I had a fantastic opportunity last week to speak as a guest author at Day 1 of the four-week San Antonio Writing Project. This University of Texas at San Antonio college course (in its 9th year) is offered in partnership with area school districts, and it serves as a vital resource for local educators in the arena of writing. I presented to a room of teachers at every level (kindergarten through college), and invited their questions and feedback. As with all creative fields, feedback is absolutely essential to professional and creative growth. And frankly, NO book is published successfully without the input of many!
One of SAWP's Core Principles (source) states:
"Knowledge about the teaching of writing comes from many sources: theory and research, the analysis of practice, and the experience of writing. Effective professional development programs provide frequent and ongoing opportunities for teachers to write and examine theory, research, and practice together systematically."
More simply put, WRITERS LEARN FROM OTHER WRITERS, no matter their level. I suppose that with just one self-published book, I am a novice writer myself, so I handled my invitation to this program with great respect and care. There was no prompt or recommendation for my presentation - I was simply kicking off 4 weeks of collaboration through workshops.
It seemed most natural to share my unusual path to becoming a writer, as well as my design process in creating Big Mo.
For many aspiring writers, there is a fairly clear path to get from Point A (birth) to Point B (published book) - something like this:
Yet, the journey to becoming a children's author and illustrator was not so linear for me. Imagine more branches poking out of the milestones above, and remove the "English Degree", "Finding Agent" and "Finding Publisher" steps entirely. And if I'm being honest with myself, remove "Bestseller" for the time being :)
Rather than follow this traditional route, I learned by doing, which is something I picked up working in the field of architecture.
Now, if I ignore the fact that I went to college to become an architect, and try not to think too much of the future, what I'm left with is my upbringing in art and literacy. It is those formative years that interest me - basically, the time between holding a pencil and learning QWERTY, when I looked like this (and no, that's not a wig helmet):
In those days, "writing" consisted of scribbles that only I could read. Abstract illustrations resulted when strokes of crayon broke beyond the bounds of coloring book lines. Everything was an experiment - lessons in cause and effect - in the way that every child learns from serendipity and lack of expectation. Gradually, words gained structure and clarity, and lines became tighter and intentional, but I never lost the sense of exploration that comes from creating an original work.
After my presentation, one of the SAWP professors approached me about her own daughter, asking "how were you nurtured to become a writer when you were young?" It was a great question, and one that I sadly did not have time to answer before my visit expired. I've thought about it since - wondered why a woman who teaches writing in a professional capacity was asking ME how to encourage her child to grow in writing. Was it something learned? Brute force and repetition? Summers spent with my nose in books? Was it architecture school?
Ironically, it took stepping into a college setting once again for me to realize that while the structure of writing must be taught, the passion for writing is fostered outside the classroom.
To the professor's question, I would say that a motley combination of interests and activities has led me to write. Many were directly relevant to my current career: My mother was an English teacher, so reading and writing were prioritized in my household. I took college-credit English and Writing courses early, and acted as Editor-in-Chief for my high school literary magazine. I participated in art galleries and contests, and stayed up all night on weekends painting with acrylics for fun. Still, beyond the sometimes contrived setting of school-related activities, there was so much more to be fascinated by and learn from.
An appreciation for the natural world has guided me always, instilling a sense of delicacy to my creative disposition. To capture that world, my mother ensured that I always had film in my camera and a pen to write with. Trips to the library or bookstore were not reward - they were routine. My father encouraged my siblings and I to always ask a lot of questions. Turns out, a natural (or forced!) curiosity only helps when it comes to the necessary research phase of writing. And of course, my university education in Architecture taught me to make connections and find meaning in my environment. I learned to SEE, and in seeing, there is a limitless bounty of inspiration for writing.
If you prefer the nutshell version -
My creative passion won out over a professional path in architecture. If that slow-acting decision results in stories that encourage or inspire the next budding writer, it's just icing on the cake.