Sometimes finding inspiration can be a trainwreck: pondering the creative process

Sometimes finding inspiration can be a trainwreck: pondering the creative process

Inspiration is everywhere. Sounds cliché, right? Or perhaps trite or obvious—but I think the thing that a lot of people miss is that inspiration floating around everyone is pretty much useless unless you train yourself to pay attention to it and (most importantly in my opinion) record it.

It’s something that I didn’t always realize. Back when I had a 9 to 5 job working as a graphic designer, I’d race home after work and write and draw. Evening and weekends; these were my blocks when I could truly be creative and do what I want.

But now that I’ve been a self-employed writer and specialized arts educator for the last fifteen years, I’ve learned that I need to be in-tune 24-7.

To put it simply, working in a creative profession means I am alwaysworking. That doesn’t mean I’m forever hunkered down over a computer or notebook. It simply means my antennae are always circling, waiting to pick up the signals that are floating around out there.

I guess what I’m saying is that this was something I didn’t always conscioiusly realize. Or it didn’t come naturally to me. I had to train myself to, first, pay attention and, second, make sure I documented what caught my attention.

I realize this same problem in many of my students. Whether they are in elementary school, high school, or university, so many of them are extremely well-trained to think in “blocks: This is math block, this is writing block, this is history block. Yes, some of those blocks aren’t your passion and you just want to survive the hour or so that you are locked inside of them. But there are other blocks that should needle your passions! Those passions should ooze out of their confinement and seep into every aspect of your life. Being a writer (or an artist, or an actor, or a . . .) means thinking like one all the time.

To some people, this comes naturally! But, as I mentioned above, I was one of those people who came from an exceedingly practical background. Maybe it’s the case with many of my students.

That’s why I now carry my notebook (or, as I call it, my brainstorming book) with me everywhere. I have specific books for specific projects, but often things that are unconnected to that project (or at least SEEM like they might be unconnected) go in there.

I only have one criteria for recording something: it interests me. Most of the time, I don’t know what it is about something that grabs me—just that it does. In those cases, I photography, draw, and scribble notes. That means those ideas are waiting for me in the future. It might be a week down the road. Maybe a month. Perhaps years. Or, quite possibly, NEVER. But I’ve learned to honor the process, not the result.

Vacation/smacation

All of this is to say, when my family was on “vacation” a couple of weeks ago in Whistler, BC, and we learned about the famous Whistler train wreck, my Spidey-senses perked up. I knew I needed to grab my sketchbook and my camera and head there.

(Also, I tend to now just call all vacations “inspircations” because it is impossible for me to go anywhere and NOT be inspired.)

About the trainwreck

Just south of the resort town of Whistler, not so deep in the forest, is the site of a train wreck that occurred on August 11, 1956. The train had started in Lilloeet, 130 km north of Whistler and was bound for Vancouver with a load of lumber. The train was behind schedule, so was going twice its speed to make up time. When it arrived at a narrow passage carved in the rock with a sharp curve at one end, one of the engines jumped off the track. Twelve boxcars in total were derailed.

The clean up took a long time, and some of the carriages were left behind—and this is the site you can now visits. Here, in the not-so-deep woods, the boxcars are both solemn and garish, painted with graffiti after all these years.

Getting to the train wreck

The site is a short drive south from Whistler, and once Google or your satnav takes you to the appropriate turnoff, you’ll find signs marking the way into the woods.

The path is even and not at all onerous. In fact, we took Hiro in his stroller and only parked it once we arrived at the hill that led up to the final site (a one-minute walk).

The way there also features a suspension bridge and a view of the gorgeous, swirling river.

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Exploring the train wreck

Once you arrive at the site, you can explore all the different carriages. You can climb some of them (at your peril!), and one leans toward the river gorge, tempting fate.

This place certainly stirred my imagination and gave me inspiration for a scene in a story that has been percolating inside of me lately. I made sure to take as many pictures as possible and to jot down some notes, too.

The rest of the family enjoyed it as well (though I was the only one brave—or foolish—enough to climb atop one of them). Hiro loved the colors.

I think my favorite part were the couplings, painted to look like creatures. In my mind, they are train gargoyles! You can check out a few of our photos below (including those mischievous looking gargoyles). . .

