Ellen Notbohm of ‘The River by Starlight’: “Reject sabotaging language”
Reject sabotaging language. The lexicon of writing and publishing is fraught with negatives like rejection, writer’s block, false start, aspiring writers. Reframe these energy drainers as tools. Rejection is a favor from a publisher who wasn’t going to do right by your work — a bullet dodged. Writer’s block is an invitation to take time to refill your creative well, consider directions previously unexplored. There’s no such thing as a false start, but there are warm-ups, practice, creative experimentation, freewriting. As for the difference between “aspiring writer” and “writer,” it’s so tiny. If you write, you’re a writer, and you have left “aspiring” behind. I frequently remind myself to not be my own biggest obstacle. Lead, follow or get out of the way. All have their place in a writer’s life.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ellen Notbohm.
Ellen Notbohm’s internationally renowned work has informed and delighted millions in more than twenty-five languages. Her perennial bestseller Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew and her widely acclaimed novel The River by Starlight have won numerous awards and captured audiences on every continent. She is also a popular book editor and writing coach.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
Would you believe it started with a case of good old-fashioned boredom? I was two decades into an enjoyable career in telecommunications, but the thrill had waned and the idea of an encore career beckoned. There’d been writing elements to all my jobs along the way, and I knew I had the spark. My son had a gifted early childhood special education teacher who told me I was not a typical autism parent, and she urged me, stringently and repeatedly, to write a book. I eventually began submitting articles to magazines, one of which was picked up by Autism Asperger’s Digest. That led to the editor offering me a monthly column, which in turn led to the writing of my books. Eighteen years later, I’m still writing a column for AAD, and my books have been published in more than twenty-five languages. The success of my autism books gave me the confidence to expand into historical fiction and take on the near-taboo subject of maternal mental illness. I never dreamed my messages would travel so far for so long. But it speaks to the timelessness of the stories and the perspectives I bring to the page.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
A writing career is an aggregate of many small moments of marvel, and “interesting” is one of the most subjective words we have. But in terms of the writing process itself, nothing drops more people’s jaws than hearing that I wrote The River by Starlight, more than 500 pages of drafts, in pencil in spiral notebooks, mostly in pre-dawn hours. I didn’t plan to write an epic novel in pencil in the dark. My autism books were all written more or less conventionally on a laptop. With the novel, the pencil mode came about intuitively. The sensory elements connected me to the historical period in which I was writing, the smell of the lead and wood, the smear of the eraser. And writing longhand made the emotion of the words I was forming seem more immediate — grief, ecstasy, anxiety, frustration, hope, betrayal, forgiveness. Writing by hand in the dim stillness of the wee hours opened me to heeding, feeling, and perceiving a whole other-dimensional world that I may not have otherwise “heard.” I call it listening with my third ear.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
Like most writers, I faced the dual challenges presented by the word “no.” To be a successful author, you have to be able to hear that word — a lot — and you have to be able to say it. The life of an author is fraught with self-defeating language like “rejection,” “writer’s block,” “false start,” “real writer,” “aspiring writer.” All of these terms can and should be reframed as strengths and positives, but a writer does have to be able to hear the word “no” frequently without losing heart. Somewhere there may be an author who’s received more acceptances than so-called rejections, but I don’t know of any. I say “so-called” because I don’t find the word rejection helpful or even accurate. I have odd gratitude for the countless non-acceptance and non-responses I’ve received over the years because each one meant I’d avoided placing my work with the wrong agent, editor, or publisher. Not much is more important than that. Once published, you learn very quickly that it’s permanent; once your published work is out there, you can never retrieve the book that wasn’t done well, the compromises you come to regret.
