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A Major Consideration

If you go back to yesterday’s interview, you’ll remember Donna McDine talking about having started her career in magazines and then being drawn to children’s picture books. She said, “This experience of changing gears has very much been like going to college with a mindset on one major and then changing to another.”

I found that statement a good analogy. I’ve been through a couple of universities in my day, and knew few students that didn’t change their major at least once. Some never really chose one at all, but kept shifting from department to department searching for themselves. Of course, part of that may have been due to outside influences. However, sooner of later most of them settled into one disciple or another. The question about writers and choosing one genre over another is WHY?

Some of my friends were discussing this very thing not long ago. The conversation centered on someone saying that when she was young, she, more or less, wouldn’t have touched a biography with anything other than a stick, a long one. They didn’t interest her, didn’t call to her.

I could relate. I’d never liked biographies particularly, not because of content so much as because my reading emphasis during my growing up years had been vintage sf and fantasy and adult level books. They were what was available to me. That and the classics.

Example: My dad came home beaming and proud one night when I was 13. He carried a box that he’d bought at an auction that night (we went to auctions a lot for the entertainment value and they were free, too). He presented the box to me as if it contained the mightiest treasure in the world.

When I looked inside, I knew he was right. He’d bought me three sets of books. The small  pocket-sized collection of American classics, the same sized set of American classic poets, and a complete set, including sonnets, of Shakespeare. I thought I’d died and he’d brought in my funeral gifts early. I was in my ancient history phase at the time.

Later, since I knew I was going to a write sometime in the future, I read only adult books. I never saw Narnia until in my forties. I never read LOTR until my fifties. (I know, slow on the uptake sometimes.) I hadn’t read Gulliver’s Travels until university. But I could quote Hawthorne, Melville, Ibsen, Tolstoy, and Whitman. (I don’t think I could do that now, by any stretch of the rubber band. I haven’t gone back over them in too long.)

I discovered children’s books in my late forties, during my impressionable period. A person does that when sitting in first grade with 22 six-year-olds. The impression gets ingrained during second grade exposure, and becomes an addiction by the third grade renaissance. I had fallen in love with Amelia, and a caterpillar, who was quickly followed by a Toad and a Frog. I began writing my own stories for the kiddies and had a blast. They loved it, too. That’s when the addition came on me with a vengeance.

In truth, I didn’t get around to the dreaded biography until this past year when I was researching something totally unrelated. I found Nirvana and I wasn‘t even looking. For three weeks I couldn’t get enough of them until the feeling began tapering off. I discovered in myself a vast chasm calling out for backfill.

It seemed it didn’t matter what the subject or form took so long as I could read it. I wondered briefly why my mind was filling itself with so much information, impression, context. Why did it need so much and so fast, I wondered. I didn’t get an answer. Sometimes, there just isn’t one evidently.

What I did learn, however, was that through exposure when not related to a primary goal of learning, a person (in this case, me) could find great satisfaction in something previously avoided at penalty of death. I also discovered that I had a capacity for pure pleasure in learning just about anything. Who knew?

Was this my child-self coming to the foreground and taking the reins? Suddenly I could see a commercial on television and have a storyline pop into my head. Music had always been a creative trigger, but now all types of extraneous bits of sensory input held sway with the light switch in my brain. But, perhaps, the most important thing I learned was that I could use some of the most odd-ball information in my stories to pull and push characters, weave plots, create backstory, you name it in a way that used otherwise pointless information collected. I think that’s some of what Donna alluded to yesterday.

Magazines can cover more territory that a USGS cartographer. There is no limit to subjects allowed for articles to calm the non-fiction beast that resides in every child. Stories take much less time to write than a book. Yet, a deeper call resounded for Donna and for many others. 

Donna came to a point where something clicked. Picture books are one of the most difficult things to write well. The restrictions are many and varied, depending on the publisher and the age group. However, subject matter is as wide open as the writer wants to make it.

Fiction or non-fiction. It doesn’t matter in most of these early books because they need equal treatment in most instances. The non-fiction must be creative and stimulating as well as carry information the young child can grasp. Fiction also has to teach something as well as be creative and stimulating. In some respects these small pieces of literature carry the same criteria as magazine pieces, but the difficulty and responsibility are entirely different.

Did Donna make a good choice? I’d say so. Her first picture book comes out this spring. She must have written it very well since getting a PB manuscript optioned is difficult at best. Has it changed her, this shift in major? Probably, in some fundamental career facets. I’d also say that she’s happy doing what she’s doing.

So, are you contemplating a career shift to a new major? Can you see yourself doing something different. Why? Why not? Consider the possibilities. There’s no law that says you can work in only one area of concentration. Look at Patterson, Clancy or Grisham. Two jobs, two arenas. Lots of fun.

Tomorrow, we’ll be hearing from Mikki Sadil about her adventure in writing and other things. Please stop by and take a listen.

A bientot,


Categories: Writing and Poetry
  1. January 13, 2010 at 7:33 am

    I do like the way you draw your conclusions, Claudsy. The path is difficult, but if you love it, it makes no difference. And when you love something, the hours seem to fly by, as opposed to those drudging hours of doing something for any other reason.

    ~ Yaya
    Yaya’s Changing World

  2. January 13, 2010 at 10:15 am

    Hi Claudette…Terrific post. I’ve enjoyed reading about your insights.

    Best wishes,

    • claudsy
      January 13, 2010 at 3:07 pm

      I don’t know whether its insight or a matter of taking experience to heart. But thank you.

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