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Member Spotlight: Lesléa Newman

author Lesléa Newman and her book Joyful Song

Why is writing important to you and why do you think it’s an important medium for the world? Writing is how I make sense of the world–the world inside of me, the world outside of me, and the relationship between the two. Writing teaches the reader empathy, which is something the world is in dire need of right now. It’s important to read widely and discover worlds that are similar to yours and worlds that are different than yours. Hopefully by doing so, a reader will connect with others and realize that we all have a common denominator, and that is our humanness.

What are your tried and tested remedies to cure writer’s block? To me, even after all this time, the scariest thing in the world is a blank piece of paper. I often have no idea what to write next. Reading poetry is the best way I know of getting unstuck. After reading poetry by other writers, I may try an imitation, I may try a form, I may try free writing. Something will happen on the page, which may or may not amount to anything, but the important thing is to put words–any word–any words at all down on the page. Sometimes the writing doesn’t go well for a day, a week, a month or even longer. Then a spate of uninspired writing ends and something fruitful appears on the page as if by magic. But from decades of experience, I know it isn’t magic. I know if a promising bit of writing appears in my notebook on day 57, I needed the 56 days that preceded it to make this happen. In other words, nothing is wasted.

What is your favorite time to write? I love to write in the early morning before the day begins. I am lucky enough to have a writing studio in my home. I drift downstairs, drop onto my writing couch, and pick up my notebook and pen. My cat will hop up beside me, plaster herself against my thigh and start to snore. That’s my soundtrack. (She actually gets very restless if I don’t get to work, and it’s great to have another being holding me accountable). No one else in my family is an early riser. I embrace the quiet and let the writing begin.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received and would like to impart to other writers? I have been so very lucky to have wonderful and wise mentors throughout my life. Patricia MacLachlan, Newbery Award-winning author of “Sarah, Plain and Tall” and many other books, once said, “The title taps you on the shoulder and the first line takes you by the hand.” There is something very profound in that quiet statement that I come back to again and again. Allen Ginsberg told me writing is 33% inspiration, 33% respiration, and 33% perspiration. When I pointed out to him that only added up to 99% and asked, “Allen, what’s the missing 1%?” he answered, “Magic.” So it’s important to do your best while waiting for the magic. (Interestingly enough, one of Patty’s books is titled, “Waiting for the Magic.” Which I am sure is not a coincidence!)

What excites you most about being a writer in today’s age? What excites me about being a writer hasn’t changed since I started writing, more than 50 years ago. It’s thrilling to see words taking shape on the page and arranging themselves into a poem, a story, an essay, a novel, a picture book manuscript. It is such a wonderful feeling to be “in the zone” when the words take on a life of their own and just can’t come out of the pen fast enough. And then there’s the excitement of seeing a new book of mine for the very first time. Holding it in my hand, leafing through the pages. And there’s the excitement of connecting with readers and hearing what they have to say about the book. It’s particularly exciting and rewarding to see children responding to my work. It fills my heart with joy to witness a child connecting to something I wrote. I feel so lucky to be an author–it’s a very exciting profession!

Lesléa Newman’s Joyful Song: A Naming Story, illustrated by Susan Gal, is out now with Levine Querido.