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In search of the nine-tailed fox

In search of the nine-tailed fox

This past summer, I led a summer camp in Korea with the theme of magical creatures. I have plenty of magical creatures in my own books—some of them borrowed from mythology (dragon, unicorns, perytons, etc.) and some are completely made up (like Tug the skyger, who is a main character in The Secret of Zoone).

But there is a creature I’ve been becoming more and more interested in, and that’s the fox spirit, which is prominent in Asian folktales and myths. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time in Korea, or maybe because so many of my creative writing students in Canada come from Chinese or Korean backgrounds. And, of course, my son being adopted from Japan has something to do with it.

The fox spirit in myth and legend

Legends about the fox spirit vary from country to country, story to story, but a common theme is that it is depicted with multiple tails—often nine. In Japan, it is called kyūbi no kitsune (literally fox with nine tails), in Korea it is called kumiho or gumiho (also, literally, fox with nine tails), and in China it’s called húli jīng or jiǔwěihú. Sometimes the foxes are seeking to gain all nine tails, which will take a thousand years (gaining a tail every hundred years) and allow them to transcend to a greater wisdom or being. They are sometimes associated with being evil (especially kumiho in Korea)—they can shapeshift into beautiful women and are often portrayed trying to seduce young men, even desiring to eat their livers!

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Last summer, when we first met Hiro, I encountered many fox effigies at the temple sites throughout Japan. When we returned to Tokyo this summer with Hiro, I made a point to seek out one of the temples in the city featuring the fox.

These are the benign versions of the fox spirit. Kitsune is associated with the God Inari, who is worshiped for fertility, rice, tea, sake, agriculture—essentially prosperity and success. That is why kitsune can be found at so many Shinto sites.

A trip to Toyoa Inari Betsuin

On a sweltering morning in Tokyo, we headed to Toyoa Inari Betsuin to see the many kitsune assembled at the shrine. It’s not always easy to make the trek across the city with a one-year-old in tow, especially when it comes to navigating the subway system. Actually the Tokyo subway system itself is easy—finding ways in and out with a stroller aren’t, especially at the older stations.

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But that minor inconvenience was offset by the beautiful shrine.

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When it came to finding foxes, we weren’t disappointed—there were countless ones at Toyoa Inari Betsuin.

Here are just a few of the many photos of the kitsune . . . such delightful creatures! Many of them were wearing a red bib (a symbol of good luck).

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To provide a bit more information about the shrine, I transcribed the information from the welcoming sign, which is also in the photo below:

The Toyokawa Inari is in reality the Toyokawa Dakini Shinten, one of the many Buddhist saints who were Protectors of the Buddhist doctrines. This saint has a beautiful countenance mounted on a white fox, carrying the ear of rice, and is called Toyokawa Inari. It has been enshrined in the Myōgon-ji, a temple in Toyokawa City, Aichi Prefecture, since the first founder Kangan Giin received an inspiration, enshrined it about 700 years ago. Since then, it has been worshipped by peoples of all walks of life, bringing them happiness and saving them from the suffering through the generations to this day.

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I’m pondering the idea of incorporating a magical fox with multiple tails in one of my upcoming middlegrade books. I think my many students with Asian backgrounds (not to mention my son!) will like it, though I know my magical fox won’t be an antagonist, but rather a helpful character.

The multiple tails also seem to match up very nicely with another main idea I’m developing for the book. I don’t have much else to say on it at this point, but let’s see how it goes . . .

Our magical creature camp in Korea

Our magical creature camp in Korea

I’m just catching up on organizing photos after our whirlwind trip to Korea and Japan this past summer—which means I’m finally getting around to blogging about the Magical Creatures creative writing camp that I taught along with my actor/playwright wife Marcie Nestman and fellow children’s author Kallie George.

Marcie and I are used to spending time in Asia—personally, I’ve been there over thirty times, most of it to teach creative writing camps or workshops. What WAS new this time was that we took our one-year-old son, Hiro, with us. So, seasoned travelers that we are, we had a very different type of adventure!

A magical theme

Since Kallie and I both recently released books featuring magical creatures—Kallie’s Wings of Olympus and my The Secret of Zoone—we thought that would make the best theme for our camp.

