Today we’re taking a look at the creative space of writer Bobbi Miller. Bobbi is the author of the picture books One Fine Trade (illustrated by Will Hillenbrand) and Davy Crockett Gets Hitched (illustrated by Megan Lloyd), both books that made the Bank Street College of Education List for Best Children’s Book of the Year 2010. She has two more picture books coming out in the near future as well.
Bobbi earned her MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she studied with Marion Dane Bauer and Eric Kimmel. She teaches composition for undergraduate and graduate level writers, and on occasion she teaches a folklore survey course.
Davy Crockett Gets Hitched is her most recent picture book, and it’s also one of the books I’m giving away for Book Cover Bingo this month. I like how Bobbi described the book in this interview with Shari Lyle-Soffe:
Reading Bobbi’s picture books brought back to me how much I loved reading tall tales and folklore as a child. (Paul Bunyan and Brer Rabbit were two personal favorites.) I remember being amazed that with the tall tale you could tell a story about a real person but include outright lies, huge exaggerations, and that was okay. Encouraged even. As a young rule abider, this seemed quite rebellious and I felt like I was getting away with something when I wrote one for class.
Bobbi Miller does her writing in a charming log cabin nestled in the woods:
Home is where your story begins, they say. I live in the woods, in a 1830s reproduction log cabin, a perfect place to explore larger than life characters! I write in two places: in my loft, which overlooks my gardens:
And in my living room, which is a grand room with skylights and big windows:
Because my land butts a national forest as well as farmlands, I share my space with several visitors, including a family of bobcats, a nest of redtail hawks, a den of coyotes, a boodle of turkeys, a few rambunctious deer, owls and a slew of other birds. True enough, just as nature rumbles right outside my doorstep, many of my stories include an intimate relationship and exploration with the natural landscape.
I’m not so sure what a typical day is; it depends upon what needs to be done. Because I teach, my writing time is cut dramatically during the semester. During the summer, I find myself playing catch-up. It becomes a never-ending balancing act in which I adjust priorities on a daily basis. Some days, I work on my writing for long stretches, ten to twelve–and sometimes more–hours. I’ll write a chapter, then revise it, then do some research. Some days, I work on two different projects. Some days, I just take a walk.
I collect items that reflect the creative process in all its colorful glory. This includes an antique log cabin quilt, and hand-thrown pottery reflecting the colors of earth and sea (made by my very good friend Susan Gerr of Birch Mountain Pottery). I have hand-painted (some by me!) furniture. But perhaps my favorite items include my growing collection of books written by my friends and heroes, and I have them all over my house, each serving as inspiration, and each filling me with gratitude that these people are in my life.
My process includes extensive research. I travel to those places where my characters live because I want to see what they see. I go to the landscapes where my stories take place, because I want to walk where my characters walk. Perhaps the most moving place I’ve been to is the Gettysburg Battle National Park. The most impressive have been the Rocky Mountain National Park and Washington DC. I spend my time exploring the grand voices that make up the American story. The language that creates these stories is as big and grand as the landscape itself. It is this audacious, bodacious, just splendiferous landscape and language that inspire me to write.
As I begin to piece the story together, I take notes, and am a great fan of post-its! I outline everything, whether picturebook or older readers. I also write my first drafts in longhand. I find the relationship between pen and paper much more intimate, and demands me to go deeper into the character. Then, I transfer the tale to the computer. But even as I edit the manuscript, I have to print the story out, and work with pen and paper again. I use recycled paper, to be sure!
But as we know, stories tend to be organic, and sometimes outlines, research, and all the “great plans of mice and men” need to be tossed as characters take over. In which case, I tag along for the ride. It’s as much about story-building as it is about story-creating. Mollie Hunter explores this process in her book Talent is Not Enough in which she offers: “The child that was myself was born with a little talent, and I have worked hard, hard, hard to shape it. Yet even this could not have made me a writer, for there is no book that can tell anything worth saying unless life itself has first said it to the person who conceived that book. A philosophy has to be hammered out, a mind shaped, a spirit tempered. This is true for all of the craft. It is the basic process which must happen before literature can be created.” This process of hammering, shaping, and tempering is true for both writer and her character. The key to inspiration is becoming engaged in the life and landscape surrounding you. Inspiration and motivation do not come out of the ether, and are not created in a vacuum.
