A Peek at the Creative Space of Marsha Diane Arnold

Joining us this week for Creative Spaces is author Marsha Diane Arnold. Marsha is the award-winning author of several picture books and early readers including Heart of a Tiger, The Pumpkin Runner, The Bravest of Us All, Prancing Dancing Lily, Roar of a Snore, Hugs on the Wind, and Quick, Quack, Quick.

Her first picture book, Heart of a Tiger (illustrated by Jamichael Henterly and published by Dial Books for Young Readers in 1995), won the Ridgway Award for Best First Book along with several other awards and honors. About Heart of a Tiger, The Horn Book wrote, “Arnold’s original story has the feel of an oft-told tale, and Henterly’s luxuriant watercolors reward a lingering look.”

Her most recent picture books are Hugs on the Wind, co-written with Vernise Elaine Pelzel and illustrated by Elsa Warnick, Roar of a Snore, illustrated by Pierre Pratt, and Prancing Dancing Lily, illustrated by John Manders

Roar of a Snore received a starred review from the School Library Journal and was selected for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. It tells the story of Jack who is awoken by a mighty snore and wakes his family members one by one in his attempt to stop the snoring.  

Hugs on the Wind is a sweet story about Little Cottontail who misses his long-distance grandfather and enlists nature to help him communicate by sending a smile with the clouds, a joke whispered to the river. Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “. . . . the lilting, soft language and gossamer settings (particularly when night falls on the meadow) work a soothing magic. The book may be sentimental, but it also feels genuine.” This story is unfortunately out of print but copies can still be found online and as a recordable e-book at www.ripplereader.com. (And, of course, check your local library!)

But my favorite of the recent three is Prancing Dancing Lily,  the story of a cow who has the itch to dance and leaves her farm to discover what her dance calling will be. On Marsha’s website she shares “The Story Behind the Story” about each of her titles, and there I was surprised to learn that the dance style Lily settles on at the end of the book wasn’t the same in the originally submitted version. (Visit Marsha Diane Arnold’s website to learn how the original version of Prancing Dancing Lily ended.)

One of the interior spreads of Prancing Dancing Lily illustrated by John Manders.

In August 2008, Marsha was one of a small group of artists invited to be part of the Sequoia Parks Foundation’s “Artists in the Back Country” program. Perhaps inspired in part by this program, Marsha is developing a new blog titled “Earth Voices” in which she will share photos and stories of her adventures in the wild, advocating for wild places and wild animals. And I’m sure she has many adventures to share–in the past four years alone she’s traveled to Africa, China, the Galapagos Islands, Germany, Italy, Austria, and Alaska, not to mention the extensive traveling she does for author presentations. (If you are interested in having Marsha speak at your school, library, or bookstore click here.)

There are many more interesting tidbits to learn about Marsha Diane Arnold and you can find them out by visiting “The Story Magician” (the blog she keeps primarily for students and teachers), and her website.

Describe your workspace.

My writing space is a small, colorful room that used to be my daughter’s bedroom.  When she left for college, I moved in.  Before she traveled east to New York University, I wrote at the dining room table or in the corner of our family room.

I love my writing room. As I enter, I look out at this beautiful view of my garden. This is the winter garden:

In spring it looks like this:

Sometimes I look up to see wild turkeys meandering by

or deer chomping my garden plants.

Yes, I live in the country, where sounds and views nourish mind and spirit. 
In my room are two windows, two bookshelf areas, plus lots of file drawers.

There are also two small closets.  One includes a second file cabinet and printer; the other includes puppets, projector, drum, and other items used for author visits. On the walls are pictures of my family and artwork from my books, which illustrators have generously shared.

My writing room is my main workspace, but the truth is I pick up my laptop during the day and move to other spaces.  Different views and spaces “jog” my mind.

Sometimes, I end up on the sofa in my living room, if I want to be really comfortable and toasty warm.  It’s right next to the wood pellet stove.

Sometimes, I leave my laptop and take a walk down our country road.

A walk can bring writing inspiration or an answer to a question about a project.

Describe a typical workday.

Typical?  If you mean normal or routine, there’s usually no such thing for me.

