dark and the bright, but especially the magic and surprise and so-very-human refusal to be less vivid just when it feels like the dark angel is about to take us down.

Sandra can be found at

Robin Prehn  Robin Prehn book cover

Reading other books definitely inspires my writing; not only do I want to take certain stories in a new direction, but I also feel that excitement of discovering a new world and want to create my own.  Being in nature also inspires writing, mostly because I let my mind wander as I walk and enjoy the sounds and sights around me.  My thoughts will touch on this and that, and often, a story emerges.

Robin can be found at

Rose Green Rose Green

As to inspiration, the biggest thing that inspires my writing is probably places. I’ve lived in 22 different houses spanning 9 states and three countries, and both the geography and the culture of all those places provide tons of writing fodder. A recent book I wrote was inspired by watching my in-laws’ bicultural prowess between rural mountain Idaho where they came from, and wealthy urban southern California where they’ve spent the past 40 years.

Rose can be found at

Sandra Tayler  Sandra Tayler

Everyone needs stories, but not everyone has the skill to tell them. The moments which most inspire my writing are the ones where I am able to give words to a story that someone else needs.

Sandra can be found at

Katherine Cowley

Katherine Cowley

I try to notice things around me, and put myself in situations where I will learn or do interesting things that will inspire me. I’ve received story ideas from Baby Animal Days, visiting the aquarium, indulging myself with a trip to an art museum, traveling to exotic locations, and becoming friends with people who are completely different than me. I also try to read widely: classic novels, science news, and history books on very specific subjects, like batteries. Most of the time there will be one or two ideas that stick out to me which I’ll record and stew over until I find the right match for a story idea.

Katherine can be found at

Christy LenziChristy Lenzi

Sometimes the books I read provoke questions, which spark my imagination. When questions from my fiction and non-fiction reading find their way to each other, that’s when the sparks start a fire. “What the heck is wrong with Heathcliff and Cathy? How would it feel to be slightly unhinged, like her? And what if, instead of the moors, I lived in the Ozarks during the Civil War? What would happen if the revivalist preacher wanted to save my demon-possessed soul and marry me, but the only person who understood me was this outlaw, hated and feared by everyone else?” My questions and curiosity inspire me to find the answers within the pages of my own book.

Christy can be found at

Melodye ShoreMelodye Shore

My writing is inspired by sunlight and shadows, though not in equal measure. I’m drawn to birdsong and rosebuds, and the skirted palm trees that rise from the desert floor, fronds lifted toward an impossibly blue sky. But I’m intrigued, too, by the mysteries that lurk just beneath the surface of things…the soul’s desperate yearnings, whispered secrets in the dark.  Writing invites me to stay fully present for (in) all of this—to appreciate each moment for the miracle it is, and to bear witness to the truth as I see it.

Melodye can be found at

Thank you to all these writers for sharing what inspires their writing. Their inspirations reinvigorate me and feed my creative energy. Feel free to comment on this post. I’d love to read your comments about what inspires you.

Sarah Blake Johnson

Graphic Art and Prose Poetry: Day 2 With Dana Walrath

Graphic Art by Walwrath


“Maybe collage always represented a subconscious wish for integration. Over the past few years I feel like those threads of my life that always seemed disconnected have finally come together.”   Dana Walrath



Dana, let’s talk a bit more about the graphic novel versus the novel, and the verse novel versus the prose novel. It seems you just listened for a way in and found it, rather than imposing form from without. Any advice for artists wanting to blend their work in this way?

I believe that each story has its own form and its own voice and that I found these unusual forms because these were the ones to use for these particular stories. I came to both comics and poetry very late in life. I was poetry phobic as a teenage and bristled with embarrassment with my inability to interpret it to the satisfaction of my teachers. Karen Hesse’s verse novels opened the world of poetry for me.

In terms of comics, I liked Mad Magazine but Archie, Marvel and the like, left me cold, even made me mad. But when I discovered the form in 2009, I was hooked. Masterpieces like Maus, The Fun Home, Persepolis and American Born Chinese showed me that this form was perfect for complex, multilayered storytelling. I was a visual artist long before I discovered writing, and graphic narratives gave me a way to use pictures to tell stories and to tap into my subconscious. It is funny that my first two creative works to be published are not in standard prose. Prose is where my writing began. I have a number of prose pieces in various states of revision that I hope will be out in the world before too long.