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Of course, there are plenty of books and films featuring magical creatures, so this was a great way to connect with and inspire our students.

 

The magical menagerie art exhibit

In The Secret of Zoone, one of the characters references the “Multiversal Menagerie,” an art exhibit featuring paintings of different creatures from across the multiverse. I thought I would take a cue from that and have my students do a creative writing project in which they produced artwork of a creature then wrote the information card that goes with it.

You see, I have this belief that not every writing assignment has to be a proper story. I worry that my students get so focused on plot, that they forget other elements of writing—such as description, setting, character development and BEING CREATIVE. I call this “plot paralysis” because students get so caught up in that ONE part of writing that they start ignoring everything else.

Projects like the multiverses menagerie are meant to help the students wriggle free of the shackles of plot and just have fun.

Our project started with brainstorming creatures  . . .

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Afterwards, the students turned their attention to final artwork. Some students chose to draw, some students chose to sculpt, and others chose to do both.

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The Eye of the Dragon

Another project I rolled out at camp involved writing a scene in which a character finds or steals a magical gem that gives that character the power of connecting with a creature. The students got to choose the aspect of that connection—it could be transforming into the creature, controlling it, or even seeing through its eyes.

Step one, however, was painting the gem of power!

I really love this project because it is relatively simple, but produces stunning results. In fact, many of my students end up wearing their jewelry afterwards (it’s easy enough to glue the gems to a metal ring or amulet).

The gems themselves are glass cabochons, which you can get in different shapes (such as oval or round) and the paint is simple nail polish. This project is very forgiving—even those students who don’t consider themselves artistic can create abstract designs. Also, if you make a mistake, a little nail polish remover helps you start over!

Here are some of the gorgeous designs produced by my students:

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The magical market

We delivered many other projects at the camp, but there is one other event I wanted to blog about—and that is our magical market night. Our camps our long—often six or seven days, and we find we need some sort of event in the middle to help break it up and provide a “boost.”

We usually host a tournament or some other team-building exercises; this time, Marcie had the brilliant idea of putting on a magical market. This was brilliant for a few reasons—not the least of which was that we could do it outdoors and avoid the intense summer heat and humidity. Also, we corralled our older students into coming up with the ideas for the stalls, and then running them during the event itself.

So, we ended up having all sorts of fun stations consisting of games, face painting, fortune telling, and—my favorite—food! We invented a new fizzy drink by combining soda water and pop rocks and also had glow-in-the-dark cotton candy. We gave the students fake jewels to use as currency, so they got to stroll our market and decide how to spend their loot.

Marcie had led a project in which the students designed their own lanterns for a made-up magical creature holiday, so we already had some decorations ready to go.

It was a HUGE success!

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Book covers from the workshop of dreams

Book covers from the workshop of dreams

I’m just wrapping up production of the books written and illustrated by the students who took the Spring Term of my Dream Workshop program that is run through Creative Writing for Children.

In many cases, the students provided their own artwork. In others, the students chose royalty-free stock photos, but in those cases, they still had to design their cover, which meant providing instructions on how to crop the photo and which fonts to use.

I’m so proud of my students! The books will go for printing soon and will be in their hot little hands in the next few months.

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laurenliang_thetimekeeper

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sionahn_landofskies

jadenchung_candyrealm

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iankim_secrets

emilylee_hoops

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arisolkim_kingdomofenchantia

alexjang_possessionofadangerousmind

sarahpark_oneudonbowl

rickyyin_sixteenamazingstories

aidenlee_secretofportalstreasure

yoyozhang_thesecretflower

tristanmo_cursedcity

sussizhu_thewarbetweenupperandupper

felimwang_thebookofdeath

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charliechen_thefencingboy

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Bidding farewell to our magical creature

Bidding farewell to our magical creature

Life sometimes works in strange ways. Here I am, prepping to teach a creative writing camp next week in Korea. The theme?

Magical creatures.

And this was the week that we had to finally let go of the most magical of creatures, our cat Griffin.

