1. In one paragraph, can you give us some highlights from the favorite book you’ve written.
I find it interesting that my favorite children’s manuscript hasn’t been published, though I’ve submitted it a number of times. Maybe this is because, as some say, artists are generally poor judges of the quality of their own work. But maybe it’s because it’s actually a very good manuscript and just needs someone to take a chance on it. In any case, it makes me think about something basic to a writer’s life. If you write only for yourself, your life as an artist will be relatively uncomplicated. But if you offer your writing to other people, you have to be ready for all the natural complications involved. If only it was as straightforward as “Write something good”! My The Great Snail Race relies on the simple humor of such slow animals in a race, the racers seeing themselves as amazingly swift. That cracks me up, and I loved developing the idea. So I keep submitting it.
2. How important do you think it is to incorporate personal experiences in writing?
This is one of those classic bits of writer advice, isn’t it? “Write what you know.” Like a lot of such advice, it’s profound, but it doesn’t always apply. Again, things aren’t always that simple. Some of the best writing comes from people who know, for example, a certain job or field really well, and who present that in their writing in a powerful way. Richard Russo’s Straight Man is set in a college English department, and Russo clearly writes about that world from the inside; he himself taught in a similar department. This profoundly enriches the book (and is, by the way, the source of a lot of its comedy). On the other hand, a book like Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is science-fiction; it describes a trip to another planet, something Russell obviously hasn’t experienced herself. But each of these books is powerful, each is believable, and each captured me, sucked me into its world. So writing what you don’t know can work too.
On the other hand, it’s probably impossible NOT to include personal experience in some form or another. It leaches into your art whether you want it to or not. Russell, for example, left the Catholic Church at age 15, but The Sparrow is, for all its spiritual questioning, a very Catholic book.
3. Describe your path to publication.
What continually surprises me about my path was how unconscious it was. I started writing in sixth grade (due to the encouragement of a teacher, to whom I’m deeply grateful), and pretty much kept writing from that point on. But I never thought of myself as a writer, and even through early adulthood never even considered submitting my work; publication just wasn’t part of my thinking. I feel very blessed in that obliviousness, since it allowed me to develop as an artist in a pretty “pure” way; I followed my own nose. To me, writing wasn’t different from living, any more than eating or singing or seeking romantic love were. It was as if I was an apple on a branch, ripening at no other pace but the slow pace of summer itself. In time I began to feel—again, very naturally and almost unconsciously—a desire to have readers. So I began to submit. During a trip to Hawaii I learned about two Hawaiian fish with very long names and, thoroughly charmed by those syllables, asked myself: If the humuhumunukunukuapua’a married the lauwiliwilinukunukuoioi, what would they ever name their child? That led to Let’s Call Him Lauwiliwilihumuhumunukunukunukunukuapua’aoioi!, my first book, published in 1990.
4. How did being the oldest in a family of eleven children influence your writing?
What a wonderful question—I haven’t really thought about that before! It would seem that my writing for children was a direct result of that. I basically write for adults; I didn’t become a children’s writer till I began telling stories to my own kids. But the oldest of 11 is in something of a parental relationship to younger siblings, and that happened to me. I loved thinking about this question—it gave me one more example of how a writer is given so much simply by life itself, if he or she pays enough attention to such gifts.
5. Poetry and children’s books seem like the require very different skills. Are there similarities in your writing process for both genres?
Interestingly, writing a poem and writing a picture book, at least, are quite similar. In each case you’re working with a lower word count, working with compression of language, and every word counts in a big way. Of course every word counts in all writing—but a novel, for example, doesn’t pressure you with the same intense focus as a shorter work usually does. I began writing as a poet, wrote almost nothing but poetry for a long time, and have three books of adult poetry out; I found that that was excellent preparation for writing picture books.
6. And you writes songs too! How does that fit in to your writing journey?
This is a perfect question to follow #5, since the answer is a variation on that theme. Of course there are plenty of longer music formats, but I mostly write individual songs, three or four minutes long. This makes a song lyric very much like a lyric poem, and in a number of ways. Again, every word is critical, and saying a lot with a little is the name of the game. And, of course, working effectively with language rhythms is essential to both a poem and a song lyric.
There are two main differences, though. Some songs, like ballads, have very normal and predictable line rhythms in their lyrics, which are easier to write. But some melodies jump all over the place, which means the lyricist is, essentially, writing a new poetic form for each song of this kind. It can get very tricky rhythmically, and you not only have to make your lines flow naturally with the beat—you also want to them to sparkle, to forcefully pull listeners in, and then to work in all the ways good poetry does.
The other difference, though, is an astonishing advantage, and it’s a huge part of why I can’t resist songwriting. Music is to a song lyric as a score is to a movie. Whatever I’m trying to say in the lyric, if the music is right it lifts and empowers the words in a way that constantly surprises and delights me. When you get it right, music and lyrics seem to combust together, making magic. So, again, just as writing picture books goes hand in hand with writing poetry, so does songwriting.
7. What tools do you use when you are choosing words for your poetry?
I love this question. I love it because it’s at the heart of my life as a writer, an artist of language. I choose words for all my writing with a passion and attention that come from knowing how utterly important those choices are.
The great English painter JMW Turner, like many painters, was constantly experimenting with new colors and developing his palette. As one expert says, “Pigments found within his water colours include Gamboge, Quercitron Yellow, Vermilion, various iron oxides including Ochres, Umbers and Siennas, Indian Yellow, ‘Green Lake’, Prussian Blue, Indigo, Cobalt Blue, Blue Verditer, Rose Madder, other red lake pigments possibly Carmine, Bone Black, and Mercuric Iodide (genuine scarlet).” I love the names of those colors—because a writer loves words like a painter loves colors. Part of my word choice is intellectual. But a lot of it is from the heart, and from that strange but powerful sense we all have, to whatever degree, of beauty. I don’t mean that all word choices should be “beautiful” in the usual sense, but that all must have the force that comes not only from an exact choice but also from an inspired one.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Tim J. Myers. To learn more visit his website: http://www.timmyersstorysong.com/TM_Website/Homepage.html. He’s also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TimJMyers1 and Twitter @TmyersStorySong.