Uma Krishnaswami on Writing for the Long Haul

Uma Krishnaswami’s picture books, early readers, short stories, and novels include fiction, non-fiction, and folktale retellings. A teacher as well as a writer, she’s been a part of many other writers’ journeys as well as her own. Today she talks about the “fire that sparks it all,” making writing anything but a job like any other.

Honoring Unreasonable Exuberance

When Charles Darwin was puzzling through the intricacies of natural selection and evolution, he wrote, “The sight of a feather in the peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick.” Darwin’s genius lay in the leaps of his imagination, far beyond the thinking of his time. Still, at first he couldn’t understand the sheer lack of functionality in the wild, unreasonable exuberance of color, form, shimmer, rustle that is the peacock’s tail.

Those of us who write must find our own ways to deal with that mental exuberance that can well up so unexpectedly. We may deny it and say that what we do is a job like any other. Show up and the muse will show up too. And that’s all true, but there is that fire that sparks it all. Nabokov called it “A prefatory glow, not unlike some benign variety of the aura before an epileptic attack…” Not everyone, let’s face it, is obsessed by this fierce longing to render life itself, or some imaginary version of it, with a full and convincing load of sensory and emotional experience, in words.

At some point in our lives, we may give in to the madness without knowing why. I signed up for my first ever writing class at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. That class, taught by the practical, reserved, unflappable Judy Morris, gave me permission to think of myself as a writer. It opened me up to the world of writing for young people.

At times we’re blessed to be able to ride a benevolent tide. That’s what I did while I was trying to crack various forms—the picture book, the short story, the novel. I wrote folk and traditional stories. They were in demand and no one in the North American market had written the ones close to my soul. I did that writing in apprenticeship mode, letting the stories themselves teach me how to plot, pace, layer my narrative.

Early book contracts tend to give a writer hope, but they can also be, like the peacock’s tail, part illusion. When the folk tale market began to thin, and I was no closer to finishing my first novel, I was left questioning the whole endeavor. I had degrees I could fall back on. I could quit and go find saner, more reliable work.

But as Susan Sontag wrote, “Art is a form of nourishment.” It would take many more years, lots more rejection and a few more books, before I understood that my need to write was an emotional hunger. I tried to talk myself out of it. I even applied for jobs. Once I went to an interview for a counseling position—halfway through I realized I was offering them all kinds of reasons for not hiring me. I was sabotaging the interview because the prospect of losing writing time and energy simply made me miserable. This longing to assemble words in order to make meaning is every bit as natural to me as are the eyes to the peacock’s tail. I needed to honor it.

Twenty-four years and twenty books after that first writing class, I know that my work is, to put it in exuberant terms, nothing less than the pursuit of beauty. We like to think that story differentiates us from the animals. I find myself looking not for difference but for what makes me belong in the larger scheme of things. And beauty—now that connects us to the universe. The very beauty that complicated the initial tidiness of Darwin’s search for order is everywhere in nature. Artists like Andy Goldsworthy see this and use it in their work. In a very different way, so do the Madhubani painters of my native India. That’s the kind of illusion I long to create—seemingly effortless, both surprising and inevitable, something that will speak to young readers the way the books I devoured as a child spoke to me. I’m just grateful that I’m allowed to keep trying.

Uma Krishnaswami was born in India and now lives in northwestern New Mexico. She is the author of several books for young readers including Monsoon, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, and The Girl of the Wish Garden. She is on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts:

Jennifer J. Stewart on finding community and support
Sherwood Smith on keeping inspiration alive
Mette Ivie Harrison on defining success
Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
Kathi Appelt on the power of story
Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing business and creativity

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