Anyone who has ever lost a pet knows how hard it is. They are constants in our lives and in our homes, loyal and unwavering. For me, Griffin was not just a pet, though—he was my work buddy. Being a writer can be lonely, but not when you have a cat purring and gently pawing your elbow throughout the day.

Inspiration

In fact, as I look back on photos of Griffin, it’s almost a chronicle of all the writing, illustration, and prop-building projects I’ve worked on in my career.

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In particular, my current book series, Zoone, owes a lot to Griffin. I truly believe that I wouldn’t have been able to write it without Griffin’s inspiration.

There are so many children’s books about cats, and I find most of them depict cats as standoffish, persnickety, or mischievously clever.

But I never felt that was Griffin. He was concerned with three matters: food, sleep, and affection. Not only receiving affection, but giving it.

The neighborhood character

We constantly found out about his escapades in the neighborhood. Like the time a kid came to our door on Halloween, saw Griffin, and exclaimed, “Oh, this is where Griffin lives?” (We found out that Griffin would wander up to the sidewalk each day when school got out, sprawl on the pavement, and greet all the kids coming home. They all knew his name from his collar tag.)

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Another time, we saw a guy eating his lunch out in the adjoining courtyard and he told us that Griffin came and spent every noon hour with him so that he wouldn’t be lonely.

Then there was the time I received a call from someone who asked if I had just moved. The answer was yes, and the caller went on to explain that she was my old neighbor and that her kitten was depressed because Griffin used to visit every day. (She had my number from Griffin’s tag. She even asked if we could do a playdate, but we realized the mechanics were just too difficult.)

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When it came to our son, Griffin showed extreme patience. He let Hiro tug his tail or snatch his fur and if he ever really got upset, he batted with his paw (and not his long outdoor cat claws). Eventually, Hiro would crawl up to Griffin and greet him the same way Griffin greeted him, by bunting his head along his body.

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Griffin featured in all of my school presentations—talking about pets is such an easy and immediate way to connect with kids. And when I reviewed stories by my creative writing students, Griffin often left pawmarks on their pages. A seal of approval, maybe?

When I wrote the character of Tug the skyger (a winged blue tiger) for The Secret of Zoone, I automatically gave him Griffin’s personality. There is no cynicism or sarcasm in Tug’s personality. He’s just an earnest and loyal sidekick. When my editor at HarperCollins bought Zoone, she told me it had a lot to do with Tug—that he was, in fact, one of her all-time favorite animal characters.

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A magical creature

Griffin was with us a long time. I adopted him as a kitten, seventeen years ago. My sister was visiting me and when we brought him back to my flat, he immediately began bounding around the place like a little monster. I knew then that he should be named after some mythical creature. Then he began to fly—almost literally, bounding up the wall as far up as the light switch. (I think that’s the other reason why he inspired my character of a flying tiger.) Then I knew he needed to be named after a flying mythical creature.

No matter what we were doing around our house—making Yoda Yulefest cookies, carving pumpkins, or just watching a movie—Griffin was there.

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Letting him go

We know that Griffin had a rich and full life, but it’s still hard to let him go. He showed no signs of age really at all until last fall, when he had to get some teeth pulled and we were told we should start giving him water infusion once a week to help keep his kidneys going. But in May he stopped eating. Obviously concerned, we took him to the vet. Bloodwork came back negative, then he seemed to pick up again. But when he stopped eating again, we carted him back in and discovered that he had multiple tumors.

His time had come. He wasn’t in any acute pain, so we took a few days so that we could try to adjust to the fact that we had to let him go. So that we could say goodbye. I was down to feeding Griffin high-calorie gel from my fingertips. He stopped grooming, so I had to brush out his fur on a regular basis. I gave him steroid cream, just to perk him up and try to stimulate any sort of appetite. After a lifetime of sleeping on our bed, he mostly slept curled up in the corner of our bathroom.

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When we took him in for his final vet visit, he was light in my arms, having lost almost three pounds in his final weeks. He never complained during that final appointment—he just purred and put his paw on my wrist. I thanked him for everything that he had given us then cradled him in my arms. And that is how he went.

Now our home feels empty. I feel like a goldfish—every three seconds, I’m wondering where his food dish is or why the cat flap is closed. Then I remember.

