J. C. Todd has been chasing images since childhood. Her poems have received awards from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Leeway Foundation, and Poetry Society of America. She teaches at Bryn Mawr College and in the MFA program at Rosemont and holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College.
For J.C. Todd, writing goes beyond observation and fragmentation. While reading “That Night and After,” a poem from the collection, “What Space This Body,” I was instantly pulled into her imagery and sense of nostalgia in her sensory details. I endeavored to find more about her creative processes.
Poet Robert Bringhurst has called your poetry, “not mere observations but observances.” How do you take a step beyond simply seeing and into something more? How do your observations become those observances?
When the brilliant Canadian poet, Robert Bringhurst, blurbed my first chapbook, Entering Pisces, he was teaching me art and craft as well as offering an estimate of the poems. Observation is, first off, paying attention, or as poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his journal in the 1850’s, “What you look hard at, looks hard at you.” By paying attention, I am initiating communication with what we observe. It reveals itself to me and I reveal myself to it. But when a writer acknowledges that observation is a sacred act, then her language opens to the ceremony or ritual of observation. That is observance. The words share a root, but, whereas observation might record a surface appearance, observance adheres to inherent form. Even when they seem wholly new and original, poems or any writings that are observances accept that they also are in relation to ancient rituals and designs. They are communicating with archetypal patterns.
Do you write with a target audience in mind, or purely for self-expression? Is it important for your writing to always reach an audience?
I don’t think of “my audience,” I think of listeners and readers. Poems, however, are performative; even when they are not read aloud, they are heard by the voice in the reader’s mind. So, there is an audience. I don’t think of an audience in early drafts when I am putting “the scene before my eyes” and following it, putting down details, feelings, associations. Paying attention to what I see and to what matters –that’s the preoccupation of early drafts. In later drafts, I’m exploring how this instance participates in and reveals a universal pattern. That’s when I think of the readers, of what they need to know and the order in which they need to know it to see what I see.
How do you know when a poem is complete and ready for publication?
I don’t know this; I feel it. When the poem is full to the brim without spilling over, when it holds its parts in perfect tension, then it is complete. But there are poems that I abandon when I’ve gone as far as I can go but it’s not far enough. These poems usually go into the drawer.
Would you describe your writing process as fluid or fragmented? Does your writing usually pour from you in a single sitting, or do you find that revisiting material over time allows your best work?
The first writing—not even a full draft—is a burst; after that I’m working to preserve the energy and impulse of the burst and follow it into something more beautifully crafted. My mother liked handwork—sewing, knitting, embroidery. She would rip out stitches that weren’t right. Getting it right gave her satisfaction and pleasure. Like her, I appreciate revision, even when it is ruthless, as a process of making art. Writing is not for the faint of heart.
What is the best advice you have ever had about how to be more creative?
Keep at it. Writing leads beyond the self.
Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?
I wrote rhymes as soon as I could spell, but the first poem was written in response to the battle of Triangle Hill during the Korean Conflict.
What inspired you to pursue poetry?
I came to poetry because there was nowhere else to go.
J.C. Todd will be teaching “Writing the Wild Blue Yonder: Following Image into the Unknown” A generative workshop for writers of all genres at the weekend Rosemont Writers’ Retreat on June 24-28.
Joe Kulka has illustrated more than twenty children’s books and has written and illustrated four of his own. His book, “Wolf’s Coming!” won the 2009-2010 South Carolina Picture Book Award, 2008 Wanda Gag Award for the Best Book to Read Aloud to Children, 2007 Bronze Medal Moonbeam Children’s Book Award, and was chosen as a best book and by School Library Journal in 2007. Joe provides some insight into his creativity and the logic behind writing and illustrating for children.
How do you keep your illustrations and stories new and exciting?
I am blessed/cursed (depending on your point of view) with a very fertile imagination. I have a lot of ideas that I think would make fun illustrations or good stories. I draw or write every single day. My sketchbook is my playground where I can draw out all sorts of bad ideas and try and convince myself with a little work they could become good.
Oh, and I steal. Profusely. If I see something I like, I steal it. Then I hide it, regurgitate it, add some seasonings and claim it for my own. Example – I love buying those big coffee table books “The Art of …” whatever cool animated movie just came out. I flip through the book and see how their characters are designed or the colors used for a particular background and I steal. I use a similar palette on a piece I am working on, or I’ll like they way they drew a tree trunk and I’ll draw my own in a similar fashion.
How do you keep from repeating yourself?
Having a pile of sketchbooks filled with various ideas helps. I have more ideas than I have time to get them all done.
Do your illustrations spark stories or do your stories spark your illustrations?
Both. I’ll sometimes write a story without doing a single sketch. Just sit down and type. Other times I’ll be sketching something and I add something weird to it and that sparks an idea for a story. Example – I was drawing a banana in my sketchbook and added a mustache to it. It evolved into a character Professor Banana that I’m toying around with now- trying to figure out how wrap a story around him.
What is the process behind your work?
Usually I’ll get an idea that I get all excited about and I’ll crank out a bunch of sketches or whip out a story. Then I’ll walk around patting myself on the back, telling myself what a genius I am. Then I put it away for a few weeks. Somehow a few weeks later I realize I’m not nearly as smart as I think I am. Usually the story is just awful or plain stupid.
Sometimes though I’ll get one that still seems pretty good but has rough patches that needs fixing. That’s when the real work begins and the heavy lifting of revision happens.
