Tag Archives: inspiration

My Kids Made Me a Writer


My four-year-old daughter’s voice was a whisper in the dark. I sat quietly on a chair next to her bed, vigil against monsters and other worries.

“Mommy,” she repeated, with some urgency. “I take care of unicorns.”

Of all of my children–indeed, of all children I’ve ever met–she is the one of whom I could believe that to be true. She cares fiercely. When she walks into room, she spots the older person in pain, the lonely child, the uncertain non-English speaker. She goes to that person without hesitation, and offers a blanket, a stuffed animal, a small hand on the shoulder. She also lives a fanciful life. There is no snark in her world. Her room is pink, and so are her sunglasses.

If there are unicorns, I know she will find them, and protect them.

When I tell people I am a writer, as well as a lawyer and mom, they express amazement. “Three kids?” they ask. “How do you find time?” Advice on writing while parenting tends to be dire. You’ll need to squeeze in writing during naptime, or while sitting in the carpool lane. Don’t have more than one child. Motherhood will exact a heavy toll on your creativity and mental energy.

The message is clear that motherhood is a hindrance to a writing career. I cannot deny that the challenges are real. My own days more closely resemble a seesaw than a balance beam. But today, I want to speak not of the burden, but of the gift.

The reality for me is that if I were not a mother, I would not be a writer. My first book grew out of that late night conversation with my daughter. The book I am writing now sprouted from my realization in mother/daughter book club that all girls want to talk about in fourth grade is friendship. It turns out I have a lot of thoughts on friendship and fourth grade, too.

I am inspired by them all the time—the things that frighten them, fascinate them, make them laugh. I eavesdrop shamelessly. I steal their vocabulary and syntax.

In addition to inspiring me, my children give me the will to write. I strive for clarity and honesty because I want to show them a truth about the world. My commitment to my kids keeps me going through the long nights of toiling away. I want to create something worthy of them.

Their presence in my life is also a good salve for the slings and arrows of writing. This is not an easy business, my friends. Knowing that I have these three young ones keeps me grounded, and a snuggle on the couch cures most ills.

I would imagine many of you who write for kids do it for the same reasons. As middle grade writers, our audience is not our peers, but rather, children—our own, or those in our lives, those in the world. And aren’t we lucky?

Kate Hillyer lives, writes, and mothers in Washington, D.C. She blogs here and at The Winged Pen. You can also find her at www.katehillyer.com, on Twitter as @SuperKate, and on her book blog, Kid Book List.





Writer’s Tools: Wisdom from a Third Grade classroom

UnknownOne of the things I love about school visits it that I get to go to classrooms all over the country and meet wonderful students and teachers. There are some comforting universals to a grade school classroom: a certain amount of clutter, a map, the alphabet along the wall. And then there are delightful surprises: a pet iguana, a stunning view of the wilderness, a reading loft, a tank of salmon fry to be released in a local stream, a flag flown by a student’s father over his army camp in Afghanistan. It’s a window into the thoughts and values of the community I’m visiting.

