JoAnn Early Macken is a writer of poetry, picture books, nonfiction, and novels for children and young adults, and has published over 100 titles. Most recently is Waiting Out the Storm, beautifully illustrated by Susan Gaber and published by Candlewick Press. Waiting Out the Storm is a call and response story of a mother comforting her child during a storm. Here’s a taste:
In the former living room of the upstairs flat in our small suburban duplex, I sit at my computer in front of a large, cluttered table. I face three windows, and the windowsills are full of rocks, seashells, driftwood, pine cones, and family photos. Outside, a tall spruce tree fills most of my view. I take little breaks to watch squirrels or birds on the feeders. Next to the windows, a door opens to a small porch. Whenever the weather is bearable, I leave the door open. Sometimes I work outside, either on the porch or in the backyard.
On another side of the room, my desk faces a wall full of kids’ artwork, pictures of friends and advisors from Vermont College, and a few favorite poems. Right now, the desk is also cluttered with paper: notes on scraps under paperweights, stacks of work in progress, teetering piles of student work. My teaching semester ends this week, and no matter how strictly or often I tell myself that this will finally be the semester I catch up and stay caught up, I always end up with a messy workspace. Lucky for me, I also look forward to a break between semesters to clean up!
Describe a typical workday.
Morning is the most productive time for me. As early as possible, I head toward my desk, notebook, and pen. I try to write every day for at least an hour or two, and I try to resist checking e-mail and Facebook until later. I work around a teaching schedule that varies from semester to semester, so my writing time varies, too. I try to walk the dog every day, usually along Lake Michigan. In spring and fall, I travel to schools to present poetry workshops, and those days are completely up in the air.
List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
My workspace is filled with my favorite things! Among them are a lucky pink pig from Norma Fox Mazer (one of my advisors at Vermont College), a clock from my father, and a painted vase from my sister that reminded her of the illustrations in one of my favorite childhood books, Angelo the Naughty One.
Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
As soon as the coffee is ready, I head to my desk and write, still in my pajamas. Ever since I read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron many years ago, I’ve started most days with Morning Pages. When I’m working on something particularly difficult, I wear my father’s old plaid flannel shirt for comfort, warmth, and security.
What do you listen to while you work?
While the porch door is open, I hear birds singing and kids playing on the school playground a few doors away. When I hear lawnmowers, I get up and close the door!
What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
After I reach my limit of regular coffee, I switch to decaf.
What keeps you focused while you’re working?
If I’m extremely lucky and having a good day, the work itself holds my attention. Otherwise, fear keeps me motivated—time is running out!
Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
For short projects such as poems and picture books, I write longhand in purple ink in a spiral notebook, and I pile up many drafts before I ever put anything on the computer. I learned the hard way that when I’m writing a longer project, I have to work on the computer. Otherwise, arrows, asterisks, scribbles, and sticky notes take over the pages, and I can lose my way.
How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?
Each project seems to demand its own plan and schedule. Sometimes I know where I’m headed, and other times I have to discover the right direction by trial and error. Sometimes words come to me while I’m doing something else, especially something repetitive like hanging laundry on the line, washing or chopping vegetables, or walking. I always carry a little notebook and pen, and I often jot down words, phrases, or ideas so I don’t forget them. I have a collection of filled little notebooks; a good exercise for me is picking two random pages and playing around by combining them.
If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
Our dog, Bea, is my regular companion; she spends every possible moment out on the porch watching for squirrels. I’d like to try collaborating, so I could see sharing a space—literally or figuratively—with another writer working on a joint project, such as a novel in two voices or a poetry collection.
I read that Madeleine L’Engle said inspiration comes during work rather than before it, and that concept consistently, surprisingly works for me. If I sit at my desk with a notebook and pen, the words flow. I don’t need to find an idea to start writing; I need to start writing to find an idea. The act of putting pen to paper helps me discover what I want to say and how to say it.
Updated to add: If you’ve got a hankering for more interviews this week, make sure to check out the Summer Blog Blast Tour where each day five various blogs feature an interview with a different author. Visit Chasing Ray for the master schedule and more information.