We all love books or we would not be in the library business. Unless we are authors, how often do we think about the actual writing process? What do the authors of our addiction go through to write books that will have general appeal, excite the public, and sell enough to make some profit? Do authors write every day? Do they write a certain amount or until there are no more words left? Just how do they accomplish this magical thing called a book? I must admit this curiosity came after I was asked to write a part of a nonfiction book. It deals with a time period and subject that I know well so after a slight hesitation, I agreed. It was difficult to start but all of a sudden I was obsessed with writing and editing. I would go to sleep thinking about it, and sometimes the process became part of my dreams.
To find some answers, I decided to interview three very different and talented writers. One is a published poet and my sister, Pattie Palmer Baker. The second is familiar to most librarians and my good friend, Carmen Bernier Grand (Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina and, the book that resonates with all Californians, Cesar: Si, Se Puede! = Yes, We Can!). The final interview is with Marc Aronson, one of the more famous non-fiction writers. Marc can bring a fact, or a person or a piece of history to life. He can unlock the secrets of Stonehenge and J. Edgar Hoover and easily explain how sugar changed our world. He is the friend who talked me into writing a section of a new nonfiction book.
My sister Pattie is a retired middle school counsellor, a calligrapher, an artist, and poet. Even though she has written most of her life, I never knew how her words became poems. According to her, writing is the heavy lifting and editing is the fine tuning. She does not write every day but thinks about writing as poetry. She is fierce about her poems and takes classes regularly with a group of poet friends who share their work and criticism. So many of her subjects come from our childhood… sometimes they are so raw that I cry. Unlike Marc and Carmen, her published poetry appears more often in magazines or online journals.
Carmen Bernier Grand starts her day by reading a poem chosen at random because “poetry injects me with creative energy.” Since Carmen did not grow up with computers she writes the first draft by hand. She refers to the initial writing process as the 3H’s: “My head with ideas, my heart with feelings, and my hand writes them down.” When she is comfortable with the draft, she takes a few chapters to her critique group. She listens carefully to their remarks because often “it isn’t the sentence they are talking about what’s wrong, but something around it.” Following this comes the revision process, editing, her agent’s approval, and finally the publishing. Actual release dates can take time, and with the scarcity of illustrators a picture book can take up to five years.
Until I read his email, I had no idea that Marc listened to opera and especially certain arias while he wrote. In his own words, he is “constantly searching for new ideas and insights from scholars, primary source quotations, telling facts, descriptive details.” At the same time, he is “mapping out how this chapter, this beat, will fit into the larger, the bigger themes…” Marc compares his writing process to an aria and that “every moment is part of a larger whole which comes together in a thrilling climax.” Like his favorite operas, his aim is to write books that “the reader can experience as an epic journey.” Marc’s nonfiction books are not just facts but as he says, “a stepping stone to new discovery.”
So we have three very different authors, but all have poetry/music as a muse that encourages their writing process. Words, ideas, stories, and facts have a fascination to all three. From there they use their talents to weave together that wonderful thing known as a poem, a picture book, or a little known piece of history. The format does not matter… what matters is that authors are able to wake up our minds, soothe our hearts, help us understand our past, and resonate with our souls. Whether I am doing collection development for the district libraries or choosing a book for personal use, I will remember all that authors go through to create this gift!