However, when I’m being very, very good (writing-wise), I get up at 6:30 a.m. to this fabulous view,

meditate for 30 minutes, go for a walk or a run, return to my writing room and write for 4 hours.

When I am being very, very bad (writing-wise), I may not sit down at my desk at all.  I may go birding or to a museum in San Francisco with a friend.  Sometimes my garden kidnaps me for an hour or two.

Or, if I’m being really bad, I’ll spend too much time answering email or on Facebook.
List three of your favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

When I visit schools, I tell kids that I truly don’t have favorites.  There are so many things to love and enjoy.  How can anyone choose?  It’s the same with my workspace.  I can’t choose a favorite.  I can’t even choose three!  But here are four things in my room that I love:

1. The fabulous artwork from my books that grace the walls.  My illustrators are so generous with their art.  In my writing room there’s art from Prancing Dancing Lily and Hugs on the Wind.

A poster of Metro Cat is on one wall and a collage I made from Heart of a Tiger and my column “Homegrown Treasures” is on another.  I did the collage for a benefit where authors were asked to create “art” for the event.

Not all the book art is in my writing room.  Art from The Bravest of Us All and Roar of a Snore grace my kitchen. The Pumpkin Runner is in the hallway. All this art reminds me of the talented editors and illustrators I’ve had the good fortune to work with.  It humbles me.

2. Pictures of my family.  They remind me I’m loved, even when my work is rejected.

3. Gifts from students and schools, reflective of my books.  These were given to celebrate Prancing Dancing Lily.  They remind me my stories are loved.

4. Wise and wonderful words posted on my desk.  They are inspirational. One of the posts is a note from my daughter.  I’m known in my family for long To-Do lists.  Twenty years ago, I had a particularly long list with twenty-five To-Dos in one day!  My then ten-year-old daughter sneaked into my room and added yet one more To-Do at the end:  “Be happy.”  I’ve kept her reminder all these years.  It keeps me in balance.

Oh!  How could I forget?  I must add one more.  My Oxford English Dictionary.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

I prepare a cup of hot tea or herbs.  I sit in my chair.  I turn on my computer.  I light a candle.  I call to my muse.  I stare at the screen or the last words I wrote.  I sit.  I sit some more.  If I’m lucky, wondrous words come.  If wondrous words don’t come, I scribble nonsense until they do.

What do you listen to while you work?

The whir of hummingbird wings outside my open window, sparrows’ songs, hawks’ calls, the flow of my garden fountain outside my window. That’s usually as much noise as I like when working.

Sometimes I select a piece of music that reminds me of a character, to give me inspiration to write a particular scene or story.  For example, when I’m working on Mugwart and Abigail, which is about an eight-year-old aspiring paleontologist, I may listen to the sound track from Jurassic Park.

But usually I’m constantly thinking about my story and constantly reading aloud what I’ve written.  Quiet works nicely for that.  Silence is golden.  Shhhhh.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

I’ve been eating and drinking these amazing Chinese herbal foods for nearly twenty years.  Sunrider’s the name.  They are concentrated herbs that you mix with water, similar to hot tea. Yum.  That’s what I sip while I’m working.  Nourishing to body and mind.

And if I really need to get serious with my work I’ll enjoy popcorn, some of my homemade fudge, and Dr. Pepper.

Yes, I’m a dichotomy.  Chinese herbs to fudge and Dr. Pepper.  The world is a banquet, isn’t it?

What keeps you focused while you are working?

I am SO easily distracted.  I’m interested in almost everything, so if I go to the internet to do a bit of research, it’s a dangerous proposition.  Did you know Emperor Hsuan Tsung of the Tang Dynasty had dancing horses that danced on three-tiered benches?  And isn’t it amazing that a new species of elephant shrew was discovered in Tanzania?  Oh, sorry!  What was I saying?

http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51HPGFMV5ML._SL500_AA300_.jpgThere are two things that help keep me focused:

    *The work. If I’m in love with the story, I’m focused.

    *Someone who loves my work.  If someone is waiting for my project and is excited about it, I stay focused.  Give me someone who truly believes in me and I’ll walk straight as an arrow down the writing path for them.  Good agents and editors are truly a godsend.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

I write on a MacBook Pro.  I also have an iMac if I want a really big monitor.  I’m definitely an Apple person.  My husband gave me an iPad for Christmas (he’s such a sweetie), so I suspect I’ll be using it too.

