Monday, March 8, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Rachel Rodriguez (and another giveaway!)

Happy Monday morning, everyone! Today we're getting a tour of the workspace of my friend Rachel Rodriguez. Rachel is the author of two picture books: Through Georgia's Eyes, a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, and Building on Nature: The Life of Antoni Gaudi, a biography of the Spanish architect. They are beautiful books, both illustrated by Julie Paschkis. Rachel tells the story of these artists' lives with a poetic voice and strong imagery. Listen to this:

"For a time, Georgia lives in the city. She walks through canyons of concrete. She misses the outdoor world. The sun steals a bite from a skyscraper."

Isn't that great? It drops me right back into my city-living days. Here is my favorite passage from Georgia:

"A canyon calls her. From the bottom at dusk she sees a long line of cows above, black lace against a dusky sky."

Black lace against a dusky sky. Beautiful. Here's a passage from Building on Nature that I like because it reminds me to be true to my own creative vision:

"Everyone gapes at Gaudi's grand twists of imagination. But not everyone enjoys his strange buildings. Gaudi pays no attention to the talk. He listens to himself."

Rachel is currently working on a middle grade novel, which I've had the pleasure of reading. (It's gooood! Very different from her previous books but her beautiful prose is the common thread.) Rachel also works as a national speech coach and frequently visits schools to talk about her writing life. She's represented by Laura Rennert at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. You can find out more information about Rachel at her website www.rachelrodriguezbooks.com.

One more thing before we step into Rachel's office--I have another giveaway! It just so happens that I have an extra copy of Building on Nature and when I last visited the Bay Area I had Rachel sign it, just in case. If you would like to win a signed copy of Building on Nature: The Life of Antoni Gaudi, comment on this post any time this week up until Friday at 5pm MST and your name will be entered in a raffle. (Make sure to either include an email where I can reach you if you win, or check back later this week to see if you're the winner.)

Now let's tour Rachel's workspace, shall we?



Describe your workspace.

I love my home office with its big bay windows overlooking a plum tree-lined street next to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. This workspace has the writerly essentials: a big desk, a super comfy ergo chair I can sit in for hours at a time, and an endless supply of chocolate bars. Sun streams in the west-facing windows all afternoon—unless of course it is a foggy day (or foggy summer, which is every summer in San Francisco). Then a depressing bleak, gray pall seeps in which, fortunately, also encourages me to keep writing because there is not a speck of sun tempting me to go frolic outside. Better to bundle up in a fleece parka, make some hot tea and—you got it—keep writing.

Best of all, sunny and foggy weather both inspire me to take my post-lunch, 30-minute Power Writer Nap (PWN) every day. PWN’s are essential to my being a happy camper and productive writer. Anyone else?



Describe a typical workday.

I am a morning person so I usually exercise, eat breakfast, and arrive at my desk by 8:30. When I was younger, I thought just proclaiming “Oh, I’m a writer” meant that I somehow produced work. It’s taken me a long time to make friends with discipline and commitment. I’m humbler now, and more serious about my chosen work, and I’ve discovered what schedule for writing works best for me. For every writer I know, it looks different. For me, I try to stick to a 9-5 Monday through Friday schedule of writing, just like people working in an office. I break for lunch, enjoy my 30-minute PWN and keep working. I’m proud to say my current novel-in-progress has been written with many PWN’s fueling the effort. During the afternoon, I sometimes break things up and go to a cafĂ© to work. Or if I play hooky during the afternoon then I might do a bit more writing in the evening. I try to put off any errands until late afternoon since though they can feel urgent, they mostly aren’t!

Beyond the daily schedule, I consider my in-person writing group meetings as critical to my work. I’m in two in-person groups that meet three times a month total. For me, these regular gatherings are like staff meetings. I use these deadlines to revise chapters to get feedback on my work-in-progress.

Office mates, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready for work.



My that afternoon sunshine feels good. . . a little too good.



No one is safe from the afternoon sun induced PWN


List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

I took a picture of two inspiring objects. One is the black and white photo postcard of artist Georgia O’Keeffe in a lounge chair with her pad and pens writing her daily letter to her husband Alfred Stieglitz. The other is the little mosaic lizard from Antoni Gaudi’s famed Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain. I love the sparkle in O’Keeffe’s eyes, her direct gaze and smile. Gaudi’s famous mosaic lizard statue in Park Guell was the product (as all his works were) of his incredible imagination. I consider both items an invitation to maintain my own dedicated practice to the writing craft. These two objects remind me of the books I’ve already published and the people who inspired them.

Perhaps a third item is my bulletin board, filled with art by people important to my life: my five-year-old niece Sofia, grown up artist friends and also Julie Paschkis, the illustrator for my two books. I like looking up at everyone’s art, and feeling inspired and part of a community of artists.


Do you have any rituals to your writing process? If so, describe them.