I’ll have to finish my Zoone series without my writing buddy at my side. But I’m thankful he was there at the start. Writing Zoone is truly something that I feel is helping me cope with losing Griffin, that a small part of him resides in Tug and will continue to live on.

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Cover Reveal for The Guardians of Zoone

Cover Reveal for The Guardians of Zoone

I’m excited to reveal the cover for THE GUARDIANS OF ZOONE, Book 2 in my new series with HarperCollins Children’s Books.

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The stunning cover art by Evan Monteiro depicts an exciting moment from early on in the book, featuring portal pirates, a skyger, a cosmic storm, and one of my favourite new characters: Captain Traxx.

Another favourite character of mine, first introduced in Book 1, is also shown on the ship, climbing the ratlines. She’s got a lot to do in this sequel, and I really enjoyed spending this extra time with her.

I’m so pleased with the cover, and very grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in the design. Even though I am a professional illustrator, I did not want to provide the artwork for the Zoone series—however, I did want to provide ideas, and I was allowed to do just that.

When my editor asked me what I wanted to have shown on the cover, there were two scenes from the book that came to mind. One was a dramatic chase sequence that takes place in the world of Creon and the second was when the heroes were aboard the airship known as The Empyrean Thunder.

Here is my original thumbnail that I provided to my editor:

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At first, I thought we should focus on my trio of heroes. But I also thought we could work in some of the pirates, so I provided my brainstorming pages of the pirate captain, Captain Traxx, who is the mercurial self-proclaimed “Queen of the Cosmos.”

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I also provided a photo of my brainstorming page of what the ship itself looks like:

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There’s a couple of things to point out:

1) As you can see, I took some inspiration from The Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

2) I love coffee.

3) As you can also see, many of my design ideas made it to the front cover. Instead of zooming in on the characters, the artist decided to pull back and show more of an epic perspective of the scene.

Based on the feedback I’ve received so far, it was the right decision!

Not every author gets the opportunity to participate in the cover design phase of a book. I know many colleagues who simply get shown their cover after it’s complete and are given NO say whatsoever. So, I’ll just repeat how grateful I am that I was consulted.

The Guardians of Zoone is scheduled for release in February 2020. You can find out more about the book here.

TD Book Week Tour ~ Day 6

TD Book Week Tour ~ Day 6

My tour is over, so there is basically no Day 6, just a return to life. However, I’ve been writing this online journal all week so I thought I would take the time to reflect on the week, think about went well, what didn’t, and to offer so heartfelt thanks!

Let’s start with the thank-yous . . .

An awesome network of teachers, librarians, and literary people

Getting a spot on the TD Tour isn’t the easiest. There are so many talented creators in Canada, so I’m really grateful that I earned a spot, especially since I don’t write books with obvious social-justice content, or overtly Canadian content, or anything that grabs the attention necessarily of the media. I do like to think my books have lots of great messages and social commentary about culture, diversity, and gender roles, but they are nuanced.

Which is all to say, I’m very thankful to the CCBC (Canadian Children’s Book Centre) for picking me. Also, I can’t even imagine the work that goes into organizing this tour. So, I give a particular shut out to Shannon Howe Barnes at CCBC for providing me with so many detailed instructions and being at five-alarm alert this entire week, jumping on any and all panicked messages from touring authors (I certainly sent my share of them!).

I also want to thank Emma Hunter and Kirsti Granholm for stopping my event at the Children’s Book Bank in Toronto. I always appreciate it when people who organize tours can see me in action.

Finally, I want to thank all the teachers and librarians I connected with this week. I have a lot of particular “asks” when I come to a school—supplies for set up, rooms arranged a certain way, and so forth. Without fail, every single school, library, and institution jumped into action to accommodate my requests. I really appreciate it!

Even though I was often rushing off to my next presentation, I really appreciate those quieter moments when I had a chance to talk to some of you about writing and teaching writing. I am an educator at heart, and I really love those conversations.

Finally, thank you for saying all those kind things about my books! Writing is hard and sometimes the simplest of reviews or praise can sustain me.

What went well

I guess I already covered this to some extent, but the trip was so well-organized and I was provided with such detailed instructions that it was easy to go from one place or the other. I was never once late, which is amazing!

