Creative Family Series | Shawn Stout
There are many reasons to love children’s book author Shawn Stout. But this interview? Well, it may just top the list. Shawn opens up about creativity, her own self-consciousity, and why she could fall madly in love with Mr. Bradbury. To be honest, after that quote, I think I could too. Enjoy!
How would you define creativity?
To me, being creative is being curious about life and using whatever tools you have in that moment to make something new. It’s more about doing than thinking. What’s that Ray Bradbury quote? “Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.” Isn’t that the greatest? I mean, the man is telling you not to think so much. As a person who overthinks everything and who oozes self-consciousity (I made that one up, like it?), I could fall madly in love with Mr. Bradbury for that statement alone.
Have you always considered yourself creative?
I reckon so. As far back as I can remember I have been happiest when I’m left to my own devices and am creating something. I used to spend afternoons making wall art for my bedroom out of scraps of carpet and fabric, and at one point I turned my closet into a writing nook and painted Whitman and Keats poems on the walls. I spent quite a lot of time in there as I recall, only to be lured out with the promise of meatballs.
How do you nurture your own creativity?
That’s a good question, and I don’t pretend to know the answer. Creativity, in so many ways, remains a big mystery to me. I don’t know where it comes from, and I don’t know if it’s a deep well that will eventually dry up. Sometimes it feels as such. There are things I have written that I will tuck away somewhere, and when I find them again, many months later, I will have no recollection of writing those words and what’s more, I don’t even recognize them as mine. That’s creativity for you, blasted crazy. But as far as nurturing goes, I read a lot, and pay attention, and eavesdrop (that’s right, I said eavesdrop), and daydream, and maybe most importantly, I show up every day and put words down on paper.
Did you grow up in a creative household? If so, what were some of the ways your parents nurtured your creativity and curiosity?
We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so we were told to find new ways to enjoy the toys we already had. There weren’t many rules in our house, but there was one that, if broken, would incur my mother’s seldom-seen wrath: you were never allowed to say you were bored. My mother believed (and still does) that there was no possible reason on earth to be bored, that there was always something to do, and that if you were bored it was your own fault and, therefore, your problem to solve, missy. It forced me to exercise my imagination, and often after declaring boredom I would throw our sleeping bags over the clothesline, clip them together with clothespins, and make a fort. Eventually, kids in the neighborhood would stop by to see what I was making, and then we all had something to do.
How do you hope to nurture it in your daughter?
We want to continue to give her experiences that stimulate her imagination and encourage creative play, exposing her to different types of music and art. She’s only 19 months, but we try to make music, drawing, and books a part of her daily play. We have parades, draw crayon pictures, and make up silly songs (usually about putting toys away and not throwing food). We painted a wall in her room with chalkboard paint, so there’s a lot of doodling going on, and friends that come over leave messages for her.
What are some of your favorite ways to spend time together as a family?
We go on outings to the park or festivals, but Sunday mornings are great when we just hang out in our pajamas and listen to records and just play. Andy (my husband) is a musician, so the guitar is out quite a lot and there’s singing, lots of singing. Summer days, we’re outside in the backyard, working in the vegetable garden and eating raspberries by the handful.
How have you been able to integrate work with pursuing your creative passions?
I work full-time, so the amount of time I have for writing books is really limited. As in grains of sand. Add to that a 19-month-old and carving out time with my husband and grocery shopping and showering and everything else, and that “limited” time is practically nonexistent. That said, there’s something to be said for having almost no time for yourself because I think it forces me to use the time I do have to actually do some writing and not sit on the couch and watch back-to-back episodes of “America’s Next Top Model.”
How did you get into writing children’s books?
I’ve been writing for a long time, and I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I lacked the confidence (among other things) at a young age to admit it to myself. So, for many years I didn’t write. As in, at all. Only after a handful of jobs that left me feeling unsatisfied, lost, and frankly, soulless, I decided to take some writing classes. What came out when I started writing was the voice of a 10-year-old, and she had a lot to say, apparently. I wrote a couple of really awful books, got immediate rejections (rightfully so), and then decided to go back to school. I got my M.F.A. in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2009, and later that year my first book was published.
What are you working on now?
I just finished the third and final book in the Not-So-Ordinary Girl series (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster), which comes out in May 2013. And at this exact moment, I am working on the fourth book in my PENELOPE CRUMB middle-grade series (Philomel/Penguin). I have no idea what’s going to happen in this book, so I hope Penelope will hurry up and tell me. Andy and I are working on an adventure series about a boy, which has been dragging on for far too long, and then there are a couple of characters in my head that are taunting me with their stories, so at some point I need to take them seriously.
From time to time everyone’s creative juices wane. How do you handle it when it happens to you?
After I finish each book I am pretty certain I will never be able to write another. (Congratulations, you’ve done it! Now die, because your career is over.) But somehow I do manage to write again, or at least I have up until now. Oh man, I really hope I didn’t just jinx myself. Anyway, again I think it’s less about thinking and more about doing. I gaze into the fire, into the clouds, like Hermann Hesse says you’re supposed to, and as soon as the inner voices begin to speak, I surrender to them and just do.