The Art & Science of Getting Lost in the Woods by Ruth Spiro
Ask any writer about rejection letters and they’ll probably show you a mile-high pile or overstuffed folder. Some even tape them together end-to-end for visual impact. We complain, but we also wear them as a badge of honor. Because a pile of rejections can only be earned by bravely sending work out into the world.
One little-known fact about me is that in addition to a background in Advertising I have an M.B.A. in Personnel Management. Earlier in my career I reviewed resumes and interviewed job applicants. While I took no pleasure in rejecting anyone, I had to find the right person for the job and there often were many more applications than openings to fill. Our decisions weren’t based solely on the college a person attended, previous employment or any other single factor. It was a combination of many, but mostly it was about finding the right fit.
I’ve noticed similarities between the job search and publication processes. As a writer, it’s difficult to not take rejection personally. But it’s important to remember that rejection isn’t about us, it’s about our work. It’s a clear sign that we need to do better work, find a publisher that’s a better fit, or both.
Sometimes this fear of rejection becomes so paralyzing that we develop writer’s block. It’s not that we are truly blocked – we’re just afraid that what we are about to write won’t be good enough, or won’t measure up to our own or our readers’ expectations, and so we do nothing. But that’s the opposite of what we should do. When we fear our writing is only mediocre, we should write and write and then write some more. Odds are, our work isn’t as terrible as we think it may be. And if it is, continuing the practice of writing can only help us improve.
When I started submitting the proposal for my Baby Loves Science series, the feedback I received was surprisingly positive. Editors and agents liked the concept and the stories, but were hesitant to take a chance on a project that was so different from the traditional board book. But a year later the BabyLit series came out, confirming my belief there was a market for my books too. I continued to research editors and submit my proposal, hoping to eventually find the right fit. That’s not to say I wasn’t disappointed with every rejection that arrived. On particularly bad days a glass of pinot grigio, chocolate with almonds, or a visit to Zappos.com seemed to help.
I also found comfort and support in my critique group, SCBWI friends, and in the broader children’s literature community. If you’re reading this, odds are you’re also familiar with the many virtual places where writers, illustrators, educators, librarians and other “book people” like to hang out. Many of us follow the same blogs, read the same journals and listen to the same podcasts. In some ways, it almost feels like a family as we follow each other’s careers and engage in conversations about topics related to our work and common interests.
But sometimes I like to mix things up a bit. I read books and follow blogs about design, innovation, and the intersection of business and creativity. It turns out that stepping outside one’s normal environment or “getting lost in the woods” actually does help stimulate creative thinking and new ideas.
About three years ago I happened upon Brian Koppelman’s “Six Second Screenwriting Lessons” on Vine. (Remember that?) The creator and now showrunner for the Showtime series “Billions,” he’s transitioned to another platform, a podcast on Slate called “The Moment.” But back in 2013 Brian was churning out morning pages like the rest of us and recording six-second long gems of creative advice from various locations around Manhattan. His advice resonated with me, and I learned that whether you write screenplays or board books, many of the same rules apply. (If you’ve deleted the app you can view his 400+ Vines online here: https://vine.co/briankoppelman)
A frequent theme of these lessons is that while writing classes and instructional books may be helpful for beginners, immersing yourself in your genre by watching hundreds of films (or reading a similar number of books) is the best education you can give yourself. If you do, then you already know what the conventions are and have the knowledge you need to move forward and create. Or, as the Good Witch said to Dorothy, “You don’t need to be helped any longer, you’ve always had the power…” In other words, stop making excuses and just do the work.
Koppelman’s podcasts also contain nuggets of gold for writers. (By the way, the language is more appropriate for an adult audience so I wouldn’t recommend sharing them with students.) The idea behind “The Moment” is that he interviews successful creative people about a time they might have given up, but instead pressed on. A perfect accompaniment to the aforementioned pinot grigio after opening an unwelcome envelope, yes?
Recently I listened to one of his conversations with Seth Godin, who had amazing insights into the creative process. (www.sethgodin.com) Seth is the author of 18 books on business and marketing, and has earned the title of “Thought Leader” with his DAILY incisive blog posts. I highly recommend checking those out, as well.
So why is all of this important? Because venturing outside my comfort zone is what led me to write Baby Loves Quarks! and Baby Loves Aerospace Engineering! in the first place. I don’t have a science background, but was inspired by an article I read in the New York Times. At first I wasn’t sure I could make the idea work, so I spent a year researching subjects that frankly, I had avoided studying in high school. But when I viewed them through a different lens, with the goal of making these complex concepts a bit easier to understand by relating them to common childhood experiences, everything clicked into place and made perfect sense.
When I attended the Nerdy Book Club information session at Nerd Camp and asked what I should write about for today, the emphatic response was that I should share insights about myself. Here are a few of my favorites:
I know that when my work is rejected, I need to make sure my writing is the best it can be and then continue to search for a better fit.
I believe that seeking out new people and new experiences is essential to filling the creative well.
I like learning new things, finding unexpected ways to connect the dots, and exploring the art and science of creativity.
I’m a proud member of the children’s literature community, but sometimes find my best ideas when I allow myself to get “lost in the woods.”
What are some of your favorite sources of inspiration outside our cozy community? Share a link or two in the comments!
Ruth Spiro is the author of the Baby Loves Science series, published by Charlesbridge. Her debut picture book, Lester Fizz, Bubble-Gum Artist won awards from Writer’s Digest and Willamette Writers, and was a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year. She lives in suburban Chicago.