Cover Art Aliceheimer's

I was really interested in how collage entered your work, and how your work seems to be a collage of your life (and you “collage” various art forms in a sense as well). Do you find this has any connection for us, considering our lives today? We’re often scattered and fragmented it seems, yet you were able, with your paint, pen, needle and awl, to make these bits into something whole. How can we as artists and writers best learn to embrace this sense of connection with the past, with our families, in our work? 

What an interesting observation! True that collage provides a medium for simultaneous reference and a way to integrate disparate elements. I first got into it big time, back in the dark ages, in college, when I studied intaglio printmaking and loved chine-collée, a method for bringing torn paper into the print, fusing the pieces of paper together as they run through the press. After that, I was away from printmaking/artwork for 20 years but went right back to using collage elements the second I returned. Maybe collage always represented a subconscious wish for integration. Over the past few years I feel like those threads of my life that always seemed disconnected have finally come together.

I think that the route to embracing a sense of connection with the past, our families and our work involves finding ways to tap your subconscious as you work. It’s all there in that compost heap in a non-verbal form. For me, turning to the visual, going back and forth between the visual and verbal lets this happen, but one doesn’t have to be an artist to use the visual.  Let yourself do some free, uncensored drawing, with your eyes closed even. Don’t underestimate doodling. Another lovely way to access the subconscious is to let naps be a part of your writing process. Often when I am stuck in a story a certain kind of exhaustion comes over me, and if I just give in to it, sleep brings things up from my subconscious that un-stick me.

How do you handle the violence in your stories (emotionally and craft-wise). I’m thinking of the emotional violence of your mother’s illness, and the violence of the genocide. Of course it’s important to speak about these realities, but any advice on what to leave in, what to leave out? How to give the reader relief? Why violence is important to include?

LikeWater_jacketI addressed some of this above but this is so important that I am glad to return to it. With my mother’s story, the violence/unhappiness in our relationship predated Alzheimer’s disease. The sickness gave us time to process our relationship and to heal. Finding common ground at last made it possible to feel at peace with losing her and for her to be free to die in peace. I wish this for every being. In terms of craft, the form of short individual pieces let some of them hold more pain and others more relief. The tough stuff came out in precise bursts that kept going deeper once the reader knew that they would be held after each bit of pain. Repeating visual and verbal motifs kept these pieces that varied somewhat in tone, unified and knitted together as one.

With Like Water on Stone I was determined to honor the truth of the events, which meant including harrowing details. These details were documented by hosts of neutral eyewitnesses at the time, through census records, through confessions, through the stories of survivors. Even heaps of bones in the desert have not been enough to stop policies of denial. I brought in specific details judiciously but with absolute clarity, protecting the reader through the character of Ardziv and by the fierce love Shahen, Sosi and Mariam had for each other. With each peak of violence one of them would take on the role of protecting the others, and in the process keep the reader safe. People survive extreme violence and pain often through magical thinking. Ardziv, a magical creature, was the embodiment of their strength. I was also determined to lay down paths toward forgiveness so that Shahen, Sosi, and Mariam could survive these horrors with their spirits intact instead of consumed with revenge, unable to ever move on.

You are a wonderfully gifted artist, poet and writer. Yet publishing today doesn’t always embrace the spare, lyrical author of serious works. Can you speak about your journey and how you stayed the course?

Thank you. True that it has been a slow journey toward publication. The thing that kept me going was always doing the work. I think if I hadn’t immersed myself in a series of projects while waiting for one of these tough topics to stick, I would have lost faith.  Along the way, I consciously began a piece that is more of a madcap romp to give myself some respite. Even with that story, The Very Long Days of Arden Hose Stoopnagle, the serious questions have been finding their way in as they do in all the books by others that I love, such as Holes.

Writing, reading, drawing, working, turning to humor and to short pieces where appropriate also helped me stay the course.  Staying in touch with other writers and artists and exchanging work with them kept me a part of a supportive community and ready to continue. I even taped bits of encouragement, things said by writing mentors, above the screen of my computer to keep me on track. Publication tales filled with countless rejections for fabulous books, such as Ron McLarty’s The Memory of Running, also served as inspiration.

