Picture book author Tony Johnston has over 125 books for children in her repertoire! She was kind enough to speak at the 2011 Southern California SCBWI Writer’s Day and share her immense knowledge and insight. This was one of the most heartfelt talks I’ve ever been too. Johnston is passionate and moved by her responsibility as a writer.
The following notes were taken during her talk:
Where Do You Find Inspiration?
- “Keep alive to everything.” – N. C. Wyeth
- Bumble through life at the ready.
- “If I keep alive to everything, a story will find me.” –Tony Johnston
- “I have not exhausted the ground I stand on.” – N. C. Wyeth (on why he doesn’t need to paint the alps. There is plenty to see and explore where he lives.)
- Notice things more and more. Inspiration doesn’t always come from an emotional core.
- The LA Times is a great place to find stories.
Let the Feelings Catch You:
- “Be caught by feelings.”
- “Words from the heart, enter the heart.” (Saying in the Torah ??)
- Sentimentality is the cheapest lie.
- You don’t have to include significance and meaning to have a heartfelt moment in your book.
- Make ‘em laugh, but do it honestly.
- Heartfelt silliness is also an emotion.
- When writing about difficult subjects (like racism) remember that children don’t flinch. It is the grownups that flinch.
On Writing Picture Books:
- Keep it simple.
- “How difficult it is to be simple.” – Vincent Van Gogh
- Writing simply does not mean words must be short and easy. It should be the words that belong.
- “The difference between the right word and almost the right word can be the difference between the lightning and a lightning bug.” – Mark Twain
- Don’t slip into Cinderella’s Syndrome. Don’t try to fit a story into something that doesn’t fit. The glass shoe is the shape/structure of your story, if you try to force it, it will break.” Johnston’s example of this was a picture book that was really a novel, but she didn’t realize it till an editor pointed it out to her.
- Find the right form for your story.
- Listen to your editor.
- Don’t sentimentalize or trivialize.
- The process for every book is different.
The Essence of Childhood:
- Great picture books deal with the essence of childhood. Essence is the spirit, the pith, the heart of a story.
- The language of essences is clean, like an arrow, straightforward.
- “To the memory nothing is ever truly lost.” –Eudora Welty
- You must get back to the place where it hurts.
- “No tears in the writer. No tears in the reader.” –Robert Frost
Be Bold When You Write:
- Don’t play it safe. Writing is about risk taking!
- Writing is about sharing yourself.
- “Don’t hold anything back. Don’t hold anything for the next one (book). It’s the only way to write. It’s the only way to live.” – ?
Other Thoughts and Wisdom:
- Any small goodness is of value.
- We need to take time to halt our lives, become introspective, and focus on what is important to us.
- “It is in the early morning that I think about what I believe and want to say.”
- How do you write a novel? Hemingway’s answer: “First I clean the Fridge.” (He’s finding space to think).
- Johnston is a bit superstitious. She believes it is “spiritually healthy” to let her manuscript to “rub elbows” with other great books. Before she submits a manuscript she puts it on her shelf between other great books and lets the essence rub off onto her work.
- If you are in the middle of a cocktail party and inspiration strikes, politely say “I’m writing a novel, I’ll be right with you in a moment.” Then go and get out what you need to. “It is about the writing, not the cocktail party.”
Tony Johnston has written around 125 books for children. She studied under the renowned poet, Myra Cohn Livingston, and has taught creative writing at UCLA. Her awards include Honorary Texan for The Cowboy and the Black-Eyed Pea, Simon Wiesenthal Award for The Wagon, and the John and Patricia Beatty Award for Any Small Goodness.