Interstitial Moment: Constantly Re-inventing

This is an updated repub:

People are always surprised at how much I write. They think I am constantly inventing. What they don’t seem to notice, though, is that what I am constantly inventing is myself as a writer.

By this I mean it is difficult to pigeonhole me. Am I a picture book writer, a fantasy writer, an historical fiction writer, a poet, a music book writer, a writer of nonfiction, a writer of pedagogical books?

Yes. I. Am.

I used to tell people that I had written everything but cookbooks, sports books, and hard science. And then I wrote FAIRY TALE FEASTS with my daughter, a cookbook based on fairy tales, and MOON BALL about a boy who learns how to finally hit a ball in a dream game with the All Stars who are actual stars. And having broken those barriers once, I did it again, writing JEWISH FAIRY TALE FEASTS with my daughter, and ALL STAR: The story of Honus Wagner. But I haven’t written hard science yet, though much of my nonfiction and a lot of my poetry is about natural science.

It is the very act of writing lots of different books that have done two very important things to my writing life. The first is that I am never bored, but constantly inspired. And secondly, this has consistently energized a writing life of fifty years.

Let me explain. . .

I often say that the reason I write in so many different genres is that I have a low threshold of boredom. And that is an amusing way of telling people that if I really wanted to repeat and repeat myself, I would have taken a job in a factory. At least then I would have been assured of a regular paycheck. I know some authors are comfortable doing the same book or series over and over. Or the same genre. And publishers will tell you—more or less accurately—that this is the way to build a dedicated readership. But it is not for me. I love to try new and difficult things. Learning new things is a way of keeping young. The latest for me is the graphic novel. The learning curve alone was steep, but now I am working on my fourth one and soon it may be time to try something else. An opera? Maybe. A full Broadway musical? Probably not. A major motion picture? Not sure I have the chops for that. But I never ever say never.

Now let me walk you through the second—how writing in a dozen or more different genres has kept my writing career alive for well over half my life. It may be helpful to other writers to know that. As an editor and a writer, I have seen too many really good writers flounder when the genre they love and have been successful in—be it sweet sixteen books or gentle/quiet picture books, kids horror novels or westerns—have died the True Death. Yes, occasionally these genres get resurrected. Fantasy was declared dead a year or two before Harry Potter, by foolish, cynical book folks. Now it rules the YA and middle grade lists. Historical fiction for both children and adults seems to go in seven-to-ten year cycles. Books for boys get pumped up every five years or so. Multicultural, multi-racial books get vitamins shots every now and again.  HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES began the gay liberation of children’s books though gay authors and illustrators have been the backbone of children’s books for ages, the authors writing bestselling books with no visible out gay content, like WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and GEORGE AND MARTHA and HARRIET THE SPY. Well, not visible to the ordinary eye at least.

But when an author is incapable of adapting to the changing faddish genres, when they are flummoxed by new ideas or new delivery systems, when they cannot write in more than one style or other than one type of book, they may have a career that can be measured in mayfly days or against the short vocation of a ballet dancer.

Without meaning to, I dodged that bullet from the start. My first five books included a nonfiction book about lady pirates, a rhymed concept picture book, a tongue-in-cheek fairy tale, and a pun-filled picture book about a little witch who could do no magic. Book number five was a realistic novel about a black child from the ghetto sent to spend the summer with a Quaker farm family. Along the way he rescues a horse bound for the glue factory. And as I began, so I have kept on, until in 50 years (yes, this year is my 50th continuous year in publishing) I have published 335 books, but who’s counting?

The moral of this tale? Reinventing oneself as a writer is (at least for me) the only way to go. It keeps the brain spinning with fascinating forays into unexplored genres. It means finding new ways to say old things and old ways to say new things. What I lose in dedicated fandom, I more than make up in longevity and introducing my readers to a backlist that they can grow up with, from baby books like MOUSE’S BIRTHDAY and HOW DO DINOSAURS SAY GOODNIGHT, to more sophisticated picture books like OWL MOON and MY UNCLE EMILY to chapter books like WIZARD’S HALL and on to YA books like THE DEVIL’S ARITHMETIC, BRIAR ROSE, GIRL IN A CAGE, and SWORD OF THE RIGHTFUL KING, and SNOW IN SUMMER OR CURSE OF THE THIRTEENTH FEY.

A reader can even go with me into adult books.

