Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Catherine Austen: Keep Faith in your Ability to Write a Really Good Piece of Work

Creating Through the Clamour: Instalment 7
Feel like there's not enough time in your busy life to be creative? 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 how they do it. 'Cause I want to know. (I need all the help I can get in this department.)

The Creator 

name: Catherine Austen

resides:  Quebec
website/blog: http://www.catherineausten.com
creates: Writing for all ages: PB, MG, YA. I used to write stories for adults and may return to that some day.

The Creations
Walking Backward (MG novel), Orca Book Publishers, 2009
My Cat Isis (picture book), Kids Can Press, 2011

All Good Children (YA novel), Orca Book Publishers, coming Fall 2011
26 Tips for Surviving Grade 6 (MG novel), James Lorimer & Company, coming Fall 2011

The Clamour

Work obligations: About ten years ago I quit my full-time job and began to write freelance part-time (conservation reports, funding proposals, fact sheets, etc.). My husband suggested I try it, and he’s been the main breadwinner in our family ever since. I did it partly to free up time to write fiction, but mostly to spend more time with my son. (It worked out so well, I had another one.)

After selling my first two books in 2008, I began to take fewer paid contracts in order to focus on my fiction. My work benefitted enormously but my debts increased. I was thrilled to receive news over Christmas that I’m getting a grant from the Quebec Conseil des arts et des lettres to help me write a sequel to my forthcoming teen novel. It’s a lifesaver, and in the nick of time. Now I can devote half of each day to my work in progress. Yay! That reduces the clamour.

Kids to raise, look after, chauffeur: My kids are aged 8 and 15, so there’s a lot of chauffeuring and assisting but not the intense and constant demands of the early years. I try to do my first drafts in big chunks while they’re at school. Revising and polishing I fit in whenever I can. Because I work from home, I’m with my kids on PD days and vacations and I don’t try to write much those days and seasons. On school days, my work usually ends when my youngest gets off the bus at 3:00.

I didn’t write much when my kids were tiny – I was a real cookies-and-crafts kind of mom – and I don’t regret that. As they age and become more independent, I devote more mental energy to my work and the focus of my life and my sense of self reorients. (Or that could just be middle age.)

Volunteer work: I volunteer in the library of the local elementary school two mornings a week – an ideal volunteer job for a children’s book writer. I enjoy the work, both helping rambunctious classes of kids find something to read and doing the more tedious coding, shelving, and repairing of books. The school has no librarian so my help is appreciated.

The internet: The internet can be a sinkhole for time but it speeds up research enormously. I am so often awed by how simple it is to check facts for a story. (What time does the sun set in Hawaii on August 14th? When was the tape recorder invented? Where do police dogs live? OMG, you can find out anything!) And even though I do most of my research through books, I find and reserve those books from my desk via the online library catalogue. 

Life in general: When a story is really alive in my head, it’s not hard to find the time to draft it because I can’t concentrate on anything else. But preparing for that stage and, afterward, revising the mess that comes out of that stage, are more challenging because they require more discipline. The internal drive just isn’t as strong. So that bizarre human habit of avoiding the difficult things we love to do comes into play. (I know it’s not just me. After every yoga class I drag myself to, I hear someone say, “I feel so good! Why did I put this off all month?” Same habit. I’ve cleaned closets to avoid writing stories. What is that about?!?)

There are so many diversions out there – work and kids, friends and fun, chores and errands. Most of us have a long list of things we either have to do or like to do and it’s difficult to admit that you can’t do it all. If you want to write a book, you have to forego other stuff. Fun stuff. If you only have one spare hour in the day, you can’t meet your friend for coffee or take a piano lesson or walk the dog in that hour. You have to write your book. And hope that one day you’ll have more time to devote to your writing so that you can do other stuff in your spare hour. (That’s where I’m at now. But for years I wasn’t so lucky.)

