Writing from the heart is the only kind of writing that’s really worth anything. Your heart, as the truest, deepest part of you, is the source of writing that’s meaningful and valuable and transformative. And that’s the only kind of writing those of us who are in the business of making books for children should want any part of.
Most picture books start with an impulse to make a difference to children; most picture books start in someone’s heart. One of my favorite poets, Hafiz, who lived in Persia in the fourteenth century, had this to say:
“Write a little note to yourself about when your heart was most
alive. Carry that with you for a fortnight;
some tiny transference of love could happen to all you near,
when your memory touches what was once sacred to you.”
I think that’s the place from where you want to write: the place where your heart is most alive, the part that’s in touch with what is sacred, the part that is so powerful it can touch and transform all you go near. It’s an enlivening, transcendent place.
But the vexing part is this: often, the more engaged their hearts, the more intensely writers feel, the more uptight they become. They become sentimental, fall into cliché or triteness, become didactic and unsubtle; and the work that had its impulse in the transcendent becomes hard to read and impossible to publish.
How do you avoid the trap?
You have to adopt a two-pronged approach. Both ask nothing less than a total commitment to yourself and your work.
Are you ready?
The first part involves mechanics and craft. It’s hard to put emotion into words: “Words fail me” is often used in the face of intense feelings. Emotions come from the heart, words from the mind—they’re different languages.
As a writer, it’s your job to be the translator, to be the bridge between the language the heart speaks and the language the mind speaks. Your job is to find words that are good enough for the feelings so that you do the heart justice. Bad writing belittles the heart; good writing celebrates it and—just as Hafiz said—touches all around it.
In order to be a good translator you have to become fluent in the use of words and images, fluent in the use of the techniques and tricks of the writing craft. You have to bring the same degree of absorption to the words and the picture book medium as you do to the feeling. Masterful writing is forged in the mind and is the result of an intellectual process with which you can engage and can learn to love.
The second part requires that you stay open to the most vulnerable part of yourself—that you stay in your heart—even though you’d rather jump out into places that are more comfortable.
Your heart is where the juice is. And if you dig deeper, stay with the process, refuse to take the easy way out, you’ll discover the truth of your own heart; and that’s the only truth worth sharing with children.
How to do it?
You take heart. I love that expression. To take heart is to feel encouraged, to receive courage—”courage” meaning the strength to withstand the danger, face the fear, sit with the discomfort, persevere. According to Merriam-Webster, the word has its origin in the “Middle English corage; from Anglo-French curage, from quer, coer heart.”
There you have it; at the root of courage is heart. The Tao Te Ching—that wonderful book of Chinese wisdom—says that courage is derived from love because loving causes the ability to be brave. Indeed.
So you have to be courageous; write from the core, deep in the heart. Start there, voyage through the mind, and return—enlivened—to sprinkle your work with magic heart dust. The fairies will understand.