Saturday, August 4, 2012

Keynote: Clare Vanderpool - Writing in the Crossroads: Where Craft and Creativity Meet

Clare Vanderpool won a Newbery Award for her first novel, MOON OVER MANIFEST, which is based on a real southeastern Kansas town where her maternal grandparents lived. The book was the first debut novel in more than 30 years to win a Newbery--sort of an amazing thing.

"The book coming out in the first place was the culmination of many years of trial and error for me," Clare said. "For me, that was the be-all and end-all."

She started writing in 1994, when her first child (of four!) was born. She was staying home with them. "Back then I had no gray hair or wrinkles and I could still fit into my pre-pregnancy jeans if I'd had a bad case of stomach flu, really held in my breath and didn't button the top button."

She was perpetually exhausted from parenting. Her best writing times happened a long stoplights and while stirring pots of macaroni and cheese, or even back-to-back episodes of "Sesame Street."

"If you're not scratching out writing time minute by minute, I don't think it should count."

Back then, she had a finished manuscript and a pile of rejection letters. Now, though, her kids are noisy teenagers, and she showed us a video of what her writing life is like--not exactly a picture of serenity, even if it's one of charm. And she has a published book, another on the way, and a Newbery on the shelf.

What has changed in the interim? She'll be forever associated with books she's loved. But what hasn't changed--the hubbub of family life.

Her kids and her characters both clamor for attention, and she finds herself in "the crossroads between life and art."

"I've learned there are these things called laurels and you can't rest on them."

Winning a Newbery "is a bit like having a baby ... if you didn't know you were pregnant."

She wrote for sixteen years before she was published, and she practiced voice, plot, character, conflict, pace, tempo, rhythm, layering, foreshadow, language.

"You really do have to put in the miles with blood, sweat, and tears," she said. "You're really not going to learn it until you try it."

Feedback was an important step, too. "Sometimes you think something's wonderful, and it's not. Sometimes you think something's horrible, and it's not."

Reading advice from other writers has been a factor. Flannery O'Connor's MYSTERY AND MANNERS is her favorite guide.

Eventually, she felt confident enough with craft to venture down the road of creativity. "For me, the closest thing I can compare it to is seeing something for the first time that happens in my story that I didn't have a part of."

"The sweet spot is the crossroads where craft and creativity meet," she says. "Those roads of craft and creativity can take us on great adventures, but we can also get a little lost if we don't know what we're about."

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