The most important lesson I learned is that writing is more about rewriting. One of my favorite quotes is by Naomi Shihab Nye: “If a teacher told me to revise, I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop. I felt insulted. I didn’t realize the teacher was saying, ‘Make it shine. It’s worth it.’ Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope.”
Focused, or motivated? This is the challenge, true enough. It’s not just about navigating this ever-changing techno-landscape defining the business, but also staying in the game when faced with multiple rejections, celebrity books, and depressive economics. One of my favorite books is the legendary Anita Silvey’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, in which she explores the very purpose for writing these books: children’s books change lives. As Eric Kimmel once stated, there’s always a need for a good story.
Then there are my characters themselves. It’s more than merely writing a story I want to read. These people are real to me, stomping around in my head and in my heart. Perhaps there is a Campbell-esque journey re-imagining itself, for in too many ways, these characters reflect and define aspects of my own metaphorical and literal journey. These characters demand their stories to be told, and at times, I think I have no choice but to follow.
Then there is the creative process itself. The challenge is in weaving together the elements of story into one fine tapestry. It’s the exploration of the physicality of language, the music found in its rhythms and patterns. Ursula Le Guin (in Steering The Craft) reminds us that although “we read most of our narratives in silence, a keen inner ear does hear them.” There’s a reason why we writers call these stylistic devices wordplay.
So, in the end, some knit, others quilt, blending threads of different colors to create this stunning visual. Some build furniture, and others build skyscrapers. Some throw pots, grow gardens, paint, or take pictures. Some cook. The core of each creation is that essence of expression, and I sense this is a basic element of what it means to be human. All of us–without exception–seek to express ourselves creatively; it’s only the medium that changes. In such a way, we are all artists at heart.
I sense because writing is at its heart a solitary act, most writers probably aren’t well suited for sharing their writing space. I know I’m not very good at sharing my space when I am creating. Even when I am working in a room where others must live around me, I tend to separate myself in order to create. I move to another table, or another rug. I build a little wall of books, writing pads, and research.
This being said, I love visiting the writing spaces for other writers–which is one reason why I love your blog. These intimate creative spaces reveal not only the personality of the writer in unexpected ways, but also new perspectives into the creative process. I’ve visited Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and was struck by the depth of his character, most of which seems forgotten–or reimagined–to history. I’ve visited Mark Twain’s home, and became enamored with his sense of humor and adventure. I’ve visited Emily Dickinson’s little study in Amherst, and became awed by how such a recluse could have so much insight into life. My website includes a tour of New England authors.
But, I’ve also visited authors who are still kicking and creating. One favorite place is Ashley Bryan’s island home, filled with his immense collection of toys. His studio exemplifies creativity, full of color and light. Just like Ashley himself.
I would love to visit Jane Yolen’s creative space, especially her home in Scotland. Can you imagine all that creative energy just oozing out of them walls? Where can I buy a bottle of that?
My website is full of my favorite insights offered by my favorite writers, including Jane Yolen, Marion Dane Bauer, Eric Kimmel, Rafe Martin, and more. I also include conversation pieces with Eric Kimmel, Anita Silvey, and many more, in which we explore the writing process. Two bits that I keep close: The first comes from Emma Dryden, publisher, writer, and superhero in the children’s field (read her blog here). She states, simply: “Persist.” The second comes from Storyteller Supreme, Eric Kimmel. Several years ago he sent me a grand piece of advice, and it still hangs on my icebox: “Tell the story. That’s all you have to do.”
So this is me, telling my story.
And for you Bingo players, Bingo Book #11 is The Nutcracker Doll, written and illustrated by Mary Newell DePalma. The Nutcracker Doll is about a girl who auditions and earns a role in a production of The Nutcracker. One thing I loved about this story is that it’s not about the main character becoming the star of the show, but rather she receives a very small role in the production and is happy to be a part of the experience all the same. The story was inspired by Mary Newell DePalma’s daughter who performed in the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker as a child. Mary shared her creative space with us back in March.