If I get it revised enough where I think it is good enough to send to my editor than I do so. If he likes it enough to offer feedback, then I usually revise some more. Happily this sometimes actually results in a sold manuscript. During this point I have most likely created a bunch of sketches of at least the main characters and a crucial setting or two. When the manuscript is finalized I then go about making a storyboard – a single sheet of paper with 32 little boxes containing rough sketches of each page. This allows me to see the entire book in one glance. I can now focus the pacing and flow of the book and make adjustments to the sketches. I may make a few tweaks to the text at this point – usually eliminating text that is not necessary because it is being shown in the illustrations. After the storyboard is finished I will do a dummy – much tighter sketches and final text in place. Lastly comes the process of creating the final illustrations. I may work in watercolors, gouache or oil paint. Mostly I have been working digitally using Corel Painter and a Wacom tablet as my virtual studio.
Some people believe that writing children’s stories is easy. In what ways do you think writing stories for a child is more, or just as, challenging as writing for an adult audience?
Sometimes writing a children’s story can be easy. You may occasionally be hit with a lightning bolt of an idea and knock out a great story in no time. 90 percent of the time that does not happen. The hardest part of writing for children is making sure the words you use are the best ones. Because the word count in a picture book is so small each word has to be correct. You also need to be aware of your audience. A lot of writing for older audiences takes for granted that there is a certain level of knowledge and understanding present in the reader. You can’t assume that with children. Most are not reading your book, rather it is being read to them.
While I never think you should talk down to children in your writing, you also need to be aware of what their level of understanding is. As adults we can reasonably assume that because Mr. Jones is wearing a different outfit on page 8 from the outfit he was wearing on page 4 he is still the same person. A young child may see that as two completely different characters. That is why you rarely see a character in a children’s book dressed differently.
Where does your inspiration come from?
My children provide inspiration for some ideas. There are things I recall from my own childhood which I like and think other children like too – like dragons – that inspire me.
I think most inspiration happens though when you are just paying attention to your surroundings. There always seems to be something happening that if you take the time to think about it could be a pretty good story. It might be as simple as hearing or better yet mishearing a fragment of a conversation in a restaurant or on a train.
How do you keep in touch with your inner child?
I have all kinds of toys in my studio. I have Ampy, my stuffed white gorilla, sitting here next to my computer staring at me. He was Hobbes when I was Calvin. I can also vividly recall some of the pains of growing up, the fears of being a child. I think remembering not only the good times as a child but the not so good ones helps when you write for children.
Your visits to elementary schools are described as, “motivating and encouraging.” In what similar ways do you hope to inspire writers at the Rosemont Writers’ Retreat?
Writing or drawing is a marathon, not a sprint. With decent health, it literally is something you can do your entire life. What you want to do is get the tools needed to become the best artist/writer you are capable of. When I teach, my philosophy is to focus on the positive and foster an encouraging atmosphere. It takes a great deal of personal courage to show your work to someone else. If you are in my class I will offer criticism of your work, but it will always be in a way that encourages you to push beyond where you are to what you can become.
Was there someone in your childhood who motivated you to create, or influenced you in your decision to become a children’s book writer?
I was very fortunate to be mentored by Robin Heller, a local illustrator where I grew up. I used to go to his studio every weekend from 7th grade through high school and see what he was working on as well as deliver my weekly illustration. This was where I realized I wanted a career as an illustrator. I also loved going to the library when I was young. I remember riding my bike there and spending hours reading and looking at various children’s books. In grade school I particularly loved the book, “Danny and the Dinosaur.” I recall thinking how neat it would be to have my own dinosaur or at least to be able to draw one in a book.
Joe Kulka will be teaching “Writing Children’s Picture Books” at the weekend Rosemont Writers’ Retreat on June 24-28.
Randall Brown is editor of Flashfiction.net, founder and editor of Matter Press (a community-based non-profit at Rosemont), was an editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, and has written a collection of short fiction called Mad to Live. Randall has over eighty flash fiction pieces available to read on his website www.randall-brown.com, and after reading my way through some of the list, I wanted to know more about flash fiction and how he packs so much power in so little of a story.
What stigmas or biases come with writing in the genre of flash fiction?
Some people equate the short time it takes to write a flash fiction piece with something “easy to do.” And it is hard to argue that it isn’t easy to finish a piece that might be a few hundred words. But it is harder to make it flash with brilliance.
What can flash fiction do for a reader that a novel cannot?
It can give you something complete & memorable in a single sitting.
Where would you encourage new flash fiction writers to publish?
There are very few journals that don’t accept flash fiction. Find a journal whose aesthetic you like and send them your best work.
Do you think websites like Twitter, where a writer is limited to 140 characters, helps or hinders flash fiction writers?
I think finding something other than “story” to use 140 characters for might be the challenge for writers who want to write Twitter fiction.
How do you choose which words are essential in a flash fiction story?
Reading the piece over and over again, trying to see what words I end up kind of “skipping” over.
Describe your writing process. How do you plan a flash fiction piece? Do you write it in length and eliminate, or do you limit yourself the very first moment you start writing?
I always set out to write a flash piece that is set against a word limit. It is often a title that comes to me first, some overheard snippet. I usually write not knowing what I’m writing about—and I write and rewrite to discover the story.
Randall Brown will be teaching “Fearless Flash Fiction” at the weekend Rosemont Writers’ Retreat on June 24-28.