Graphic Art DWalrath

Always interested in edges, margins, and connections, Dana Walrath weaves many distinct threads through her work. After years of using stories to teach medical students at University of Vermont’s College of Medicine, she spent last year as a Fulbright Scholar in Armenia working on a project that builds upon her award winning graphic memoir series Aliceheimer’s about life with her mother Alice, before and during dementia. She has shown her artwork in a variety of settings in North America and Europe.  In the fall of 2013, she returned to Armenia to give a talk at TEDx Yerevan that integrates Aliceheimer’s with her Fulbright work, and for the launch of Part I of Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass (Harvest 2013). Her verse novel, Like Water on Stone, is forthcoming from Delacorte Press the fall in 2014.

She earned a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania; an MFA in Writing Vermont College of Fine Arts; and a BA in Fine Arts and Biology from Barnard College, Columbia University, and is a co-author of one of the leading college textbook series in anthropology. Spanning a variety of disciplines, her work has been supported by diverse sources such as the National Science Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Centers for Disease Control, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Vermont Arts Council.

                                                                                                               –Zu Vincent


Graphic Art and Prose Poetry: Dana Walrath’s Two New Novels


Cover Art Aliceheimer's

“This graphic form let me tell our story with a light touch and space for magic while reasserting her [my mother’s] humanity with every image.”  Dana Walrath


I remember seeing Dana Walrath’s early art about life with her ailing mother—now the poignant graphic novel Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass—when we were working together at the Vermont College of Fine Arts residency one summer. You entered her room and were immediately drawn to her work, tacked along the bookshelf like newly inked pages of fresh newsprint. Amazing images that drew the heart and inspired the mind. And like her work, Dana is brilliant, funny, inspiring and down to earth. This two-part interview is a look behind the scenes at how her alchemy of art, writing and anthropology emerged into print.

VCFA grad Dana Walrath is a writer, artist, and anthropologist. She spent 2012-2013 as a Fulbright Scholar in Armenia working on a project that builds on Aliceheimer’s (Harvest 2013), her award winning graphic memoir series about life with her mother, Alice, before and during Alzheimer’s disease. Her first novel, Like Water on Stone, set during the Armenian genocide, is forthcoming with Delacorte Press in the fall of 2014.

Dana, you’ve spoken elsewhere about how your art is informed by life and how, conversely, your life informs your art. Many writers struggle with the question of how to write about their own lives (especially because of what their families might say). Yet you’ve successfully used autobiography in works such as Aliceheimer’s, and what’s more, been able to speak eloquently about a difficult last journey with your mom. Can you speak to how and why you approached this painful journey?  

I came to writing late and had never kept any sort of personal journal. Anthropological field notes were as close as I could get. While my memory for the specific details of my life has always been imperfect, I am all too aware of the emotional and physical sensations of this life. I worried about my imperfect memory, my aches, and my un-writerly habits until I read Robert Olin Butler’s book, From Where You Dream. Butler says that writers must let go of specific experiences and instead, let them flow into an internal subconscious compost heap in which experiences ferment and recombine and become stories. Suddenly I could reframe what I had seen as a deficit into a fortuitous process.

Graphic Art WalrathAround the same time that I read Butler—my first or second residency at VCFA—Marion Dane Bauer said in a lecture that if you are a woman, everyone will assume that everything you write is autobiographical. This differential treatment of male and female authors clearly derives from constraints imposed by gender roles established in a patriarchy, and in a funny way this assumption liberated me. That people would assume that I was writing from my life no matter what, gave me permission to use my life as I wished, without a burning need to stay close to any specific “facts” or details that could constrain the storytelling.

But more than just general comfort with writing from life drives me. For my forthcoming verse novel, Like Water on Stone, a powerful need to tell the story of how my mother’s parents survived the Armenian genocide of 1915 stems directly from the official Turkish policy of denial, and the lack of recognition of the genocide by other governments such as our own. In a briefing paper prepared for the US State Department in 1996, Gregory Stanton describes denial as the final stage of genocide (see In other words, until denial ends, genocide is ongoing.