How did you get started in this field? 
I wrote stories and poetry as a child but I don’t remember much and didn’t keep any. The first time I took writing seriously was in university when a professor suggested I try to publish a story I’d written for an English elective. It was the first of about a dozen stories I published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I continued to write sporadically over the years and writing was always a major part of my work for conservation organizations. After reading a thousand picture books to my own son, I tried my hand at writing them. The first dozen were wordy, dull, or Robert Munsch echoes, but I got better each time. I now write a mix of picture books, stories, and novels for different ages. 

What are you working on these days?

I’m revising my teen novel, All Good Children, based on my editor’s comments, and I’m drafting its sequel, Across the Water. Over the Christmas holidays I returned to a picture book I’d drafted in the summer and polished it to where I want it to be. I have MANY books on the go, outlines and drafts and not-quite-there manuscripts. Sometimes I wake up wanting to work on a specific piece, and I get to it. But I try to work on one draft at a time.

What's the hardest aspect for you in terms of being creative, finding the time? the space? the focus? something else?
Sometimes it’s not the clamour but the writing itself that pushes me away. Sometimes a story just isn’t ready or isn’t working so the writing is frustrating and hard to face. It’s a lousy feeling reading back your work and thinking, “This is crap.” It takes a lot of experience and a thick skin to learn to work through the crappy and mediocre pieces and keep faith in your ability to write a really good piece of work. (Give me the strength to file my crappy drafts, the courage to revise my promising ones, and the wisdom to know the difference.)

One other obstacle for me is that sometimes I just can’t face my character’s hardships. There’s an emotional surrender in writing that’s frankly exhausting. I love to write humour, which doesn’t pose this obstacle. But the novels I’m drafting and editing now have some sad parts, and getting in the head of a narrator who’s in pain is just not fun. There are certain scenes I dread. (I’m a fanatic outliner so I know what pain is coming.) I procrastinate as they approach. I have to work myself up to it. (Mentally and physically – I run and lift weights before writing and during breaks. I suspect it helps my aging brain but, if not, at least it keeps me trim.)

Do any of your distractions end up feeding your creativity?  
Anything to do with my kids or pets feeds creativity. Dabbling on the internet can spark things, too, just as any reading or conversation can. A few weeks ago, I wasted half an hour of work time doing an online survey about emotional intelligence (of which I have little, it seems). I was berating myself for the waste when suddenly a list of feeling-words struck a chord and led to vast improvements in my picture book manuscript about an emotional marmot. Hah! Surfer vindication.

Do you have any tips for others about how to carve out time to be creative? 
If you have trouble facing the keyboard, I recommend doing a minimum amount of work each day, like half an hour, and not doing any more than that (until you no longer feel like procrastinating). That technique worked for me in the past when I was more pressed for time. It changed the way I look at my time and made me eager rather than reluctant to write. Three hours on a Saturday morning is a lot of time to fill if you’re not used to writing regularly. You put a lot of pressure on yourself to perform in those hours, so you may be reluctant to start. But half an hour? What can a person accomplish in half an hour? Not much. No pressure. Anything you write in that time will be better than nothing so you might as well get it over with. And books are written that way, a couple of pages a day.

I also recommend outlining for those so inclined. I used to write without outlines and I’d steam ahead until halfway through a novel, when I wouldn’t have a clue where to take the book. Then I’d get easily distracted. Now I have a clear outline of my scenes, so even if I don’t feel like thinking on a given day, I know what I have to write and it’s easier to just do it.

Are there times when you just can't focus on your writing/illustrating and if so how do you cope with them? 
Yes, and I have learned to accept them and trust that they will pass. I still usually drag myself to it, because I want to keep my work habits, but I’ll work for less time than usual, or I’ll work on editing or researching rather than actual writing. In a pinch I’ll read a slew of “how to write” books, which often spark renewal of interest in some project or other, or I’ll just read. (All reading is professional development for writers.) People in other professions do professional development activities. They spend a few days filing and emailing. And they take vacations. Why do writers expect themselves to produce pages of new work every day?

