Thursday, August 18, 2011

How I Got Hooked on Writing by Deborah Blumenthal

When I make school visits, one of the questions that always comes up -- aside from, “How much money do you make?” and “How old are you?” -- is “What made you become a writer?”

The answer I always give is, a tantrum. At that point, I get a variety of confused looks.

But it’s true.

When my older daughter was about three, we were over at the house of a friend of hers from nursery school and she was having such a good time that we overstayed our welcome. She was hungry and tired and when I tried to get her to go home, she had a meltdown. It was a freezing, cold day and I carried her out under one arm while I hailed a cab with the other. Somewhere along the way I never fail to mention that on that day I was wearing a lovely new black suede coat that she wiped her nose on. (Eighteen years later, I still have the coat and I can show you the evidence, since the most aggressive dry cleaning failed to obliterate it.)

When we got home I put her into her crib and she fell fast asleep. The next thing I did was call the pediatrician. Were explosions like that normal? This one was off the charts. I begged him for advice, but he waved away my concern and quickly hung up to go back to treating ear infections. Not knowing what else to do, I sat down at the typewriter (prehistoric, I know). I coupled that experience with the tantrums my older daughter regularly had when it was time to leave the park and go home and I turned them both into a picture book called, THE CHOCOLATE-COVERED-COOKIE TANTRUM. It came out about three years later, and I was hooked on writing children’s books.

Before I started writing children’s books, I freelanced regularly for The New York Times. That began rather serendipitously too. I was a borderline vegetarian at the time, and my new husband, a reporter for the paper, was a die-hard carnivore. I was having oatmeal for dinner one night, while he was dining on steak. Could I convert him to vegetarianism? Our his-hers accounts of our experimental week of eating vegetarian made it into the paper and I was hooked on reporting.

So I throw out the question. Was there one seismic event that propelled you into the field? If not, can you look back and find one memorable experience in your life that you can draw upon for your next book? Look inside yourself, I tell the school kids I talk to. Sometimes I need to remind myself to listen to my own advice too.

Deborah Blumenthal is the author of thirteen books.

Her latest picture book is, THE BLUE HOUSE DOG, (Peachtree Publishers.

THE LIFEGUARD, her latest YA novel, will be published by Albert Whitman & Co., on March 1st.


  1. For me, it was the birth of my second child. I realized my life was only going to get busier!

    I was never going to have a wide open stretch of free time to write. I decided I'd have to write in the slivers of time I could carve out of my normal days...two years later I had a first draft. :)

  2. I was writing a new novel when my father drowned this past spring--it was one of those fluky sort of accidents that, in one moment, changed the shape of everything in my life. After that, I started writing about that day and the changed shape of my family as a way to process, to take what was inside me and just get it out. Before I knew it, though, I realized I was writing a narrative and that it was pressing, so I switched gears to write non-fiction for a while.

  3. I love hearing stories about how writers turn those tantrum experiences (or others) into books. When I was a kid, I liked asking questions (and really enjoyed getting answers). So, I became a journalist. I've had several writing adventures since then.

  4. Congratulations on your new YA book! That's so exciting. And I love the story about the tantrum. I can relate!

    For me, I knew that I wanted to write books that made people feel things when I was in the second grade. As early as I can remember, age 5, I was very worried about every single thing that I had no control over, like whale-killings and nuclear war and dolphins being trapped in tuna nets. I cried a lot, and I had trouble sleeping. As soon as I could write, I started venting this anxiety through stories and poems. I wanted to make people feel as deeply as I did. I guess I wanted to share my anxiety but also my hope. That sounds weird--sharing my anxiety--but it was really like taking the overwhelming emotions inside myself and putting them outside my self, on the page. Writing is like meditating. It still is. I've never been one to think of writing as a painful act. All on its own, publication or not, it's a catharsis for me. XO. Thanks for the great post!!!!

  5. Deborah - great story, I love that you still have the ruined coat!

    I've been writing stories all my life, ever since I learned the alphabet. I guess my first seismic "hook" was the sheer joy of realizing that anyone with a pencil (or a crayon) could actually accomplish this magical feat of putting thoughts and wishes onto paper. I have always loved the sequence of writing -- the stringing together of words in a way that's "just right."

    I remember being 9, spending a summer out in the garage with a rusty manual typewriter, pecking out each letter, trying to write my own version of Harriet the Spy. Again: the thrill of realizing that ideas could be transferred onto paper and shared!

    It feels like I keep getting detached from -- and then re-hooked on -- writing at different life points. I spent some years taking my writing oh-so-seriously, and then more years deciding that I had no time to "really" write the way I wanted to... so why bother?

    (I know, self-defeating...)

    Since my son's birth, 11+ years ago, the best writing I've done has been in the form of long emails to far-off friends. Emails are fleeting, yeah, but many nights I've composed an email with relish, wanting to relay a thought or scene or emotion in an email. Yet I probably would never have done that writing if I'd framed it in terms of "let me spend a few moments on my craft."

    Lately (approaching 50!) I have felt a greater courage and urgency about writing. I sense a shift inside: words still matter, and I still love choosing and scrutinizing each one... but it is the STORY that presses me forward now, more than the well-wrought line.

    Not sure this truly answers your question, Deborah, but thank you for posting it and offering a chance to think it aloud.

    BTW, I remember you and Ralph from dinners in NYC!

  6. I teach high school, and I have to tell you that teenage girls will LOVE that cover...and perhaps a few moms, but that's another story...

    And that's what sucks me into writing. The idea that we can look at people, but we have no idea what goes on in their lives. Unless, of course, we tell their stories.

    So much has happened in my own life that I find those experiences become valuable when I can use them to reach out to strangers.

  7. I was in a car accident with a semi truck. I returned to my writing roots because I could no longer draw and it was my only artistic outlet. Now nine years after the accident, I'm pursuing writing as a profession.

  8. Yes, congratulations on everything indeed! For me, it had to be when I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling. It was my first on-the-edge-of-my-seat and read-every-freaking-place-I-go-even-when-I-get-odd-stares book, and it made me realize what someone could do with words. And I wanted to do it too.

    Please check out my blog, where I play hide-and-go seek with philosophy inside of the books I read, at Thanks!

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