For my grandmother, I had only a single haunting sentence of family history to draw upon: That after her parents were killed she and her younger brother and sister hid during the day and ran at night hundreds of miles from their home to an orphanage in Aleppo. So many survivors were too traumatized to share the details of their stories with their families, though witnesses and generations of scholars have amply documented these events. Knowing the scars the experience has left in the survivors and their descendants let me tell a story that was grounded in personal emotional truths and accurate historical research.

In a similar vein, a desire to support people with dementia, their caregivers, and to help re-write the dominant narrative about dementia and aging led me to share our family’s experience in my graphic memoir, Aliceheimer’s. Stigma and silence and a discourse of pain and loss surround dementia and other permanent, incurable problems of the mind. The dominant story is a scary zombie story of bodies without minds, loved ones experiencing only loss and valiant researchers searching for an elusive cure.  As a society, we are so fearful of mind loss and death that we leave families in isolation, without a roadmap of how to handle a host of daily challenges. Of course there is loss, but if we accept the loss and share our stories this can be a time of magic and laughter and healing. A lifetime with my mother made me certain that I could share our story respectfully, that her story could contribute to restoring the humanity of those with dementia.

Can you talk a bit about the differences in approaching your two books—from verse to graphic novel? Are there different emotional and/or craft considerations you could point to?

Considering the scary subject matters for Like Water on Stone and Aliceheimer’s—genocide and dementia—I knew I had to find ways to make these topics safe.  They found entirely different forms due to the sources of the fear and the reasons for bringing the issue into the open. With Aliceheimer’s my mother, a life-long reader, was the driving force. When she lived with us, she still read each day without the benefit of a short term memory. Watching her eat up every graphic narrative that came into our home made me certain that I wanted to use a form that someone with dementia could access.

Graphic Art by Dana Walrath

As people lose language they revert to the preverbal stages of life when we were experts at reading visual and other cues. My mother also loves to laugh and she led the way to laughing at her loss. Subconsciously, we associate comics with laughter. The medium grants us permission to laugh. Laughter is respite. It opens up new ways to cope. Comics also let simultaneous realities co-exist on a single page, mirroring the conflicting realities of people with dementia and their caregivers. This graphic form let me tell our story with a light touch and space for magic while reasserting her humanity with every image. And the book began as a series of comics-style drawings, each of which went on to inspire another layer of story.

For Like Water on Stone, I wanted to show the truth of genocide in such a way that it was undeniable, but that readers would not be so overwhelmed that they would have to turn away from it. The language and story came to me in fragments as the painful truths grew on the page. Though I generally write in prose, line breaks and spare language were integral to this story. The character of Ardziv, an eagle, a guardian spirit who protects the three siblings as they travel, also appeared as part of making the book safe for me as I wrote and for the reader. My job was to make it safe enough for a reader to truly know the horror.

Next: Dana talks about graphic novels, comics, collage and staying the course to publication.                                                                       –Zu Vincent

Writer as Entrepreneur: A Silicon Valley Mentality


thinking brain

Welcome to the newest member of the Tollbooth Crew, writer, editor and teacher, Helen Pyne!


“Failure is success if we learn from it,” said Malcolm Forbes.

My mantra.


I live outside of San Francisco in the heart of Silicon Valley—Facebook, YouTube and Google country. A place where creative young entrepreneurs sit inside bare-bones offices, noses to their computer screens, writing code late into the night.  I imagine them hunched over the remains of their take-out dinners, drafting business plans and dreaming of the legacy they want to create. Who will become the next Bill Gates?

Writers, too, are a type of entrepreneur. With words as our product, we work late and rise early to find time to write our stories. We compose query letters and loglines to pitch our books, dreaming of the legacy we want to create. Who will become the next J.K. Rowling? It’s these commonalities that have convinced me that writers can learn from the successes of Silicon Valley:


Precept #1.  Don’t Be Afraid to Fail:

Many entrepreneurs start businesses that bomb—sometimes multiple times—but if they focus on figuring out how to learn from their mistakes, they’re more likely to find success when they move on to the next big idea. The only real sin is not trying.