And what a time, what a glorious time, I have had writing them all. Every single one of them. Even the ones that haven’t sold yet, and those that may never sell in my lifetime. Because I have grown with the writing; reinvented and reinvigorated my mind, my heart, and kept myself young. Seventy-four years young. . .and still counting.


Interstitial Moment:

Centrum Wisdom

Years ago, I was teaching at Centrum Writer’s Conference in Port Townsend, WA. The speakers were amazing, the students ate it all up which was just as well since the food was incredibly bad.  Everyone complained. Finally the head cook (I hesitate to call him a chef) remarked grumpily to us, “You writers. . .you publish one book and you think you’re a regular Van Gogh.”

Well, what he said went viral in the only way something could in those days. Everyone talked about it, wrote about in their (actual) journals, and in their poems, stories, etc. My class even made me a broadside illustrated with a painting of my cottage. When I got home I had it framed.

A Regular Van Gogh. Alas, how prophetic now that poor (in all senses of the word) cook was. What with e-books and self-publishing and celebrity children’s books, there are a lot of folks out there who think that once they self-publish, they are a Regular VGs.

What we are missing, in our rush to democratize the arts,to make sure everyone gets an equal chance at foisting their prose or their daubs or the off-key karaoke onto the international stage is the sense of the hard work involved, the endless restructuring, reinvention, re-visioning. No one in the arts simply does something once. Though it may look easy, we who paint, write, dance, sing spend hours exercising the muscles of our craft.

Stand in the wings—as I did as a child watching the Balanchine dancers come off stage. From the audience they looked as if they floated through the air effortlessly spinning, leaping, launching themselves at a partner. But in the wings, when Melissa Hayden—who had just danced so gloriously—was away from the lights and passing me in the wings, she was red-faced, sweaty, huffing. Then she took a deep  breath, squared her shoulders, and leaped back onto the stage.

I never forgot that. Or that before her performance she—along with the rest of the NY C ballet company, had taken a barre class stretching and straining and warming their muscles so that they could go out and make it all look easy..

Writers do the same. We stretch. We strain, We come out of a chapter red-faced, huffing, square our shoulders, and get down to the next chapter. And the next.

Put bluntly, the Arts are not for wimps.


June 1-June 16, 2013:

So after a wonderful graduation party for Maddison–90 people, both inside and outside folk at Heidi’s house, lots of food, friends, Adam and Karl on guitars, no bears (more on bears later) and a soccer game in which Adam tried to keep up with high school and college players and ended up injuring his ankle. Oh, and two house-fulls of overnight guests (Heidi’s and mine). After which I made my way to New York.

There I visited my agent to discuss lots of things like books, e-books, foreign rights, movie deals, etc. And no there was no real news but lots of discussions. I stayed over at my friends Delia and Ellen’s apartment uptown.

And then after two days of this, I took the train to Newark Airport and flew off overnight to Scotland with nary a bump, thump, or lump. And no sleep either, oh well.

Picked up as usual by the ever-wonderful Deborah Turner Harris and after a long nap, managed to get to their house with a bottle of wine for dinner and a natter.

For some reason it took me nearly a week to recover from jetlag. But I also in the first week and a half have managed to write a lot of poetry, revise all my new poetry books, meet for lunch with my Scottish (well he’s American but living in St A) poetry editor, had tea with Christine Crow and her family, went with friend Marianna to Crail Open Studios where I found a simply wonderful children’s book illustrator and started a book for her.

I have also had lunch with Janie Douglas (we bumped into one another at the bank), as well as got an impromptu hug from my wonderful gardener Mr McGregor (yes, a children’s book writer with a gardener name Mr. McGregor, thank you Beatrix Potter!), had another old friend, Jack BEck, Scottish folk singer and book story owner with his lovely wife Wendy Welch, came over for te. I went for a day into Edinburgh for some shopping and tea with an old friend, and started rewriting the first half of the new fantasy novel with Adam because it is seriously sagging. Oh–and worked away like two friendly  beavers with Barbara Diamond Goldin on our GIRLS’ BIBLE. And sent some proposals out for new books. And, and, and, and.

Yes I am busy. Yawning. Productive. Yawning. Traveling. Yawning. Oh and did I mention yawning?

And I promised bears. Well, Heidi took a picture of one in her back yard. Neighbors in Massachusetts all reported the bear (or bears) heading through their yards as well. And Heidi took pictures of a coyote behind her house in the tall grass, too. That’s one busy yard, my darling daughter. It’s much tamer here in St. Andrews.





