Welcome to Selene Castrovilla's blog!

I'm an author spreading the words. Read about my books at www.SeleneCastrovilla.com

Friday, November 11, 2011

Guest Blog Friday with Author Susan Taylor Brown!!!

Welcome to Guest Blog Friday!!!

Today we have the lovely Susan Taylor Brown, who I met early in my career (not that it's so late now, lol - but I was pre-published then.) Susan was so giving and gave me great writing advice. It's my pleasure to host her now, and pass her words to you.

Susan Taylor Brown is the author of the award-winning middle grade verse novel Hugging the Rock, the picture books Oliver’s Must-Do List and Can I Pray With My Eyes Open?, and the non-fiction books Robert Smalls Sails to Freedom and Enrique Esparza and the Battle of the Alamo. In addition, Susan has published 44 books for the educational market, including 39 ESL books for the International market. More than 200 of Susan’s articles and stories have appeared in magazines for children and adults. She has served on the faculty for the Highlights Foundation Chautauqua Conference, is a former newspaper columnist for the New Orleans Times Picayune and past instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature. Susan has been the recipient of several grants from the Arts Council Silicon Valley, which allowed her to be Writer-in-Residence for the San Jose Alternative Schools At-Risk program and to teach poetry to incarcerated teens.

She lives in San Jose, California, with her husband Erik, her German Shepherd Cassie, and more than 8,000 books. When she's not writing or reading, she's probably working in her art journal or puttering in her native plant garden.

Did you always feel a passion for writing? What did you do to nurture your talents?

Many years I was told that I could probably have a good career in writing, under one condition. I had to get out of my own way. 25 some odd years later I'm still trying to figure out how to do that.

I've always sort of envied those writers who say they knew they wanted to be a writer from the time they learned to write their name on wide ruled paper in school. I thought I couldn't  be a "real writer" because I couldn't pinpoint a time in my  childhood that I knew had influenced my path to writing. The thing is, I wrote poetry for fun. English was easy for me because I loved to read and I loved to write. Because I was good at it, I got good attention. Which of course encouraged me to keep on writing.  All through junior high and high school I wrote in spiral notebooks. Love poems to boys I liked. Hate poems to people that made me mad. But it was just something I did. I never thought I could actually make money at it or look at it as a career option until my first child was born. I had tried all sorts of home businesses with zero success. One day I was walking around the block with a friend, both of us pushing babies in strollers, and my friend asked me what I would do if I didn't have to worry about making any money at it and I didn't hesitate for a moment before I said I would write. She pointed out that I might as well be doing what I wanted since it was obvious all the other things I was trying weren't making any money either. After we had a good laugh I realized she was right and I enrolled in a writing class the next week.

But long before that first class I was always scribbling down poems so I like to think all my writing has sprung from my poet's heart.

What was your first published book? How did that come about, and how long did it take to get published?

I took a twisty road to getting books published, selling some that never ended up in print, selling to foreign publishers which meant I couldn't even read my own book once it was published, and selling to a couple of books to a not-that-great small press that quickly went out of business. So I like to think of CAN I PRAY WITH MY EYES OPEN? as my first published book because it met the all important criteria that I had come up with - it was in English by a respected publisher (Hyperion) , you could get it in a bookstore, and you could find it in a library.

Some stories take longer to write than others. CAN I PRAY WITH MY EYES OPEN? took over 25 years. The idea for the story came from a frustrating conversation I had with a minister when I was about ten-years-old. We had differing views on prayer, including whether or not it was okay to pray with your eyes open. That phrase, that future title, stuck in the back of my mind for over 25 years. I can't say what it was that pulled it back to the front of my mind again, but when I sat down to write it, it came out nearly complete in a few hours. That's not because I'm such a terrific writer, but because my subconscious had been working on it for me for so many years. This book was a true gift.

It was actually one of the quickest book sales I've had. Once it got to my agent it sold in a couple of months and stayed in print for ten years.

What comes first in a book for you? Do you feel a voice wanting to tell you a story, or a plot formulating...or something else?

I am a character driven writer and plot scares the heck out of me. Truly. There might be a subject that interests me and I'll start researching it to learn more but I'm not thinking it's a book yet. It's just an exploratory adventure. I kick around in the research and you know how it goes, once you buy a blue Honda, everywhere you go you see a blue Honda. Well the research does that for me. Eventually I'll start to hear a voice in my head. (Some writers see pictures, I hear voices.) Some characters just pop in and out and don't stay around very long at first. I jot down what they want me to know and then move on. Some characters practically haunt me, to the point that I have missed my exit on the freeway more than once.

But hearing the character's voice in my head isn't the same as getting the voice on the page and that's what it takes for me to really feel like a book is coming to life. I have to write a lot of pages that I know will be tossed just to try and find that voices. Lately I've been playing with writing letters to my characters and having them answer me. It helps me find their voice. You can read some of the examples here:

What is your work ethic? Do you write every day? Do you write more once you get immersed in a story?