As a writer, I try to remember this—especially on the days I’m forced to kill my darlings, delete whole chapters from my story, or change my protagonist’s point of view—again. There’s nothing like a fresh rejection letter to make one reconsider a career in real estate or perhaps a nice niche job like snake milking. But if entrepreneurs can go back to the drawing board after losing millions of investor dollars, I guess I can’t complain about revising an old novel or starting up a new one. Gearing up again is hard, but I’m learning not to feel like a failure just because I have unpublished stories in my desk drawers.  At Vermont College, when my advisors told me to cut lines, I’d save my words in a folder so I could use them again. After all, I reasoned, I couldn’t just throw them out. But gradually, I’ve come to understand that the more good lines I write, the more good lines I’ll write.

Every sentence we slave over, used or not, serves a purpose. Each of our drafts functions as the foundation on which we build our future work. Ideally, better work. Like the entrepreneurs around me, I’ve come to see the value of companies that flop—and fiction that fails. I recognize that practice usually leads to progress, but that there are no shortcuts to success. As my venture capital husband says, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

Remember how the Velveteen Rabbit looked just before he became real? He had chewed up ears and matted-down fur; he was battered, worn and shabby. Well, on some days, after hours of agonized writing, I feel like the Velveteen Rabbit. Alone, abandoned by the muse, and all used up. But here’s the thing. The process of becoming Real (as in a Real Writer) may not be quick or pretty, but what we receive in return for the teeth-gnashing frustration we force ourselves to work through in order to keep our B.I.C. (butts in chair), is that elusive elixir that transforms us. In other words, the work is the reward.

helping picPrecept #2.  Pay It Forward

Take a page from the high tech world’s how-to manual. Sure, Silicon Valley’s competitive, but there’s also an emphasis here on community. And it’s not just wealthy philanthropists who are providing assistance and dishing out the dough. People realize that it makes good business sense to pay it forward. Mentoring is now the new model. Just look at the growing body of philanthropic foundations, nonprofit venture funds, and company-sponsored competitions. Business incubators and accelerators offer resources, services, and funding in exchange for a small equity stake in a company. And Angel investors (affluent individuals who provide capital for a start up) often invest for altruistic reasons.

Mentoring in publishing is on the rise too. Like the tech industry, the book business is changing so fast we must be innovative to stay afloat. Resourceful authors are banding together for book signings, community appearances, promotional tours and group blogs. We promote each other’s work by posting reviews on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads and use social media sites like tumblr and YouTube to share video blogs and book trailers. Last summer, I met filmmaker and novelist, e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, who used Kickstarter to raise funds for a cross-country tour to publicize her latest film and YA fiction. Or check out the innovative ways author John Green combines high tech (like his VlogBrothers YouTube channel) and high touch to create new fans and sell his books.

Online contests for aspiring authors are pulling in participants too. Last year, I was the lucky recipient of one of those slots when writer/blogger Krista Van Dolzer ( mentored me through novel revisions for an online agent auction. No money exchanged hands; I had nothing to offer her other than my undying gratitude and willingness to work hard. But Van Dolzer, whose first two novels are coming out in 2015, understands that it really is about paying it forward by creating community and providing opportunities for others.

Which is why I am thrilled to be joining this blogging community of VCFA writers. Whether we’re selling books or businesses, we are all risk-takers willing to work hard to see our dreams become reality. Writers and entrepreneurs are the kind of people who strive to generate breakthrough ideas that disrupt the status quo. Could there be a better calling?

Creative Energy

When I have high creative energy, I can write anywhere and with all sorts of distractions.  There are days I can’t type fast enough to keep up with the words flying onto the page.  The Muse is with me, and I walk with my characters in a fictional world, a world more real than reality.  But not every writing day is like that, and I have to work to access creative energy.

How does one always access the creative parts of her/his mind?

Goethe's Summer Writing Place

Goethe’s Summer Writing Place
Photo copyright Sarah Blake Johnson

Some writers make writing spaces in their homes, in a park, or in a special location as a way to encourage creative energy.

Creative energy abounds when writers gather together.  Residency at VCFA is a prime example of a place where the air is imbued with creative vibes. Writers also find creative energy at conferences and workshops.  Being with others who value creativity breeds more creativity.

Creative energy may be higher for some writers at certain times of day, such as early morning or late at night.

Here are a few ideas that help me access creative energy on the days when my words feel forced.

