Starting Over … Sort Of

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.

The Encyclopedia of Writing and Illustrating Children's Books

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.

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Heidi Grosch
6 months ago

Can­dice, Thank for the reminder to walk (or run or crawl) through life with open arms, ready to embrace the oppor­tu­ni­ties and enlight­en­ment that at times lit­er­al­ly cross our paths. Thank you for the reminder that even long careers can have moments of doubt and frus­tra­tion and that it is ok to stop and re-think the direc­tion to go. Thank you for remind­ing us that no mat­ter who you are nor what your pub­lic per­sona might be, we are each vul­ner­a­ble in the lives we lead — and need those unex­pect­ed moments to charge our souls. Best to you as you take… Read more »