The Anatomy of a Poem

I thought I would walk you through my process of writing a poem. Though each poem carves its own way, they all have some similarities in the revision process, and—as I often quote (though I thought for years it was Ciardi who said it but found out last year from a a friend that it was Ciardi channeling Valery) “A poem is never finished, it’s abandoned.”

Well, I haven’t abandoned this one. . .yet.

This particular poem began with a picture posted on Terri Windling’s blog Myth and Moor. The picture is of a gnarled old tree in Devon, think Arthur Rackham, think every spooky, twisted Ent you have ever envisioned.

And these lines came to me:


The tree is the mystery,

its roots knotted

as surely as love.


I thought I was going to write a whole poem about that tree. The next three lines–about the leaves hanging heavily and some awful metaphor about fruits of ardor or some such–were so quickly erased, I have only a vague memory of how bad they were.

Then the poem took off in its own direction. They do that, you know.


The same blog entry featured Terri’s dog, a lovely and friendly female black lab mix named Tilly, which is why (I think) the poem ends the way it does.

As soon as I gave it a title, the rest came out in a rush.

At first I wrote the whole thing without any stanza breaks, possibly because the time I would have had to take making the spaces was possibly the sinkhole that would eat the poem before I got it down paper. When I am writing in a white hot heat, I rarely remember much of what I have just written. And whole it always needs careful pruning after, there is usually some good stuff I’d hate to lose.

And then I let it sit for several hours.

Some poems sit half-baked for days, weeks, months. Some are done and dusted in the first rush of poetics. Some never get out of the starting gate. If this essay were a poem and not a journal entry, I would never let this many unattached metaphors live in the same place. But I digress.

In the next round, I began to break the lines apart. Why? Because with that many discrete metaphors, each needed breathing space. Separating them helped emphasize them individually.

It’s easy enough to skip lines when reading prose. When reading poetry, skipping can be easier. The lines are shorter, faster to race across. Dense poetry without line breaks positively invites skipping. But a poet doesn’t break lines without good reason. My reason was that I was offering a tasting menu to my readers, andI needed to encourage them to get to the final, longer, key stanza, the one that tells the reader what the entire poem has been about. The shorter early pieces are discrete, pretty, but we are heading for the punchline, the pinchline, the one that wakens you into the actual dream.

And so I got this:


The Mystery

The tree is the mystery,
its roots knotted
as surely as love.


The spring flowers are the mystery,
without calendar or clock
they announce the season.


The rill is the mystery,
holding trout in its deepest,
darkest heart.


The fern is the mystery,
knowing how to uncurl
with no teacher but the sun.


The path is a mystery,
worn down by many feet
yet still willing to support them.


The gate is no mystery at all
for we have put it there
to signal that house is near,
though dog has but to lift his snout
to know we are already home.



I posted it on Terri’s blog. Then I let it sit again until it was time.


It was time to read it aloud again, not once but several times through, testing each small stanza with a combination of logic (Is the true to the nature I am describing? Is it leading me in the direction I want to go? Is it the way the poem wants to go? Are those two roads compatible? Can I cut any words out? )

Eventually I got here:


The Mystery


The tree is the mystery,

its roots knotted

as surely as love.


The spring flowers are the mystery,

without calendar or clock

they announce the season.


The pond is the mystery,

holding trout in its deepest,

darkest heart.


The fern is the mystery,

knowing how to uncurl

with no teacher but the sun.


The path is the mystery,

worn down by many feet

yet still willing to support them.


The gate. . .

                  the gate is no mystery at all

for we have put it there

to signal that house is near,


though dog has but to lift his snout

to know we are already home.


All poems ©2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved


Let me tell you about the changes and why. Or at least as much of the why as I know. The rest is the true Mystery. And I would have to kill you if I told you! (Actually, a lot about writing a poem is a mystery to the poet as well.)

As you can see, much stayed the same, though I changed the mystery to a mystery over and over again, re-reading it both ways in silence and aloud until I was sure I wanted it to be the. It needed to be particular, not general, a singularity not one of many mysteries.