A friend once said that if you drew a picture of a capital “W” sitting on a line, that is the universal symbol for commitment. Huh? Okay, the “W” represents a butt on the line. Try to draw it yourself: remember the W can’t float above the line—it must touch the line! For me, my biggest ritual is putting my rear on the line, literally sitting down and committing to writing every day. It’s a very simple one, but maybe the hardest one for most new writers to embrace and live every day.

What do you listen to while you work?

Sadly, I must go in my writer’s cave of no distractions and need absolute quiet. As I used to say in my student library employee days at UC Berkeley . . . SHH! (Okay, I really didn’t say that. Actually, patrons used to approach to the circ desk on my Sunday night shift to tell us student library employees to Keep It Down! because our regular outbursts of (ahem) boisterous laughter were perhaps a bit too non-librarian like.

Anyway, I wish I could listen to music while I work, like some writers. How do you other writers do it? It’s later, away from the desk, when I go for a walk or exercise that I use my iPod and continue brainstorming about a character or scene problem I am trying to resolve.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

My evil writing twin would have me eating vanilla bean cupcakes from Citizen Cake bakery like there’s no tomorrow. Mwah-ha-ha! Hand me the 12 pack of vanilla bean goodness now!

Instead, I drink water or my favorite Good Earth tea (organic, herbal, yum!). Sometimes I snack on dried mango or other fruit and almonds.

Lest this picture sound too freaking Northern California healthy and we cue the scary Kumbaya sound track—I do reward myself with a key snack every day by late morning or early afternoon—dark chocolate with almonds. Yum! I’m not the only one in my office who likes this snack. No sir. By afternoon, everyone gets a bit restless and stir crazy and eager for a tasty treat. See photo evidence.


Stalking the chocolate.

Also, I’ve come to think of writing a novel as not unlike running a marathon. Never mind I’ve never run an actual marathon. Lately, round about “mile 20” (aka, two in the afternoon), I get out a flavored gel packet which I normally imbibe on my weekend bike rides around San Francisco Bay. Some might call this writing snack weird, and even bizarrely disgusting. But come now, let’s not worry about those synthetic, semi-scary and mysterious chemical sounding ingredients. Mango, vanilla bean, or cinnamon apple gel is rather delicious. I suck down a packet, pretend I’m doing great in this “race” to finish my story, mentally pat myself on the back and keep going.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

I’ve found the internet disabling software called Freedom. It’s available online and it’s FREE! It’s very easy to download. Typically, I will disable my internet connection for three hours at a time. It’s awesome and I get more work done when I can’t jump online and check email or read the NYT’s headlines for the 20th time that day. Even one hour offline allows me to avoid the Evil Internet Monster and drop down to a level of focus I don’t otherwise attain. Did I mention Freedom is free? Check it out.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

Most of the time, I write in the computer. I'll sometimes take a break and use my old school clipboard full of recycled paper and scribble notes about a character or scene. I haven't yet covered a wall of my house in butcher paper and done chapter by chapter novel analysis that way but I wanna see what that looks like!

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

All of the above! I plunge into drafting new scenes and chapters, then stop and take a step back to look at my WIP from an outline view, go back to writing more, talk with writer friends about a particular challenge I may have in evolving the story. I like what Shannon Hale said, that she sees writing as exploratory, not explanatory. I think all new novelists also stumble about a bit to figure out how to develop their story ideas, and get to discover what works best for them. I got to hear Margaret Atwood being interviewed on stage here in SF. She mentioned that for her novel The Blind Assassin, she wrote the first 120 pages and a plot device wasn't working, so she had to scrap those first 100 plus pages. The Blind Assassin went on to win the prestigious Booker Prize. I take huge comfort now in knowing that many novelists stumble through figuring out their stories.


student made banner from Orion Book Festival


If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

Did you say Johnny Depp was a choice? Oh. Or, erm, Clooney? Oh, okay, okay then, you know I had to ask. Well, I actually think it would be cool to share a workspace with some of my favorite shero children’s lit and young adult authors—Maggie Stiefvater, Kate DiCamillo, or Nancy Farmer for starters. A fellow kid lit author also in a couple writing groups with me, Deborah Underwood, lives in my neighborhood. Short of having office mates, I often call Deborah for "virtual water cooler" chats to catch up and share how our writing week and projects are going. I additionally consider my two in-person writing groups and several online critique buddies (including Jenn Bertman, the fabulous author-to-be and owner of this blog!!) as office mates and community that support me and vice versa in our work.


National Poetry Month poster designed by Julie Paschkis


What is the best piece of writing/illustrating advice you’ve heard or received?

I love what Golden Compass author Philip Pullman once said of writer’s block. He pointed out that plumbers do not get “plumber's block” and doctors do not get “doctor's block.” Those people go to work every day and do their job. No ifs, ands, or buts. They put their butt on the line so to speak (sorry if you are getting a funny visual there, with the plumber) and get the work done. The doctor, plumber, a teacher, or cupcake baker—they just do their job, they finish the work that needs completing.

