Ask an Author: Tim J. Myers
Tim Myers is a writer, songwriter, storyteller, and university senior lecturer in English. He has published 14 books for children including Basho and the Fox, Basho and the River Stones, Rude Dude’s Book of Food, The Furry-Legged Teapot, Good Babies: A Tale of Trolls, Humans, a Witch, and a Switch, Tanuki’s Gift: A Japanese Tale, Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe, If You Give A T-Rex a Bone, and Looking for Luna. Tim's placed numerous pieces in top children's magazines (Cricket, AppleSeeds, Storyworks, New Moon). His writing has won a number of awards and honors, including a short stint on The New York Times bestseller list for children's books and adaptations of his works for drama and dance.
You can reach his website here: www.timmyersstorysong.com
1. What is your process for finding and choosing a good story to tell? On one hand, this question can be about rewriting traditional stories, which I do regularly. I'm a professional storyteller, so I love nothing better than learning folktales, myths, and the like from other people and other cultures. And that's actually pretty much the gist of it: I'm continually seeking out traditional stories anywhere I can find them, and if one speaks to me in a powerful way, I'll consider re-telling it. But the impact has to be pretty strong—mainly because I'd almost always prefer to recreate a story through telling than rewriting. I tend to rewrite only if I have something particular to add, something that goes with the grain of the story but is also a worthy addition to it. A number of my picture books are what I call "unique retellings." And of course this is something storytellers around the world have been doing for centuries.
The root of creating your own stories, it seems to me, is learning to cultivate your openness and awareness. It's easy for any of us to slip into a state of mental and/or emotional inertia, particularly if we work hard at our jobs, at caring for our families, or are also carrying other burdens. And also simply because it's a basic human tendency to take ordinary things for granted. But the thing is, there really are no ordinary things.
You get up in the morning, stumble toward the bathroom, fix breakfast, whatever—and yet you're an evolved organism living and breathing on an atmosphere-wreathed globe of rock amid other such globes circling a gargantuan ball of plasma and burning gas. Or maybe snow is falling around your house, and every single flake is different from every other, with a pattern-variety dating back billions of years. Or a mockingbird sings a few notes at the window, beauty in intense aural form up out of a tiny feathered throat, and you don't even notice you heard it.
My inspiration comes first and foremost when I wake myself to where I am, to all that's happening around me, to the true moment-by-moment nature of my own being.
2. Do you use any outside help to find good ideas? I don't do that in any conscious specific way. In fact, the only specific search for material I do tends to be sometimes googling for jokes on the web. (Wow—I've gone and revealed how plagiaristic I am!). But of course, given my answer above, it's clear that each of those things and more can inspire me.
For example, my picture book Full of Empty was entirely inspired when a wonderful co-worker of mine told me her young daughter was acting sad; when they asked her why, she said she was just "full of empty." That moved me, and I built a story around it. I've written any number of things based wholly or in part on dreams; I pay close attention to dreams, and regularly record mine. When it comes to the world around me and the art I encounter—since those things are almost like food to my spirit, so, since I'm constantly consuming them, I actually come to BE what they are, in a sense. And that comes out in my work. My three years in Japan, for example, led me to write five picture books, one of which became, I'm happy to say, a New York Times Bestseller in children's books. 3. How do you determine the age of your audience?
I think this is a fascinating question, even though it may seem relatively unimportant to many. I think it takes us right to the heart of human nature, which may be the single most fascinating thing in the universe. What are the actual differences between a child, an adolescent, and an adult? Children aren't as simple and obvious as many people suppose. They're more than capable of deep thinking, deep emotion, deep awareness, and many other supposedly "adult" qualities. (Maurice Sendak spoke eloquently about this). So my awareness of age-level—in early drafts, I mean—can vary quite a bit. Sometimes I ignore it altogether—and sometimes I only have a vague notion that the work in question is for kids as opposed to grown-ups, or vice versa. I've even written things exclusively for kids or adults that ended up being for the other group! Suffice it to say that I take my writing for children every bit as seriously as my writing for older readers. And in my writing for children, even though I often focus on the funny or the fun, I also regularly focus on deeply serious things, like my upcoming Cricket story "Nagano Apples," which is about nuclear war.
I'm not saying that any piece of writing is appropriate for any age-group; that would be silly. But changes I make to a serious story for younger readers are generally a matter of presentation, not content. Often enough I'm pushing the boundaries of what some people may think is appropriate for kids. But then, when I write for adults, I sometimes push those boundaries, too—for example, including more elements of fun or fantasy, or trying to evoke emotion and vulnerability in older readers, that is, working in more "child-appropriate" elements.
