Friday, August 10, 2012

How I Became a Teaching Author

I still remember how something shifted inside of me, back in kindergarten, the moment I realized that the 26 letters on those dark green cards stapled in a row above the chalkboard were enough to create every word I’d ever heard. And, what?! Reading was simply a matter of knowing the sounds of those letters? Ding! I was hooked. Before long, some of my best friends lived in books. I loved writing stories, too – little dramas about lost bears, frightened owlets, marauding raccoons (camping weekends and Disney nature movies were big in my family, can you tell?) So writing stories was an early passion, but one that got lost along the way in the busyness of life.

It wasn’t until I started reading picture books to my own kids that I recalled those bone-deep storytelling roots and was bitten by the maybe-I-could-do-this bug. I took a short class at a local community college called The ABCs of Writing for Children, then proceeded to dive in – making a lot of mistakes. Oh, so many mistakes. (I once submitted an unfinished story hoping an editor would like it enough to help me come up with an ending.) I read dozens of writing instruction books, absorbed wisdom at writing conferences, and, every so often, received rejection letters that included pointers that simultaneously enlightened and mortified. 

Fortunately forty-five of my poems, stories, and articles were published in children’s magazines over the next few years, but I was still struggling to write a picture book story that somebody besides my dog enjoyed. One writing friend dubbed me The Rejection Queen, not just because I got so many (which I did), but because I was so cool about them – those babies just bounced off my Teflon skin. After four and a half years of pouring heart and soul into the effort, I finally received The Call. When I heard that my Stink Soup was going to be published, I fell into chair, hyperventilating. The editor instructed me to find a paper bag to breathe into, then waited while I did so. Yep, one cool customer. 

In the ten years since The Call, I’ve taught many workshops, including an ongoing one at the University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival, and spent five years as an instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature. I co-host the Whispering Woods Picture Book Writing Workshop/Retreat each July and also do private critiques for aspiring picture book writers. Turns out, I love teaching as much as writing. And when a story I’ve critiqued earns another writer The Call? That’s almost as exciting as getting my own, way back when. Minus the hyperventilating.


My twelfth book will be published this fall. Yet writing still isn’t – and never will be – a job to me. Like reading the best stories, trying to write them leads to unexpected adventure, loads of fun, occasional mayhem, and many serendipitous moments of joy. . . .

Like being invited to join these TeachingAuthors I’ve long admired. Yay! 

Jill Esbaum

Wait, don't go! Remember our mystery guest? If you haven't yet entered to win a copy of Sylvia Vardell's The Poetry Teacher's Book of Lists in our current book giveaway, please do!

10 comments:

Carmela Martino said...

>>I love teaching as much as writing. And when a story I’ve critiqued earns another writer The Call? That’s almost as exciting as getting my own, way back when. <<
Same here, Jill! :-)
As Esther said in her post, you were a TeachingAuthor long before you joined our team. Welcome aboard!

Jill said...

Thanks, Carmela!

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Welcome, Jill!
And, isn't Life grand, the way it twists and turns and then re-turns to our lives those we've so admired and cottoned to.
TOM'S TWEET! is on my Buy and Read list.
Your Fan Esther

Miranda Paul said...

Glad to see you on this site, Jill. You're one of the best Teacher-Authors I've had the pleasure of learning from. Thank you for sharing your story! ~Miranda

Pat Zietlow Miller said...

Jill! It's great to see you here. I love this blog.

Lori Degman said...

Congratulations, Jill, on joining this outstanding group of teaching authors!! I loved reading about your journey into writing - almost as much as I love reading your picture books! I'm looking forward to reading your posts!

Jill said...

Esther said: isn't Life grand, the way it twists and turns and then re-turns to our lives those we've so admired and cottoned to.

That's pretty much exactly what I thought when I was asked to join you, Esther. :)

Thanks, Miranda, Pat, and Lori! Glad to connect with all of you here!

cathyso3 said...

Congratulations, Jill! I loved your post and look forward to reading more.

Jeanette W. Stickel said...

Thank you for sharing your background. I especially enjoyed the description of your experience as a kindergarten student. Reading opens doors to wonderful worlds and friendships! I love watching those doors open for my students.

Jill said...

Thanks, Cathy. And, Jeanette, I so agree!