Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Rebecca Upjohn: Creating Through the Clamour

Feel like there's not enough time in your busy day to be creative? You're not alone. How do authors or illustrators continue to create while tackling everything else in their lives? About once a month as I'll ask a writer or illustrator these types of questions. 'Cause I want to know (I need all the help I can get in this department).

The Creator
name: Rebecca Upjohn
resides: Toronto and sometimes Harrisville, New Hampshire.
website: http://www.rebeccaupjohn.com
creates: So far? Picture books (1 fiction, 1 non-fiction), 1 mg (?) chapter book for 8-11 yr-olds

The Creations
The Last Loon, published by Orca Books, 2010
Patrick's Wish,  (co-authored with Karen Mitchell) published by Second Story Press, 2010
Lily and the Paper Man, Illustrated by Rene Bennoit, published by Second Story Press, 2007

The Clamour
work obligations: Um, I'd like to say I was a brain surgeon who worked for Doctors Without Borders or something impressive, but no, not at the moment.

kids: Two teenage boys who need less physical input (except when they need roadie services-drums and amps-to their gigs) but more time to talk things over. They like to have me and my husband around for toubleshooting, and they seem to appreciate being fed.

It took me a long time to figure out that they were fully capable of pulling their weight around the house. Everyone takes their turn to cook, clean, do laundry and walk the dog. A certain amount of standard maintenance is required on my part. Did you clean the bathroom? Yes. Did you clean the bathtub? No. Did you clean the toilet. No. Did you clean the counters? Mirrors? No. What did you clean? You know, the bathroom. Then when I go over the basic information again, they act as though it is all new information. It's entertaining, really.

volunteer work: Cooking/serving breakfast for Out of the Cold during the winter. I recently retired from the school volunteering after 13 years.

the internet: a time sucker. It's worse at the moment because I have a new computer and suddenly can access information I couldn't on my old system. Just pushing the new buttons is using up precious time.

household stuff: I find juggling all the stuff to keep everyone on track takes time to plan and execute. By the time everyone is up and out the door and the dog has been walked and I've been to yoga class, three hours have passed. Sometimes I find I actually get more writing done if I go to the library where there are fewer distractions. I notice when I'm trying to meet a deadline, I let more things go. I don't answer the phone, don't check my email, don't decide I have to clean out a closet. The fact is at home there are always things that are undone and they whisper, in subversive little voices, for attention.

Inevitably when I block out some time to work then one of the boys gets sick or needs a ride to school or can't cook on their night or can't walk the dog. As the person at home, I'm the fall back fixer.

How did you get started writing?
I started writing for my local community newsletter when I was living in New Hampshire. It was the first experience being "published" consistently. I wrote all different kinds of pieces. It fed my curiosity and satisfied my need to do creative work. Reading to my boys, I rediscovered how wonderful children's books were. I began to make up stories for and about the boys. I'd write, illustrate and bind my own books.

After I moved back to Canada, I took some writing classes, most notably one from Barbara Greenwood. Then I wrote a story and submitted it to the annual Writers' Union Writing for Children contest. When it placed among the twelve finalists, I realized people other than me and my friends/family saw merit in my writing (at least for that story) so I did what any sensible excited new writer would do, I put it in a drawer for two years.

I formed a writing group with a few others from Barbara's class and continued writing. (Two of us from the original group are still together after ten years.) Finally one day in a mad moment I decided to send out the contest story. I went to the Canadian Children's Book Centre and the librarian at the time suggested I look at Second Story Press for my story. So I read a bunch of their books and saw it was a good fit and I sent it. Ten months later they said yes.

What are you working on these days?
A non-fiction picture book set during the second World War.

What's the hardest thing for you to manage in terms of finding time or space to be creative?
I'm not particularly organized and disciplined. I allow myself to get distracted. I also seem to need fallow periods. Is it procrastination or replenishing the well? Sometimes one, sometimes the other. When I'm in the thick of writing, I tend to try to shut out everything around me. At that point having to stop and cook or be a parent or a responsible adult makes me grind my teeth. On the other hand, breaking it into smaller chunks of time is healthier.

I have to take the time to exercise and eat properly or it take its toll on my body. So it's a constant battle of forcing myself to start and then once I'm going forcing myself to stop and take care of myself. Sometimes it feels easier not to write and just be in my other roles.

Do any of the distractions end up feeding your creativity?
I have found sometimes when I walk the dog or cook or drive either new ideas will come up or solutions to problems I've run into writing a story. Another part of my brain is in charge of those activities and it frees up the thinking--thoughts flow differently. Once I was at the TSO with my husband and an idea for two characters and a picture book story came into my head. I wrote it down in a little notebook I carry and several years later that story is under consideration at a publisher.

How do you minimize your distractions while you're working? Any tips for others?
Working in a place like the library where there are fewer things pulling at me works as a kick start, especially if I have had a long time between writing days. Once I'm back in the story in my head it's easier to say no to things. I've even turned down paying work or renegged on something I agreed to do in order to use that time to write.

Oddly though, I work better when my family is around. It's as if part of me knows they are all present and accounted for and that part of me can stop worrying. I think everyone needs to figure out what works for them. Virginia Woolf said 500 pounds and a room of one's own will do it. I know people who work full time and still write books. They are usually very disciplined and highly motivated. Tim Wynne-Jones said only you know if you are procrastinating or if you are doing the work. So I think the best strategy is to not lie to yourself. Sooner or later you have to do the work, one word at a time. The rest is just chatter.

Are there times when you just can't focus on your writing and if so how do you cope with them?
 Yes, well, I'm not very great to live with at those times. My mode is to get anxious so then walking the dog helps. I try do do practical things, things which need to be done anyway. It has a calming affect. I'm less likely to snap someone's head off.

Any tips on how to do something faster/more efficiently to get back to writing?
Well, you can avoid doing most everything by writing. And you can avoid writing by doing everything else. My favourite strategy for avoiding everything is lying on the floor with the dog and staring at the ceiling. To be more productive? I think what helps the most is to avoid comparing myself to anyone else. Comparison can be debilitating. Honour your own way of working and be truthful with yourself.

Are there any other creative genres you look to for inspiration?
Music. It affects my mood and sometimes that is what I need to get my creative mind flowing.

As a creative person, do you have any other outlets for your talents?
My background and training is in photography. I still like to create and use images. Also I play the flute--not very well--but having music in my life is really important. I also love to knit, sew etc. I learned to spin with a drop spindle and then a spinning wheel when I was nine years old. My grandmother once told me that as a child I was always making things. I still have that need. It's the best strategy for reducing angst.

Why do you keep creating in the face of all this?
If I didn't do creative work I'd be locked up in a padded room somewhere with seriously compromised mental health.


Hah! Well I’m glad you haven’t chosen the padded cell route. Thanks so much, Rebecca, for spending some of your valuable creating time here with me and sharing your tips with us. Here's to minimizing your clamour and maximizing your creations!

2 comments:

TerryLynnJohnson said...

I've ordered a copy of the Last Loon after I heard from someone I went to school with that it's based on her own story of saving a loon. Very cool that I see this book everywhere now!
Great post!

Lizann Flatt said...

Neat connection, TerryLynn. Thanks for stopping in too.