When I’m seriously editing and revising, I print my work out.  I make notes and rewrite in longhand.  Sometimes when I get stuck, I’ll write for a while in longhand.  I think we use our brains differently when we physically write instead of simply hitting keys.  On the rare occasions I write in my journal, I write longhand.  Surprising thoughts arise more easily when I’m writing longhand.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

The muse leads me.  I must admit this is not the most efficient way to write.  My muse is a rascal and as easily distracted as I am.  Sometimes she meanders along the creek or takes me through the swamp.  But eventually, we get there!

When I’m in my most efficient writing mode, I turn off my email and don’t open the internet.  I open only Word and away I write.  When I started writing, I would ignore everything except my writing and I’d write for four or five hours at a time.  This month I plan to return to that routine and rewrite a chapter book manuscript.  My plan is four hours a day, minimum.  I will outline the chapters and scenes for the chapter book.  As my heroine is a budding paleontologist, I’m reading lots of dinosaur books.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be and why?

I used to share my writing space with my boxer, Ali. Ali had a big heart, he made me laugh, and he was beside me during one of the biggest challenges of my life–breast cancer.  He’s gone now and I miss him.  I really want another dog, but I travel so much, it wouldn’t be fair.  I need to wait a few more years.  Then if Jennifer interviews me again, you’ll see a doggie or two sharing my space.

It would be hard to share my workspace with a person.  I’m a solitary soul and I enjoy my time alone in my writing room.  But I do love to gather with my four different writing support groups.  One group meets in person twice a month: Deborah Underwood, Rachel Rodriguez, Elizabeth Shreeve, Deborah Davis, Liz Scarpelli, and Kieren Dutcher are all in this group. Another, with 4 members, meets online once a month–Nancy Raines Day, Andi Buckless, and Kami Kinard.  I also share manuscripts with Dashka Slater once a month or so, online.  And my dear friend Teri Sloat and I get together in person as often as possible to read each other’s work and bounce ideas off each other.  I’d share my room with any of these wonderful writing supporters.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

That sounds a lot like a “favorite” question.  I told you I can’t choose just one.Here are 3:

1. I was on staff at the Oregon Coast Writer’s Workshop listening to another author present. (I fear I’ve forgotten which one.) He said, “Characters only talk to their friends.”  That has stuck with me a long time.  He meant they wouldn’t want to tell you their secrets or stories if you haven’t written for weeks.  We should talk to our characters daily.

2. This wasn’t written as writing advice, but I think it’s a good way to write, as well as live our lives.  It’s a quote from Deshimarti that I have taped to my desk.  “You must concentrate upon and consecrate yourself wholly to each day, as though a fire were raging in your hair.”

3. And here’s my writing advice to each of you:  Forget all the writing advice.  Open your heart, listen, and write!

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7 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Marsha Diane Arnold”

  1. Tess

    wow, these are some amazing pictures! I especially love the garden. who wouldn't be inspired by that view? thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Toby Speed

    Thank you, Jenn, for this lovely look at Marsha's space and work. Who wouldn't be inspired with gardens and country roads like these? I love Marsha's idea of moving between various spaces during the day to jog her mind. I've just started doing that — why did it take me so long?

  3. Jenn (From the Mixed-Up Files)

    I know, I had serious garden envy putting this interview together! And cute little deer and wild turkey envy too.

    And Toby, that's funny because I recently started doing the same thing too! I would feel restless spending long hours in front of my computer in my office, and during the holidays I would long to be downstairs next to our Christmas tree. I finally realized, "Hey, you have a laptop! You don't have to be banished to your office." It sometimes did help me, if I'd hit a wall with my rewrites, to change my physical location. I don't know why it took me so long to figure that out either. We get stuck in our routines, I guess.

  4. Kieren

    Yay Marsha! What a beautiful, inspiring space you have there!
    Wonderful sights and wonderful words,too!

  5. kk

    What a great interview. Marsha, I've always known you were a talented writer, but now I am envious of your gorgeous garden!!!