Elana K. Arnold writes books for and about children and teens. She holds a master’s degree in Creative Writing/Fiction from the University of California, Davis where she has taught Creative Writing and Adolescent Literature. A parent and educator living in Huntington Beach, California, Elana is represented by Rubin Pfeffer of Rubin Pfeffer Content. She is a frequent speaker at schools, libraries, and writers’ conferences. Currently, Elana is the caretaker of seven pets, only two of which have fur.
Read Now Sleep Later: Is writing a social or a solitary task for you?
Elana K. Arnold: This is an interesting question! Historically, I write at home or at a café, both of which are generally loud and disorderly spots—the café, with music I didn’t choose, the hum of other peoples’ conversations, the hiss of the cappuccino maker, the buzz of refrigeration and electricity; at home, with the looping music from my son’s computer games, the bark of the hounds, the hiss or purr of the cats, depending, the loud laughter from my daughter and her friends, the bossy squawk of Bird. All these sounds smashed together fill the parts of my brain that might otherwise be inclined, in total silence, to do unproductive things like worry or make lists. With a room full of color and texture and dissonance, my brain is able to focus, horse-blinder-like, on the story in front of me.
But I recently had a wonderful experience. I went away for four days with my good friend Martha Brockenbrough (if you haven’t yet read her award-winning The Game of Love and Death, you are in for a treat!), and we sat side-by-side and wrote. We read out loud just-crafted lines that particularly thrilled us; we refilled each other’s coffee cups and served one another chocolate. Each afternoon we took a miles-long walk; each evening we ate well. In the span of four days, I wrote sixty pages of a brand-new book, unlike anything I’d ever thought I would write.
RNSL: Is there a quirk that you have as a writer that you think few others have in common with you?
EKA: Do you know that voice—the one that sometimes whispers, sometimes yells, that you are not enough, that you will never be good enough, that the thing you are trying to create is beyond you, and who are you, anyway, to imagine you deserve the things you so desire?
I think most of us know that voice very well. I do—my proximity to this mean narrator is not exceptional. But the way I deal with it, perhaps, is.
This is what I do, when I am trying to work and the voice needles in. This is what I literally, actually do: I set aside my computer. I stand up. I put my fingers in my ears, I yell LALALALALA, and I jump up and down.
Have you ever tried this? If you haven’t, you should. Because it works! I’ve thought about why it works, and this is what I’ve concluded:
- Endorphins. Jumping up and down is exercise, and exercise makes you feel better.
- Yelling LALALALALA is louder than the mean voice, and it drowns it out!
- Jumping up and down, plugging my ears, and yelling LALALALALA is a ridiculous thing to do, and it makes me feel ridiculous, and it makes me laugh at myself, which is much kinder than berating myself.
RNSL: You write for middle grade as well as young adults. Do you have a preference for one versus the other, now that you’ve done both? What is behind that preference (or lack of preference)?
EKA: I don’t have a preference. I actually like to work on both a younger-geared project and a more “adult” or “young adult” project at the same time. I find that each serves a palate-cleanser for the other. I work on a book in at least two spaces—the forebrain and the hindbrain. When I am actively typing or even consciously thinking about a story, that’s forebrain work. But if I am in the midst of writing a book, even when I’ve stepped away from it, I’m still working—this is hindbrain work. I can feel the work happening in the back of my head, like a rumble or a clenching muscle. My hindbrain is working things out, and when it’s got something sorted—like a plot point or the character’s motivation for a particular action—it shoots a message to the forebrain, where it feels as if the idea strikes like lightening, or a gift from a muse. There is no lightning bolt; there is no muse. There’s just my brain, chugging along, whether I’m paying attention or not.
RNSL: Quick! You’ve only got one minute to inspire another writer—what’s the one piece of advice you make sure to give them before you part ways?
EKA: Two things. First, a question: What does every book in a library have in common? Answer: An ending.
I spent many years starting projects that I became bored of, resentful of, and terrified of before I ever managed to finish something. And finishing is desperately important. If you don’t finish projects, then you get really good at beginnings and really good at quitting.
There is no perfect idea. Any idea can become a great book… but not unless you finish it. Once you’ve finished, you get to craft what you’ve created into something better. And finishing doesn’t have to mean completing a 300-page manuscript; maybe it means recognizing that you are running out of steam, and rather than dropping the project entirely, you force yourself to write an ending, even an unsatisfying one, before you set it aside. Get in the practice of finishing things. It feels good, much better than leaving a trail of half-incarnated story bodies in your wake.
And second: This. Be gentle with yourself. There is time. You are a whole person—a writer, yes, but also a flesh-incarnated human who deserves your own gentle hand.
RNSL: Cake or pie—and why?
EKA: Pie! I love the crust, and all the variations that are possible—cream-filled, custard, tangy lime, bittersweet berry, silky chocolate. Gah. Now I am hungry.