A special thanks to Padma Venkatraman for her contributions today as part of a two-part series! As stated in last week's post, Padma's writing is mentioned frequently on YA Wednesday; she has also participated extensively at the National Council of the Teachers of English annual conference. the ALAN Workshop, and the UNLV Summit on the Research and Teaching of Young Adult Literature.
Padma is the author of The Bridge Home, a 2019 Global Read Aloud, its companion novel, Born Behind Bars, and three other novels for young people: A Time To Dance, Island’s End, and Climbing the Stairs. She enjoys speaking to readers virtually or in-person (through her speaking agency, The Author Village).
The Power of Persistence – Part II by Padma Venkatraman
This is the second half of my two-part series, in which I reached out to author who not only write brilliant books, but whose perseverance and dedication also shine brighter than diamonds. