Look. This job is hard sometimes. Or maybe all the time. The crushing self-doubt. The fear of disappointing people. The yawning mouth of ambivalence, swallowing you whole. The financial worries. The lack of stability. The deadlines. The atrocious posture (and don’t even get me started on my chewed-up nails). The ever-growing list of ways and means and rubrics by which one can fail. Or have failed. Or will have failed forever. Yes, I get to make my own hours. Yes, I get to work from my comfortable home office while keeping company with my geriatric and anxiety-prone dog. Yes, I can go hours and hours in blissful silence. Still. This job is hard. And sometimes it weighs on me.
I had a conversation with one of the kids at the Lego tournament yesterday. She’s on one of the few girls from our school involved in First LEGO League, and even though she’s not in my particular team, she always likes to keep me looped in on her comings and/or goings.
She also likes to tell me – each time we talk – that she liked Iron Hearted Violet. A lot. So of course, I love her to pieces.
Yesterday, during some down time, she asked this question: “Do you think I should be a writer when I grow up?”
And I, being as I have been lately, in a bit of a trough, self-effacacy-wise, gave her what I thought was very sagely advice: “You know, honey,” I said. “My job kind of stinks sometimes. Or most of the time. I think you should pick a better job when you grow up. Like being a CEO. Or possibly ruling the world. Or being a CEO who secretly rules the world. There are lots of options.”
She gave me a skeptical look. She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. “I think you are not telling very much truth right now,” she said.
“I am telling so much truth right now,” I responded. “I am the truthiest dang thing you ever saw.”
“Your job can’t always stink. There must be some good parts in it.”
“It is true that I get to drink a lot of hot cocoa,” I allowed.
“See?” She said. And she looked so smug about it that I followed with:
“BUT! Every day I look at the same bit of writing. And I think to myself this may be good and it may be terrible and I have no way of knowing either way. And the worst part is that most of the time it is terrible. Like ALMOST ALL THE TIME. And that’s necessary. You have to write the terrible stuff in order to get to the good stuff. But that means that you spend a lot of time – oh, honey! so much time! – writing really, really, really, really terrible sentences. And it weighs on a person, you know?”
She shook her head. “It’s not that terrible.”
“Oh yes,” I said. “It is.”
But she wasn’t having it. “What is in your book right now?”
“A dragon,” I said. And, in spite of myself, I smiled. “A very, very small dragon that can fit in your pocket. He is a particular breed, called Perfectly Tiny Dragons, and while they are a noble breed with a long and glorious history, this particular dragon suffers from delusions of grandeur, and thinks that he is not Perfectly Tiny at all, but is, in fact, a Simply Enormous Dragon, and is surrounded by giants. He is also a fraidy cat, and often accidentally burps fire when he eats spicy foods.”
She crossed her arms. She is a straight-A fifth grader who likes to make jokes with Latin punchlines. She also REALLY enjoys being right. “There. You see? That part is good. What else?”
And so I started telling her the story of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, the book that is, right now, kicking me squarely in the behind, and being much more troublesome to pin to the page than I originally thought. Being sick for the entire month of November didn’t help, of course. But I’m so glad I had this conversation, because it made me realize something.
- This job is hard – of course, we already established that.
- Sometimes, it is easier than it should be to conflate my stress about a project with the project itself. In other words, my feelings of stress and anticipatory failure and woe-is-me-I’ll-never-get-it-right often have nothing whatsoever to do with the story itself. Or the words themselves. Or the sum of the sentences. It’s just really only how I’m feeling about me. And that’s troubling (and probably worth some more work along the way) but it is separate from the work. And that’s important to realize.
- Even when this job sucks (which is pretty often) it’s still pretty awesome.
And so, with this conversation in mind, I started making a list. If you are a children’s author, please feel free to add to it. If you are something else, send me a list specific to your profession.
REASONS WHY I DO THIS JOB
by Kelly Barnhill
- I have a desk covered in post-it notes. They say things like: “Dragon Digestive Systems: important?”, or “If a Sorrow Eater became a glutton for sorrow, would she have particularities and predilections in the type of sorrow she prefers? Would sorrow be like fine wine, with quality determined by region and soil and what have you?”, or “Research question: what kind of poisons are undetectable in tea?”
- I get to write stories with dragons in them. And with sasquatches in them. And swamp monsters and witches and possibly-sinister alchemists and firebirds who come to the rescue in the nick of time. I get to write about magic. Or sometimes I write about the real world and it feels like magic. Or I write about magic and it feels like the real world. I enjoy these things.
- I read things out loud. All the time. In the quiet of my house. And I belt it out. No other job would let me do that – except audiobook actor, but I think I would go mad inside a sound studio. This is better.
- Last week, I walked across my living room and dining room floor, pretending I was a six-limbed, large tailed swamp monster. I tried to make a muscle memory of how he would amble about – his slow-moving self. I don’t think there are any other jobs where this sort of activity ever feels somewhat necessary.
- My job allows me to have lots and lots of conversations with kids. They send me emails, or I talk to their classes and reading groups on Skype, or I visit their classrooms – sometimes I stay for a whole week! I like hanging out with kids. I find them delightful.
- When I talk to kids, and they know what I do – and they know that my work is for them – they assume that I like the same things that they like and they strike up all kinds of conversations with me. And they are right – I do like what they like.
- I truly believe – in my bones – that, in the life and development of a child, books matter. Stories matter. The conversations that we have around books and stories matter. Imagination matters. Play matters. And that they all are linked. We are in the business of building the structures of Mind that will shelter our readers now and in the future. We are in the business of making the maps to help to navigate their way. We are in the business of building the metaphors through which our readers will one day understand the world. Now, whether or not my books, in particular, matter is an open question. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t. That’s not for me to say. However, I like being part of an industry that is making things that matter. I like raising my voice for other books, by other people, that matter to me, and matter to my kids, and matter to the kids that I know. For all of us working in the field of children’s literature, there is, deep in our souls, the immutable fire of the True Believer. We are all, when it comes down to it, Literacy Evangelists, doing our part to bring the miracle of reading to children everywhere. We are preachers, prophets, and literary church ladies with tote bag full of books slung over one arm, and several pans of casserole and jello salad balanced on the other. We invite all, accept all, and embrace all. “A book for you,” we cry out to the world. “A book for you, and you, and you, and you.” And we mean it, too.
- I don’t just write for my readers – I write for me, too. And not just this me – the forty-one-year-old lady with three kids and a nice husband and a mortgage and a crummy minivan and a favorite pair of wool socks – I write for the other me, as well. The eleven year old me. The thirteen year old me. The me that I was. I write for her too. I write for her mostly, if you must know. Because I think my stories can help her. And I think my stories would make sense for her – and would help her make sense of the world. And I like helping.
- Words are good. Stories are good. Books are good. Okay fine. I guess I like my job.