So, a valuable cousin of being able to hear “no” is knowing when to say “no.” I’ve walked away from book deals that didn’t work for me, from either a financial or creative perspective. It can also be healthy and liberating to know when to tell yourself “no,” whether it’s to rules of the trade that make no sense to you, a direction a particular piece is taking that doesn’t feel right, or over-investing effort, emotion, time, or money into a literary black hole.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Not a mistake, but an amusing career kickstart. Before wading into the swift current of the publishing world, I took an online course in magazine writing. We were taught how to write a query or pitch letter. I wrote a pitch for an article about my son’s experiences as a teenage baseball umpire. For the next class assignment, we had to send out our pitch letters to real magazines. We would then learn how to gracefully handle “rejections” and keep querying. To my utter befuddlement, the editor of a baseball magazine replied to my pitch with “Do you have photos to go with this?” What followed was truly comical, me asking my teacher, “Is this a sale?” and her replying “Yes it’s a sale” and me screeching (online) “What do I do? I don’t have an article!” and her replying again, calmly, “Write the article, Ellen.”
The lesson learned? To approach the challenges of publishing by projecting confidence and competence. At the urging of a friend, I keep a note on my desk that says “Why not me?” That first magazine article gave me the confidence to eventually write the afore-mentioned magazine columns, which gave me the confidence to take on the writing of a full book manuscript. The nonfiction books came relatively easily, but when the idea for a novel put itself in my path, I hesitated. By no measure was I qualified to write a novel. Then, sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, I picked up an issue of Oprah magazine in which she posed the question, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” I saw that I had nothing to lose by following that pull.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
All of my projects are interesting or exciting at the time I’m working on them, or they get punted into the “not now” file. At the moment I have a couple of books in the early stages, two ongoing magazine columns, two blogs, my editing clients, and two competitions I’m judging. I like the balance of moving between projects according to what energies call me on any given day. I like the balance between creating my own work and giving back to others who are in the process of creating. That balance and diversity mean I never feel stuck.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
My books are rich in stories with the overarching theme of reconsidering ingrained perspectives and what we can learn through the eyes of others, particularly children. I’m forever impressed with my eight-year-old son’s enraged denunciation of the Curious George books when he realized that “The Man in the Yellow Hat is a POACHER . . . an ANIMAL SMUGGLER.” And equally impressed with a nine-year-old girl with ADHD whose teacher offered her an ice cream cone as a reward if she could be good for three weeks. The girl told her therapist, “I don’t even know what ‘be good’ means. I can’t ‘be good for three hours, let alone three weeks. And besides, I don’t like ice cream.” Ill-defined goal meets unrealistic expectation meets unmotivating “reward.”
But perhaps the story most useful for the times in which we find ourselves right now is a parable I wrote about the word “normal,” based on a conversation between a middle school educator and a parent who wanted her child to do more “normal” things. “Walk through the school and you’ll see a huge range of ‘normal,” the educator said. “You’ll see nerdy normal, sporty normal, musical normal, artsy normal, techie normal. Kids tend to gravitate to groups that make them feel safe. For now, your son has found his group . . . A child has many social selves. To embrace all of them, and therefore the whole child is to redefine how we view ‘normal’ — one person at a time.”
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Both my fiction and nonfiction reflect on how we choose to deal with grief and loss, both of which are inescapable in the course of a lifetime. The River by Starlight confronts loss and grief in many shape-shifting forms, but a historian friend of mine encapsulated the story beautifully in less than a sentence: “A story told with a deep understanding of the human heart, which won’t abandon hope.” That refusal to abandon hope, that breathtaking resilience and tenacity in the face of devastating events, is a tribute to the luminescence of the human spirit that lives in all of us. It’s the same core message that goes out to parents in Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew. One of the most oft-quoted lines from the book is “one of the greatest tragedies that can befall a child with autism is to be surrounded by adults who think it’s a tragedy.”
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Listen at least as much as you write. To be read by others, there must be a degree of emotional provocation and engagement with what we write. Writing without listening to the world around you, its people and elements and sensations, is preaching. I listen to my world constantly; the spoken and written words of others are part, but nowhere near all of it. I listen with all my senses and sensibilities. I find I don’t learn much when I’m doing all the talking.