I recently visited a third grade classroom where I saw two student made posters on the wall. The first was titled Writer’s Tools in the Hand. Underneath was an illustrated list: paper, pencil, eraser, dictionary, word list, and illustration tools.Unknown-1
It was a good reminder to take a moment before I begin my writing session of the day to have all the tools I need at hand. I especially liked the word list idea. I know many teachers help their students brainstorm a list of likely words before they start a writing assignment to help them get started. Though I don’t need that technique, I have used a variation of it. Every writer has word habits, words or phrases that pop up more often than they should. I have about a half dozen that I lean on more than I should, so I make a word list of them and post it over my workspace to remind me to make stronger word choices and not lean over much on the familiar.
It was the second poster that really struck me though. It was titled: Writers’ Tools in the Head and Heart. The list included: thinking, good ideas, awareness, fun attitude, information, concentration, quiet or silence.
There are so many things to love about that list, and perhaps most importantly that writing well engages both the head and the heart. I love it that thinking comes before good ideas, an excellent reminder. Sometimes I have to think about a scene for days, even months, before I have a good idea about how to fix it.
    Awareness is a tricky idea, I asked a group of the third graders who had made the poster what they thought awareness meant. They said that it meant you should pay attention to all your ideas about a story not just the easy ideas that were in the last story you read. Excellent advice!
  images Fun attitude might just be the best advice of all though. If my writing isn’t going well, it’s almost always because I’ve lost the joy of it. Loss of joy may not be the cause of bad writing, but it is at least the reliable companion of bad writing. And when I change to a more positive and playful outlook, the writing reliably improves.
   Information and concentration are pairs I’ve been learning to use as a pair. I love research so much, I could spend all my time chasing the next dazzling fact and completely lose track of my story in my zeal to fill it up with the amazing details I’ve learned. But sometimes what I need is not more information but concentration on the research I’ve already done.
   Finally I love it that quiet and silence are not the same thing. Sometimes I need absolute silence for a particular task. Reminding myself to turn off the music for the duration of the task helps. Other times I just need the quiet of my brain focusing on just one thing, not email, not social networks, not housework or snacks but simply the quiet of letting myself be a writer and nothing else for a few hours–a true gift!
So how about you? Do you have a favorite tool of the hand, head or heart?  I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

The Making of a Champion

IMG_0818Earlier this month I took my daughter to the North American Championships of Irish Dance. It was the culmination of a decade of hard work for her and for dancers she’s known since first grade. Three of her dance friends did so well at this competition that they qualified for World Championships. One of the things I found encouraging is that one of the girls who’s going to Worlds was not the most promising beginner dancer. She had oodles of talent but couldn’t remember an entire step to save her life. The young man who is also going on to Worlds was the shyest little boy I have ever met—and yet there he was standing up tall, dancing his heart out, in front of hundreds of people. I never would have guessed seven years ago that he’d be in the limelight and loving it.
images-1These winning dancers put in a brilliant set of dances on competition day but what was telling to me was watching them practice  the day before under the intensely critical gaze of their teachers. They were so strong on that practice stage but even so their teachers had a torrent of corrections to their body position, rhythm, strength, and speed. These young dancers were capable of world class performances and yet there was still a long list of things to improve.  It made me think of my own experience of having my writing critiqued (thankfully a far less sweaty experience) Here’s my take away from Nationals.
1) A champion listens to her mentor as whole heartedly as possible, not defensively or with an attitude that her work is somehow the exception to the usual rules that govern the art form. She doesn’t hedge or make excuses for work when a mentor points out a flaw. Except when a clarifying question is needed, a simple thank you is the most useful response to criticism.
images2) A champion not only puts in the performance, but also the drill work that builds the strength for performance.  Barre work, weight training, stretches, and drills, are not wasted time and effort but an integral part of the eventual performance.
3) A champion watches other dancers with intensity and focus in order to learn from the best.  A champion is uplifted and not threatened by excellence in other dancers.
4) A champion dances with joy. This was perhaps the most moving part of watching these young dancers take the stage as world class competitors. There is no college scholarship or professional dance career for Irish dancers. It’s done entirely for the love of the art form and to honor the culture that saved it’s traditional songs and dances in the face of oppression. Each dancer I watched was there because they love dance enough to do it—not just at dance class but at the bus stop and at lunch and late into the night. And each one of them radiated that joy in every step on stage.
I love story like these young competitors love to dance. I love what story can do in the life of a reader and I love the puzzle of pulling a story together from the disparate threads of my imagination. Going forward I’m going to try my best to take critiques with equanimity and put in the hours of practice and pages of rough draft that make good prose roll freely. I am going to redouble my effort to read the best writers in my genre with more concentration to learn all I can from them. And more than all that I want to let my joy show on every page. The Olympics is coming up in a few short weeks and I hope we can all take some inspiration from the dedicated athletes we watch there.