Any tips on how to get through chores faster/more efficiently? 
Sorry. Nothing comes to mind other than “Embrace messiness.” 

Are there any other creative genres you look to for inspiration? 
Music is often part of my writing process. I don’t play it while I write but I play it while I cook or exercise before and after writing, and I use it as a soundtrack for envisioning scenes or generating emotions. I actually make playlists for each novel I’m working on. The one I’m listening to today has a don’t give up/stay strong theme and includes songs like:
“Kangaroo Cry” by Blue October,
“Swim” by Jack’s Mannequin,
“Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen,
“Dying to Live” by Jonny Lang,
“You Get What You Give” by the New Radicals, and
“Colby’s Song” by Joshua James.
I listened to that last one about 100 times while writing the last half of All Good Children. It has nothing to do with the story but something about the emotion in it helped feed my writing. The same thing happened while writing Walking Backward with the song “Virtue the Cat Explains her Disappearance” by the Weakerthans. I don’t know how it works but I don’t question it. (I embrace it along with messiness.)

As a creative person, do you have any other outlets for your talents? 
I photograph mushrooms with a passion. And I quilt by hand in front of the television a few times a week while watching mediocre movies or bad TV. (“So You Think You Can Dance” is excellent quilter’s viewing since you only have to look up one minute out of five.) It takes me about two years to make a quilt, longer if there’s a lot of appliqué (or subtitles). I’m still a beginner but I learn more about design and fabric with each quilt. I’d like to quilt a story, especially a life story, like Harriet Powers, but I don’t feel ready yet. I have no visual intelligence at all so it’s a big learning curve for me to figure out how colours and shapes balance. But I love it. I get all my material from old clothes. I tremble with excitement when I find unusual cotton pyjamas at the junk shop and I’ve been caught ogling the shirts of strange men in elevators.

Why do you keep creating?
I think creating is natural to our species. Our brains are awfully big and our hands are free, after all.


Thanks, Catherine, for spending some time here, for sharing this wealth of information, and for making me chuckle in the process. I love that New Radicals song you mention. Here's to your forthcoming titles (can't wait to read them!), quilts, and continued creativity!


Rebecca said...

This is great! I love her philosophy (if you can call it that) on chores. "Embrace messiness!"

Anonymous said...

Thank you! What a wonderful interview, so much great insight and advice...and congrats on the grant!!

YAY for So You Think You Can Dance dance dance...

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Deb and Rebecca. And thanks, Lizann. I hope you all embrace messiness for a while - it really frees up time. Gotta go (So you think you can Dance is on.)

Lizann Flatt said...

Thanks to all of you for leaving a comment. I am definitely embracing messiness this past month! I'd love to go watch So You Think You Can Dance (complete with Deb's echo) but sadly it competes with the NHL playoffs for awhile. Luckily there's the PVR.

Myra Garces-Bacsal from GatheringBooks said...

Fabulous interview! I like how candid Catherine was in her responses. I can connect with that part about struggling to write about the character's pain and tragedy - if it is difficult for the reader to read through the narrative, I imagine that it must be doubly difficult for the writer. I truly am enjoying myself reading through all this posts from the kidlitosphere. =) So many great writers AND bloggers!

LMacL said...

Really enjoyed reading this, Lizann. Thanks for pulling it together and thanks to Catherine. Will read this over a few times and I'm sure I'll get something new out of it every time. Go Canucks!

Lizann Flatt said...

Thanks for stopping in Myra. LMacL, was that an NHL reference??? Kidding. :>

Cathy Webster (Olliffe) said...

That is probably the best advice on writing I've ever seen. So practical... love the part about committing only half an hour a day to writing, because, for me, it's sometimes extremely difficult to face the keyboard. Thanks Catherine and Lizann!