I work at some kind of writing every day. Except when I don't.

Because I always have several projects going at once it is easier to project hop when I am struggled but I'll be honest and say that I have had some long dry spells where I couldn't write at all. And nothing is more miserable than being a writer who isn't writing unless you're the poor soul who has to live with the writer who isn't writing. When I hit a patch like that this year I decided to try something different. Instead of beating myself up and calling myself names I decided to give myself a month off. As one friend pointed out to me, there was a huge difference between not working because I decided not to work or not working and kicking myself about it. So I took the month of March off. I told myself I couldn't write, even if I wanted to. And I dedicated myself to a month of play. I had been wanted to spend more time making art so that's what I did.

(You can read all about it in my poem-a-day project I did for National Poetry Month where I tried to distill that month of play into the lessons I had learned.

But yes, once I am immersed in the story it is easier for me to write more, lose all track of time, forget to eat. Except when I don't.

You gave me a magnet which says: “Write where it hurts. Find the courage to create.” What inspired you to help other writers with this message? (It certainly helped me.) What does “courage” in this context mean to you?

Until recently I have always written/created from a place of pain and used my writing to help me make sense out of my world. I don't think I'm alone with that thought. I know how very hard it is sometimes to sit down and write just a single sentence about an incident in your past that has caused you pain. Some of your best stories might be waiting for you there but you have to be brave enough to plunge yourself into the memory and draw out that pain and then smear it all over the page for the world to see. I want to help others find that courage to tell their stories because I believe that it is in the storytelling and in the artmaking that we find the healing that we need. Sometimes it is simply cathartic to revisit old wounds and exorcise them by telling the story with a different ending. Sometimes it gives you the opportunity to be heard when you weren't before. Sometimes it is just that the more you tell the story, the more it becomes about the story and less about you so the pain or the fear or whatever is that was holding you back seems to loosen and you are free.

All creating, writing or music or art, all creative work demands courage from the creator. In order to write believable stories we often have to be willing to bleed on paper. Go ahead and let yourself be scared. Let yourself feel every emotion - the pain, the anger, the longing, the laughter, the love. Let it bubble up until it boils over and then pour it into your writing. Rollo May, in his book Courage to Create, says, "If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also, you will have betrayed your community in failing to make your contribution."

Because of who you are and what you have experience, there are stories only you can tell. Feel the fear, dig deep and start writing.

Does the process get any easier for you?

Ha! Don't I wish! Every book is different. Every poem is different. When an idea is new, I follow it everywhere. I read all I can about it. I am its best friend. But then along comes another idea and I am head-over-heels in love with it, obsessed with it, writing its name all over my current notebook. I am an idea jumper and whichever one is promising me a good time, that's where I go. Which means I have a whole lot of partially finished books and poems and essays. Over the years I have learned more about my particular process and that's that each project will unfold differently.

I used to beat myself up because I didn't work on my writing the same way other people did. I knew lots of people who picked a project, started it and then worked on it until it was done. I thought that was what I had to do in order to be a successful writer. Well I tried. I tried and tried and tried and I just couldn't do it. My brain didn't operate very well that way. I found that some days I was okay working on just one project and other days I got bored or stuck or just wasn't in the mood but when I switched to another project, it was full speed ahead. I have finally (mostly) accepted that this is my process.

Sometimes I have to make myself stay in the room with a particular project because I'm on deadline but sometimes I can follow the words wherever I want to, just because they make me feel good.

What has gotten easier is the confidence that once I have something down on the page, a crummy first draft, that I can fix it. I adore the revision process.

What are five words you would use to describe the writing process?

Joy. Pain. Needs more chocolate.


  1. Thanks so much for giving me a chance to be heard over here, Selene!

  2. Apologies if this eventually shows up as one of several comments! Just wanted to be sure to say I loved the interview questions, Selene, and of course also enjoyed Susan's very personal replies. Lots to think about! My favorite part is the "Write where it hurts" discussion, as I think that must be the basis of all stories (uplifting or not). We need that PROBLEM, after all!

  3. Susan, Thanks for such thoughful answers!

    Lisa, yes, "Write where it hurts" is at the heart of it all. Don't athletes say, "No pain, no gain?" Sounds like the same concept - except our pain is emotional, not physical.

    Every day I summon the courage to create. I have that magnet right on the fridge to remind me! Thanks again, Susan!

  4. Yikes, you know I'm tired when I spell "thoughtful" wrong. Too exhausted to think, lol. Please excuse the typo!

  5. I have always loved reading Susan's letters to her characters. And her father letters. And seeing her artwork, and hearing about her classes with incarcerated teens and getting glimpses into her native garden and even her home remodeling projects. Yep! Susan moves from one project to another and all of it is creative and alive and inspiring to me!

    Thanks, Selene. Thanks Susan. Loved getting a little more Susan Taylor Brown history here!