Tuesday, February 10, 2015

On Shifting Gears and Your Creativity

By Elizabeth O. Dulemba, @dulemba

Part of the How They Do It Series

Once again, I'm thrilled to welcome a wonderful friend and author back to the lecture hall. Elizabeth O. Dulemba is a woman of many talents--from illustrator to picture book author to author of middle grade and young adult fiction, to educator and speaker. She's here today to share some thoughts on shifting gears and keeping your creativity fed.

Elizabeth is an award-winning children's book author/illustrator with two dozen titles to her credit. She is a board member for the Georgia Center for the Book, and a Visiting Associate Professor at Hollins University in the MFA in Children's Book Writing and Illustrating program. She speaks regularly at schools, festivals, and events, and her "Coloring Page Tuesday" images (free to parents, teachers and librarians) garner around a million hits to her website annually with over 3,500 subscribers to her newsletter. A BIRD ON WATER STREET (Little Pickle Press) is her first novel and has already won six awards: it is a Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Okra Pick; a Gold Mom’s Choice Award; and is THE 2014 National Book Festival Featured Title for the state of Georgia in Washington, D.C.; an eLit 2014 Gold Medal in the Environment/Ecology/Nature category; a GOLD Moonbeam Children's Book Award in the Pre-teen fiction, historical/cultural category; and the Academics' Choice Award. Learn more at here.

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Take it away Elizabeth...

I learned to drive a stick shift pretty early in my driving career. I had a ’78 Toyota Land Cruiser and I loved that thing silly. It wasn’t the best vehicle for the highways with a top speed of 70mph and no air conditioning. (There were two floor vents I could kick open for air.) But for the wild and wooly places, I could lock the hubs on the front tires to buy more traction and chug through woods and up hills no mere car could ever go. One time I did get stuck in a puddle that was much deeper than it appeared, but I earned a proud dent in the fender to show for the enormous Bronco that pulled me out of that mess. All those off road adventures made me really good with that four speed transmission – I became a gear-shifting aficionado!

Like in my Land Cruiser, I learned to shift gears in my writing career too (about as off-road a career as you can choose). As long as I can remember I wanted to intrigue people with images of magic and wonder. I was labeled ‘the artist’ at a young age, so my path seemed obvious. And that is indeed how I broke into the children’s book industry – as an illustrator – about fourteen years ago, with The Prince’s Diary.

Little did folks realize, all those drawings I grew up creating were actually illustrations for the stories that filled my head. So, shortly into my career as illustrator, I began to shift gears and write my stories as well. I’d been drawing much longer than I’d been writing, so it took a while to get good at it. In fact, it took seven years for my first picture book as both author and illustrator to sell, Soap, soap, soap ~ Jabón, jabón, jabón. Since then, I’ve written and illustrated several books, including Lula’s Brew and the new Strong4Life™ series published by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

So, okay, I wasn’t just an illustrator. Turns out I was a writer too.

Then I was grabbed by a story that was too big to fit into a picture book. A Bird on Water Street, my debut mid-grade novel, came out this spring. While I’d been living with this creation for a while, to the outside world, this was a major shift in gears for my career. Truth be told, the novel took ten years from its inception until its release, and it’s not the only one. I have three other work-in-progress novels. But it did change my ride.

So, now I’m not just an illustrator and an author, I’m a novelist too.

Add to that, I teach Picture Book Design in the MFA in Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books at Hollins University, do school visits and speak at conferences, am a board member for the Georgia Center for the Book, and served as Illustrator Coordinator for the southern SCBWI chapter for over six years. How many gears is that now?

But I’ve found that a career in children’s books is not at all like driving a simple automatic. Few writer/illustrators I know do just one thing – most do several. Most shift gears all the time, even if it’s not visible to the public as yet.

The trick is managing the gear shifts.

All these creative endeavors fight for my time. The teaching and volunteering come with hours that don’t have much flexibility. And I’ve found the writing Muse to be much more demanding than I ever would have guessed. She doesn’t like to share. So, unless I make a concerted effort, my illustration gear can get less attention than it should. It’s part of why I’m pursuing an MFA in Illustration at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) this fall. It was my original passion and needs to be fed.

Truly, managing all these gears is a juggling act. I have to make sure none of them are neglected. When I get stuck in some deep puddles of creative and/or scheduling angst – I just lock the hubs of my focus, sometimes on whichever wheel is squeaking the loudest, sometimes on which path seems to hold the most promise, other times I make myself take the less traveled roads because I know I need to. I’ll work on my blog in the morning, write articles after that, illustrate after lunch, and write in the late afternoon, then draw new ideas or coloring pages while watching television at night. And I can’t forget to exercise – every smooth-running car needs tune-ups. No two days are alike!

Like shifting gears in my Land Cruiser, the more I do it, the better at it I get (I like to think). And it can make for a very interesting journey! But all the time, I love this multi-geared writing and illustrating career something silly. And I’ll keep going where no mere career could ever take me.

About A Bird on Water Street

When the birds return to Water Street, will anyone be left to hear them sing?

A Bird on Water Street is a coming of age story about Jack, a boy growing up in a Southern Appalachian town environmentally devastated by a century of poor copper-mining practices and pollution. Jack is opposed to the mine where so many of his relatives have died, but how can he tell that to his Dad who wants him to follow in the family trade? Jack just wants his dad safe and the land returned to its pre-mining glory with trees, birds, frogs, and nature--like he's learning about in school. After Jack's uncle is killed in a mining accident and the Company implements a massive layoff, the union organizes and the miners go on strike. It seems Jack's wish is coming true. But the cost may be the ruin of his home and everything he loves.

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  1. Thanks so much for having me on Janice!! :) e

  2. Elizabeth I find this post so encouraging. I am an illustrator who started writing novels, realised I needed lots of education on the subject. Somehow thought it would be easier to start with a picture book and illustrate it as well, (found a new passion). Now I find I am working on many projects and teaching myself as I go along. Thank you for giving me hope that its okay to keep pushing my boundaries, I thought I was a tad crazy and told myself it will take me a couple of years to see these things through. Good luck with the newest project you are very inspiring.

    1. I'm so glad you found my post helpful! Truly, the only creative limitations we have are those we place on ourselves. I also think writing picture books is the best writerly training an author can get! Best of luck to you. :) e

  3. E, we met at Highlights a few months ago and you are still continuing to inspire me. Thanks for "I’ve found the writing Muse to be much more demanding than I ever would have guessed . . . unless I make a concerted effort, my illustration gear can get less attention than it should." I've been deeply doubting my passions and calling. This was just the thought I needed to see my course more clearly. 'Hope you will continue to keep us updated as you begin this next phase of your life. Thanks!

    1. Hi Joanne! It can get confusing when so many Muses are vying for your time, but I think we can feed them all if we manage our own time appropriately. Happy creating! :) e