Judy Blume and Lin Oliver kicked off Saturday with a wide-ranging and honest conversation about the joys and challenges of storytelling, and the importance of keeping it real. Some highlights from their delightful conversation follow below.
Blume sometimes wishes she'd had a children's lit community like SCBWI. She started out as a young mother and wife, though "I never considered myself a housewife." The "inciting incident" that prompted her writing career? Blume says she was just "desperate for a creative outlet", so she wrote. She started out with a "terrible" rhyming picture book called "You, Mom, You" -- that she also tried to illustrate. While You, Mom, You didn't exactly work out, Judy Blume, children's author, was on her way and did not look back. She joined a writing class at NYU, where she was fortunate to have a supportive teacher, and read and read. Books like Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by. E.L. Konigsberg inspired her to write novels. Blume went through two years of rejections before her first book, Iggy's House, was sold. "Determination is as important as talent," said Blume. During that period of rejection, "I was always writing." She sat at the kitchen table, wrote, submitted, got rejections, cried, and wrote some more.
Blume, who says her editor Dick Jackson would tell her "You know more than you're showing me," in first drafts, pointed out that she never starts actually writing "until it's been percolating for a long time...months to years, even." She lets her stories simmer. She's a big believer in notebooks. "I never approach writing a book without a notebook." Each of her books has a notebook, where she jots down everything about character, setting, dialogue, any and everything that comes to mind. She tells young people that the writing process is a bit like creating and putting together a jigsaw puzzle -- making the pieces, painting and colouring them, putting them together. "My mind is messy...it's cluttered," she added. While she occassionally does some planning and light outlining (for books like Blubber and the later Fudge stories, for example), she loves being surprised by the writing process. When Oliver asked if she had an inner critic, Blume answered: "Do you know any writer who isn't incredibly insecure?" She reflected on her early career where she was less self-conscious "because I didn't know anything" and more recent times, when "I can write my own bad reviews." Inner critic or no, Blume is adamant that they can't be around during the writing process. "You have to write without fear," she said. That fearlessness and authenticity are a hallmark of Blume's storytelling. "You have such an incredible honesty," said Oliver. Blume said that she told herself early on to be honest. As a child, she'd hated when adults kept secrets from children, and vowed to tell the truth in her stories. To write with emotional honest, "you have to dig...put yourself inside" your memories, and engage all of your senses as you do. "When you write for kids...you have to really be on their side."
"When you write for kids...you have to really be on their side."
Blume, now a bookstore owner (Books and Books in Key West, FL), encourages all writers to "read, read, read, and read" to learn and be inspired. She acknowledged that while she has often been able to use humor to write about difficult topics, the pain and unrest of the current moment can make it hard to be inspired. "I have always been able to write through the worst times," but Judy Blume has struggled to create over the last few months. Oliver added that sometimes writers have to "forgive ourselves" and other times "discipline ourselves." When writing about challenging or "uncomfortable" topics, Blume advises not to start with the issue, but with "character, approach it from inside of your character." Blume, whose books, like Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, have been challenged and seen as "controversial" by some, added that writers have to knock both the critic and the censor from their shoulders. Reading, she points out, "helps us get to know one another." Writers should primarily "tell the best story you can tell...and it's going to work sometimes." Blume feels fortunate that she entered. the business in ignorance, and advises writers not to think, but "just go for it, write...get into your own story, your own characters," to "get into the zone." Oliver agreed that that type of losing self-consciousness and inhabiting the story is key to success, and the enduring success of Judy Blume's body of work is certainly a testament to that.