I decided while rill is a prettier word, and a bit old-fashioned which suits the idea of the poem’s numinous reach, trout really don’t hide in rills which are the fast-running part of a river, but in the hidden places of pools and ponds. And I am still actually wrestling with whether to use pool or pond. Pool/holding have a nice slanting rhyme thing working for them but pond is bigger in meaning. And I am also not sure about deepest, darkest which may be too over-used and too childlike (I am a children’s book writer after all!) for what I am doing here.

And as you can see, I changed the form of the final lines to signal how different they are from what came before. Perhaps I’ve done too much breaking apart, and I’m still wrestling with that as well. But you may find this last interesting or amusing, or both at once: I originally ended that section with the dog lifting his nose, not his snout. Eventually, I decided that nose was too refined and too human-like and I wanted him to be all animal, sniffing out the meaning of home faster than we humans who—after all—have to set a gate there to remind ourselves that we have come home.

This second version (though it is possibly about an eighth version) is the one I sent out to my daily poetry subscribers. Still, it’s clear to me I’m not yet done with this poem. But I haven’t abandoned it.



May 20-May 31, 2013

Busy, busy, Ms. Yolen. Several strands of busy–meetings, writings, eatings, graduations leading to parties. Whew!

Meetings: my critique group met once, the illustratorss’ group met once (at my house, which meant cleaning up and feeding the multitudes).

Eatings: had dinner with one of the children’s writers/illustrators small group; lunch with Ralph Masiello, tea with the DiTerlizzi crew, dinner with a video crew (more about that in next paragraph)m then son Adam arrived and family dinner ahead of Maddison’s graduation party.

Video crew hired by Open Roads publication, an e-book company producing 10 of my out of print books with additional materials (including said video.) Dinner when the crew (two of them, Kai and Alex) arrived, then one full day and one not quite so full day of shooting which included hours of interview, then hours of pick-up shots such as a gorgeous long shot from the top of Mount Sugarloaf to show a view over the Pioneer Valley where I live, me walking through the Owl Moon woods and up the stone path to my house, me draped over David’s tombstone, and the like.

Writing: LOTS of work. Mostly revisions of poems for GRUMBLES FROM THE TOWN and for a new book possibly called THE TEAPOT GOSSIPS, both with Rebecca Dotlich. New poems (possibly) for adult poetry books, CRONE and MAIDEN. Getting a package of designer spreads for two proposals–ARCH:  A SPAN OF FOOT POEMS and LUNCH BUNCH  poems about how animals eat. I wrote the chapters on Naomi/Ruth and Esther for the book GIRLS’ BIBLE (provisional title) that Barbara Diamond Goldin and I are writing, then revised both of them heavily after getting her feedback. Discussed some neecessary revision and forward motion of the second Seelie Wars book (still untitled) with Adam. Worked on lists of things to discuss with agents when I am in New York.

The rest of the two weeks were down to Maddison’s Baccalaureate, her actual graduation (she is a Cum Laude scholar) and then her party preps. That party and all my own preps for going off to Scotland in the next journal entry. Hard to write in the flurry of such prep since none of it can be put off!

Here’s a new poem (I  have still kept up my one-a-day regime. This one is from May 23:


How to Know Things


“You know only what your heart allows you to know.” 
–Amy Tan (Saving Fish from Drowning 
Look sideways, at shadows, sometimes aura
tells more than the center can.
Look backwards where his(story) lies.
Look slantwise where all the truth is told, not once
but many times.
Look at the circuit, never the straight line.
Poems always takes the circuitous path.
Look at the earth rather than the sky.
Birds leave passage in dust not on clouds.
Trust your heart but only after your ears, your eyes
have done the Sherlock thing.
The heart only allows you to know
what it wants, not what is, nor what will be.

©2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved


And this one is from May 26:


Graduation Day


There is nothing gradual about this,

though we have known it was coming,

prepared for years, and yet like death

it surprises us.

We speak in aphorisms

about next steps, life’s openings,

the roads taken and not taken,

but all the while the heart cries silently:

Stop, stay, never leave, only because

we are the ones stopping, staying,

we are the ones who are left.

I do not

remember such drama with my own

parents who drove me to college

and dropped me there without a blink, fleeing

back with their remaining child who had

another four years to go.

I do not

remember such drama with my own

children, as we packed their trunks

with their dreams, our hopes, extra

underwear, a hundred dollar bill neatly

tucked out of sight.

So why this over-

whelming grief, crushing regret

for the grandchild who has already

cut the strings, set the sights, shown us

the little deaths between her living

and our lives.



© 2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved



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