2. Don’t get bogged down with rules or guidelines that may apply to others but not you. There’s no magic number of words or minutes you must write per day, no standard length a chapter or a book should be, no words you should never use. Learn to trust your rhythms and instincts, honing them as you grow in your writing. I avoid absolutes like must, always, or never. They weary me. When I’m bombarded with must-read, must-have, must-watch, etc., my reaction is, must take nap!
3. Reject sabotaging language. The lexicon of writing and publishing is fraught with negatives like rejection, writer’s block, false start, aspiring writers. Reframe these energy drainers as tools. Rejection is a favor from a publisher who wasn’t going to do right by your work — a bullet dodged. Writer’s block is an invitation to take time to refill your creative well, consider directions previously unexplored. There’s no such thing as a false start, but there are warm-ups, practice, creative experimentation, freewriting. As for the difference between “aspiring writer” and “writer,” it’s so tiny. If you write, you’re a writer, and you have left “aspiring” behind. I frequently remind myself to not be my own biggest obstacle. Lead, follow or get out of the way. All have their place in a writer’s life.
4. Dream in stages. Too many aspiring writers (i.e., they haven’t written anything yet) tell me that they have a story, they want to write it, get published, win a Pulitzer. Within mere months they stall out, drowning in self-doubt, listening to naysayers telling them they can’t do it and “no one will read your book.” That’s statistically impossible, of course, if you publish in any manner. But so much of the angst can be avoided by embracing the generative writing process at each step. All writing starts with a sentence. The sentences become paragraphs, the paragraphs form scenes, the scenes make up chapters, and the totality of the chapters renders a book. This process enthralls me. To miss the joy of creating beautiful sentences that then flow into paragraphs, and on to scenes, etc. is, to me, to miss the point of writing at all.
5. Don’t compartmentalize your writing. The writing advice to which I return again and again came when I was awarded a residency where I began work on The River by Starlight. The Welcome information included this: “Expand your definition of what it means ‘to be writing’ if your definition doesn’t include daydreaming, false starts, walks in the woods, reading or watching a bird. You can be ‘working on a piece’ in many different ways.”
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
Seeking out and listening to people who know more than I do about the various aspects of the craft and the business of writing, and whatever subject I’m writing about. Over the years that’s included editors, agents, publishers, my intellectual property attorney, my tax adviser, and professionals ranging from medical clinicians, educators, historians, and artists to theologians, chess masters, farmers, insurance experts, and on and on. And then being able to synthesize the information coming to me and make decisions about how to use it — or not. These are now habits but they started as skills I consciously set out to learn.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I don’t write in the same vein every day, so I look for energy sources in many kinds of literature, depending upon what I’m working on. Some books I love to wallow in just because the language is so gorgeous or clever. I draw courage from those writers over the centuries who wrote at great personal risk to themselves, or who wrote knowing they would never be recognized for it. I admire books that push the boundaries of what a book of that genre “should” be. And I adore reading authors who have mastered elegant humor and satire.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Imagining a world without cliches intrigues me. Consider the definition of the word: “An expression, idea, or action that has been overused to the point of seeming worn out, stale, ineffective, or meaningless.” Cliches, whether in thought or in printed or spoken word, are nothing but lazy shortcuts for doing the real work of coming up with original ways to express ourselves with specificity. Very often, they perpetuate thoughtless and/or derogatory stereotypes. I ride my editing clients hard to recognize and nuke clichés in their writing. They’re often taken aback by how the cliché weakens the writing and projects sentiments they may not have intended. The world would be a kinder place if we were forced to phrase things from our own souls, and truly consider what we say or write before spewing it into the world. Consciously ditching cliches would be a good place to start. (Writers call that self-editing, an essential skill.)
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My Facebook page is Ellen Notbohm, Author. I’m also on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn. My two blogs, The Writer by Starlight (fiction/writing) and The Next Thing You Know (nonfiction) are on my website, ellennotbohm.com.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!