  • Sit down and write. Sometimes the process of writing allows creative work to flow.
  • Read a good book.
  • Switch to a different project and let the current WIP rest.
  • Meditate.
  • Walk or hike or other exercise.
  • Enter a dream state.
  • Set goals/work to meet deadlines.

What works best for you when you’re in the creative doldrums? Please share in the comments—I’d love to find more ways to connect with my muse.

Sarah Blake Johnson

Fictional Trance: Clay Carmichael and “A Foot in Two Worlds”


Author Clay Carmichael

Clay Carmichael


“When I’m lucky enough to have a good day of creating, I rise almost as if in a trance from my chair and step out the back door feeling momentarily dazed.”

                             –Clay Carmichael


This March I’ll be speaking at the Associated Writers Program’s annual conference in Boston with authors Clay Carmichael, Debby Dahl Edwardson and Kelly Bennett, discussing World Building When Writing for Children and Young Adults. In a recent conversation with Clay, the question came up, what happens when you’re building more than one fictional world at a time—and are moving between worlds yourself?  Clay, who always knows just the right thing to say, wrote the beautiful response that follows. It’s about art, success and the psychic balancing act between two very different fictional worlds.


Clay Carmichael: 

I have a new young adult novel, Brother, Brother (Roaring Brook) coming out this August and I’ve been working on final things with that manuscript, but also writing talks, visiting and Skyping with students—American and German—about my 2009 novel, Wild Things (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press), which is happily on three state award lists this year.

Both take place in North Carolina, but one is for younger readers and the other for teens; one has a cat, the other dogs; one an eleven-year-old girl, one twin teen boys. In Wild Things, the girl spitfire goes to live on the red clay of the North Carolina piedmont with her sculptor-uncle, while my other more passive main character in Brother, Brother seeks out his twin on the private island of a powerful, conservative U.S. senator.

cover art Brother Brother

Going from one book’s world to the other is a bit whiplash inducing some days, not so much due to the different characters and places, but more because the emotional landscapes and character’s challenges so differ. It’s a bit of a psychic balancing act and requires a good emotional memory. Zoë, in Wild Things, approaches every situation with an animal fierceness and an open mouth; while Brother, the titular protagonist of my YA, is quieter and pretty much resigned to being flattened by whatever steamroller life sends his way. Most of the characters in Wild Things are trying to help Zoë, while most of the characters in Brother, Brother are trying to snow, use or control Brother any way they can.

There is some common ground. In both books, the animals are wiser than the humans who control their fates, their four-footed love purer than anything the two-leggeds generally manage. In both, the heroes—and I think of them as heroes—wrestle mightily with what could have easily been dire fates, and in both they prevail, each in his or her own large-hearted way.

Even so, it’s challenging going from one world to the other—though really, when I think about it, that’s just what authors do. The ability to be simultaneously and deeply in two or more worlds for extended periods is an author’s job description. When I’m lucky enough to have a good day of creating, I rise almost as if in a trance from my chair and step out the back door feeling momentarily dazed. The sleeping cats and the backyard bird feeder in the pecan tree seem, for a second, foreign. I know where I am, of course, but it takes me a few minutes to make the transition from the emotional, psychological or physical scene I’ve just left on the page to my real back yard. In those moments, I’m in kind of limbo, transported in the Star Trek sense back to the home world of my life.

“At least it’s less dangerous than real travel,” a friend of mine once said.

“Don’t bet on it,” I told him, tapping my head. “Gets pretty crazy up here. Some dicey situations and twisted individuals.”

We laughed, but also exchanged a knowing look. He’s an artist too, knew what I said was true. I mean, in a way, if you’re not risking it all on the page and the places you travel to and the people you meet aren’t new or strange or dangerous or tragic or heartbreaking or revelatory or joyous or scary as hell, what’s the point?

— Clay Carmichael 2.4.13

Clay Carmichael is the author-illustrator of three picture books; the middle grade novel Wild Things and the upcoming young adult novel Brother, Brother. She lives with her sculptor-husband in Carrboro, NC.

 Clay, Zu Vincent, Debby Dahl Edwardson and Kelly Bennett will discuss World Building When Writing for Children and Young Adults at the AWP conference in Boston, MA on March 8, 2013:

–Zu Vincent