I felt my personal plan for the trip was strong. I had presentations prepared for the bigger groups and, for the smaller groups, I could use my wizard’s suitcase as a tool for telling stories and engaging the kids. I think I did a brainstorming activity with every single group, except one—if you follow me on social media, then you know I have been inundating you with many pictures of kids brainstorming: suitcases, trees, doors, and maps.

By the way, having a variety of activities and talks is also important for me. It helps keep my brain on track, so that I’m not necessarily just doing the same thing over and over again. Some of this is inevitable—I mean, my story is my story and I can’t really change that or tell it in too many different ways. But delivering different presentations that talk about different sources of inspiration keeps everything varied for me.

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What didn’t go so well

When you are zooming from workshop to workshop in different facilities, there is inevitably going to be hiccups and problems.

I always prefer presenting in libraries or gathering spaces—not necessarily because they are more intimate or friendly (they are), but because of acoustics. Some gyms just are terrible for presentations. That’s no one’s fault—gyms are obviously the biggest places in schools for accommodating large portions of the student body. But, in some gyms, not even a microphone really helps—it just causes your voice to bounce off the walls in a different way.

I also had a technology fail on my last day. My remote to my computer simply stopped working halfway through two presentations. Thankfully, I don’t show my fluster, so I was able to compensate, but I really wish this hadn’t of happened! Everything had worked perfectly all week long. Hey, I lasted the week—how come my technology couldn’t?

Managing energy

Speaking of which, managing energy is something I’ve had to learn how to do over the years. It’s not only the daily public speaking and workshopping, but when I put myself into this intense creative headspace, that means a lot of ideas are swirling around in my brain. Because it’s not that I’m simply presenting—I’m doing these brainstorming sessions with the kids, which is all about idea generation.

So, each evening when I made it back to my hotel, I found it hard to unwind. (This is the case whenever I’m doing a writing camp, an artist-in-residency, or a tour. Intense periods of creativity are hard to turn off like a tap.) There were many times when I would take my brainstorming journal with me to dinner, so I could unwind with doodling. Ultimately, I suppose writing this daily journal/blog has been one other way to do this.

Questions, questions, questions

Each day, I posted my favorite question of the day, but I wanted to tackle one more that I didn’t mention from the week: “Do you ever take ideas from the brainstorming you do with the students in your workshops?” This question came from a teacher and it is a good one.

The short answer is “No.” I always do my brainstorming on a sheet of chart paper in my interactive brainstorming sessions and while I often take a photograph of what we create, I always leave the paper itself behind (in case the class wants to use it in their follow up activities).

Often cases, what we come up with on that chart paper is a fusion. It’s a combination of multiple ideas pitched my way my participants, ideas that then go through the filter of my imagination, and get my own twist. For example, students often give me multiple competing ideas for a doorway, a tree, or a magical object, and I end up combining them for the item we put on the page. This is the power of group brainstorming—the idea that makes it onto the page has been enriched by the multiple suggestions and is more interesting than just any singular idea coming from myself or any one student.

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The truth is that I want the students to write something from the brainstorming—not me! I feel like I generate enough ideas in my own brainstorming journals. Though, I will admit to stealing names from students, though it’s usually not their character names—it’s usually their own names! If a student has a name that I really like, then I ask them if I can add it to my one of my name “banks” for future use. (I’m ALWAYS on the hunt for good character names!)

The hardest part of the tour

Well, this one is easy. The hardest part of the tour has been being away from Marcie and Hiro! In the past, I’ve only had to worry about being separated from Marcie, but now that we have Hiro, it’s even harder. He’s too young to really understand what’s going on, and I have just missed cuddling him every night and interacting with him and being there for great moments like this one:

hiro&goslings

That’s a photo Marcie sent me yesterday. So cute! Of course, technology helps being away because I can facetime Marcie and Hiro everyday, but Hiro often just gets a little confused that he can see and hear me, but can’t touch me.

But I will be back soon, Hiro!

About Book Week

TD Canadian Children’s Book Week is the single most important national event celebrating Canadian children’s books and the importance of reading. Hundreds of schools, public libraries, bookstores and community centres host events as part of this major literary festival.