What all my writing has in common, whatever the age-level, is that I try to speak to the deep humanity in my audience, and that really doesn't vary with age. A three-year-old, just like a sixty-year-old, is a human heart trying to make its way in the world. And I love all of us for that. 4. What is your revision process like? One of the great writer sayings is quite simple: "Writing is rewriting." When I do school visits, I often get my kid-audiences to chant this line (and regularly hear passionate gratitude from their teachers!). It's a simple "butt in chair" kind of thing. Ezra Pound makes the point that good technique simply shows the writer's sincerity; you can achieve it through dedication and hard work, i.e. revision. So I work very, very hard at revising. (One of the best ways to do that, by the way, is to read your work aloud).
But that makes revising sound like it's a grind, or at best a chore—and nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, most writers will tell you that revising is a relief after drafting, because you're out from under the pressure to create. Making things up, as easy as it may sound, is a drain on one's system; it's not only very hard work, but it's something like those people who get up on stage and get a hundred plates spinning atop poles. I mean, you've got to keep ALL this different stuff moving in your head at the same time!
So revising is easier, relatively speaking. And it's another sign of a true writer that he or she actually enjoys revising. I'm sure some writers don't, and it is, in fact, hard work. But putting words together is what we do. It's our thing. Loving it means we love what we do. When I'm revising, time flies at a remarkable pace.
I read about a famous writer who was asked by a young person, Do you think I could make a good writer? The famous writer said, I don't know. How do you feel about sentences? If you understand that answer—if you have plenty to say on the topic of sentences—you've probably got the makings of a writer.
And how to tell when it's done? Isn't it funny that that's even a question? But in fact it's a very good one, and at times hard to answer. Sometimes I just sense it—especially if I've come up with a good ending (which is really hard to do). And sometimes I follow Valery's (paraphrased) point that "A poem is never finished; it is merely abandoned." 5. What is your favorite genre in the kid lit world, and why do you think kids love it? I can't pick a single one, because I love lots of different kinds of writing. But a couple of things jump out at me. There's nothing quite like funny, for example Bob Shea's fantastic Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great. And kids love funny for the same reason the rest of us do: not only because it feels so good, but also, it seems to me, because it's a way of feeling at home in the world, feeling the goodness of life, feeling blessed in a small temporary way. Besides, humor writing often has important satirical or other points to make.
I also love fantasy/science-fiction themes—what I call "transrealism"—partly because that mode allows us to look at our own real lives through the lens of highly-imagined scenarios. If well-written, this kind of writing is both enjoyable and insightful. I think kids—and older readers—find deep satisfaction in that too, or at least sense it. 6. If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to yourself as a brand new writer? It's amazing to me how obedient I was as a kid. Don't get me wrong; I think kids should be obedient. But in that early-60s world I grew up in, it was emphasized so much that it kind of robotized a lot of us. When I started writing, I had this sense that I had to learn all the rules and follow them assiduously. Again, don't get me wrong; many a rebellious young artist tries to reject all the "rules" and ends up confused over why he or she failed, and then—if still in the game—either has to reinvent the wheel or, guess what? Learn the rules.
But official dictates in art are, as the joke goes, more guidelines than rules. And some are bogus, or simply don't apply to a particular artist. Picasso was a model for artists; he began by mastering traditional painting, then branched off into his own forms. He learned the rules, thereby earning the right to break them. So my early obedience was good in that sense. But for way too long I followed rules that didn't even make sense to me. Over time I learned that "rules" in art should be looser and more personally chosen, and I began to do that myself. And as just one example, back then I didn't realize a serious book could have humor in it too.
So my advice to myself would be, Listen to your elders; learn your craft. Then make your own way. 7. What websites, blogs, or books would you recommend to a new writer? There are lots of great ones in all three categories, but I'd especially recommend two.
First, the SCBWI website. If you want to write for young people, you should join SCBWI—MORE than worth the yearly dues. And they even made the site better recently. This is the national organization, and serious writers should be part of it. It's chock-full of all kinds of resources and relevant information for writers at any level.
Second, I learned more than I could ever say from Peter Elbow's book Writing Without Teachers. Ironically, this book taught me more about writing than about teaching—and I learned plenty from it as a teacher. Which says a lot about Peter Elbow's profoundly "hands-on" approach to writing. 8. You’re a shapeshifter now! If you could turn into any animal, what would it be and why? No contest on this one! A hummingbird. I'm not fully sure why this creature appeals to me so profoundly, but it does. I've adopted the Nazca hummingbird as my personal symbol and colophon.