This year — after more than 40 years as a fulltime writer of books for children — I feel the need to start over.
What went wrong in my career? It’s a long list, I’m afraid: return of my sister’s cancer after a 20 years, getting Alpha covid and then becoming a long hauler, a heart condition, isolation due to the pandemic, getting Delta covid which continued my long covid, my sister’s downward spiral in which I was a caregiver for six weeks — traveling 100 miles a day until she died, grief, my husband’s serious fall in which I was again caregiver for months, my heart procedure with its lengthy recovery, and the kicker, covid again, sick for eight weeks and more isolation.
During this time, I was still working, the last year and a half mainly on a middle grade novel, the book of my heart. While I loved writing it and living in that world, publishers felt different. My agent finally placed it and thus began a one-year journey in which the novel was rewritten completely twice and revised three more times. The story I loved became something I dreaded working on, with its tight schedule that kept me at my desk. I should be grateful the novel was placed at all and will see the light of day. But … the experience during all the caregiving and my own health issues left me feeling broken. Disappeared.
Then I was asked to visit the campus of Hollins University, where the summer graduate program in children’s literature is held, where I was once a student in that program and then member of the faculty for 18 years. How I loved that secret garden, for six weeks each summer. As my husband and I grew older, I needed to be home and continued teaching online. It’s not the same as teaching in person. I stay in my office, where I stay all the time, day after day, year after year.
I wasn’t sure I could make the four-hour drive, but I agreed. I needed to see my colleagues again. I needed fresh mountain air. I needed, desperately, the energy of people immersed in children’s books. Mine was gone.
At the end of the long drive were familiar brick buildings and wide green spaces. I spent three days talking! My online students came up to me, addressing me as Professor Ransom. They told me how I’d helped them — one had landed an agent in the prestigious Writer’s House for a picture book she wrote in my class. They invited me to meetings, lunch, supper. Slowly, I began to feel validated. I did have a purpose besides revising the same book over and over.
My colleagues invited me to their private faculty reading. I sat with them, listening to their stories and wondered if I’d ever come up with a new idea again. One evening, I was out at dusk, when the border between our world and the Other World is thin. The Other World I saw was firmly in this one: a four-point buck, a doe and her yearling, a groundhog, a skunk, young rabbits, and swallows scissoring the purpling sky. For the first time in years, my heart lifted.
I visited the students in the illustration program, busy with their final projects. I studied drawings pinned to the walls, chatted with them at their messy desks, noted their well-used supplies. Their work was varied, ambitious, and joyful. One student showed me model sheets of the characters in the story she was illustrating and writing. Her drawings were small and simple. I examined her storyboard thumbnails, her color samples. Her art moved me in some way.
Among the dozens of reference books lying around, I picked The Encyclopedia of Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books. It is less of an encyclopedia and more of a map with boxes and short paragraphs, liberally illustrated. Your eye can walk around the double-spreads, taking in information in easily digestible bites. Its bright jacket spoke to me.
On the long drive home, I realized I wasn’t broken. That I haven’t disappeared. Being in the secret garden of Hollins around “my people” was a tonic. I wasn’t giving up. I would start again, sort of, by changing my attitude and surrounding myself with things that would help me stay in the secret garden at home. I ordered the book. I bought new art supplies: Primrosia watercolor pens, a small sketchbook. In Walmart I bought a new monthly planner, a weekly planner, notebooks, and pencil cases in colors that made me happy.
I haven’t kept a planner in years. I don’t even make a grocery list. I sit down at my desk and work with little thought toward the future, my calendar mostly marked with doctor appointments.
I’m making lists again. I record what I did that day. I’m teaching a new class this fall. I’m taking a class this fall to fill the well. I’m making little sketches of things I see. Nothing earth-shattering: a song sparrow and a juvenile cowbird tussling over a bagworm.
September is a good time to start over or reset. The stores are filled with bright new school supplies! Classes are beginning! When the fall term begins at nearby Mary Washington University, I’ll be there once a week with my backpack, mingling with young, energetic students, listening to snippets of their conversations, then spending time in the library with my work.