It’s helped me to get that there are a lot of ordinary, dull hours in writing, and that I don’t have time to wait for inspiration to come. It arrives when I’m sitting before the blank computer screen, or pad of paper trying to figure out “What’s next?” with writing and revising my novel. I love what I heard Laurie Halse Anderson say once, that when she gets stuck with a scene or what comes next, she sits down and writes out, “What are the 10 worst things that could happen now to this character?” and then “What are the 10 best things that happen to this character next?” Every author I’ve admired has their own version of this, figuring out how to move forward in completing their writing project.

I’m so glad to realize that if I want to produce work, I don’t have the luxury anymore of claiming writer's block. I’ve learned to block out the time, show up and put my butt on the line. The best part is not just doing it, but seeing you can have fun, enjoy yourself, the creative process (and chocolate) as you go.

22 comments:

  1. I am really enjoying this series, Jenn! What writers have space like mine? What writers have rituals or processes like mine? Let's hear it for individuality! And I'm thinking this series would make a great HGTV show! Thanks!

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  2. Thanks for the great interview! I love the pictures as well. Since Rachel is visiting our school next week, I will be showing this to our kids this week!

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  3. Thanks, Jane! And you probably won't be surprised to know I am an HGTV nut. Whenever I want to zone out with the TV, that's my #1 go to spot.

    And thank you Nancy! I hope your students enjoy the interview too. They will have a blast with her visit next week--she's great!

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  4. It was interesting to read how Rachel organizes her day. I was especially interested to hear how she turns the internet off. I think it's a trap for all of us writers when we get stuck.
    thanks for sharing,
    Annie Bowler

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  5. Thanks Jenn for this series. I really like Rachel's comments about the boring parts of writing, and how we just get it done. I teach art in an elementary school and someone (a grownup) today asked me if it's true if you have to practice everyday at art, because she had met someone who told her that. I told her it depends on what kind of artist you want to be... a professional or a hobbyist. My big problem is getting "on the line" but once I'm there, I get things done.

    Rachel- hope your little animals don't nibble away too much of your chocolate!

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  6. Jenn, Thanks for a great interview. I enjoyed reading about Rachel and it is cool to see that she has the banner our kids made for her in her special space. Keep up the good work.

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  7. Jenn, this is the first time I've visited your blog and I'll be back!
    Thanks for the great interview. Rachel, your writing space looks like my ideal writing space - I wish I had those windows. I do have a bulletin board with bits that are important to me though.

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  8. Jenn & Rachel, wow!!! What a mine of information. :D Thank you for sharing, Rachel. It's really inspiring, and I especially enjoyed the pictures.

    Tips on turning off will be put to use as well. I used to just cut off my email notifier, but freedom might work better.

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  9. I'm glad that your blog info was among the messages on the SCBWI-NE listserv. It's my first visit and I definitely look forward to visiting it again. I like your series of creative work spaces of authors/illustrators. Rachel's is very inviting and her writing 'schedule' is familiar.

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  10. Great questions and great answers.
    Let me know if you have room in your interview schedule for an award-winning Canadian author like myself-Kari-Lynn Winters

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  11. Great interview, Jenn and Rachel! And perfect timing, as I'm preparing to clean up my own, chaotic writing space. I loved the comments on how Rachel organizes her time and keeps on task.

    I also enjoyed seeing her Gaudi lizard, since the very same one (well, not that exact one...) lives in my house.

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  12. My first visit to your blog
    ( read about the interview on the
    CW list ) ....glad I checked
    it out...great interview !
    Many good work ideas & I loved
    the "W" image.....butt in chair !
    Oh....& the power nap...essential.

    I'll check back & thanks !

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  13. Very thoughful and interesting discussion....Rachel's passion and commment to writing really shine through. Thanks.

    CC

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  14. This was really interesting. I like her books but did not know much about her personally. What a lovely set-up. My email is cdurusau@newtonlibrary.org

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  15. Nice article and photos. I liked seeing my valentine on your bulletin board, Rachel!
    PS I'd be thrilled to be interviewed and to show my studio!

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  16. Love your new series. I've always been fascinated by creative work spaces. we're house hunting now, but I'm very excited to create the "perfect" work space when we get settled in. Thanks for doing this! What fun!

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  17. Thanks everyone for stopping by and for your kind words! Kieren and Kari-Lynn, I'll be in touch.

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  18. I just discovered this. How inspiring! Thanks so much.
    elisekasten@yahoo.com

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  19. As someone who has benefited from Julie Paschkis's beautiful illustrations for two of my own books, I was especially interested in reading this interview of Rachel. What fun to hear about her writing process and to see her work space. Definitely sign me up, please for the book raffle - My email is jlarios2007@gmail.com

    And Jenn, I'm adding Mixed Up Files to my "Good Reading" links over at The Drift Record. Nice job.

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  20. P.S. Love the description of your work-in-progress mystery (from your profile.) I want to read that one!

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  21. Jenn,

    LOVED your interview with Rachel Rodriguez! As a personal friend (and huge fan) of Rachel's, I applaud you for capturing her unique blend of pragmatism and playfulness. And the photos were so much fun. Keep up the great work!

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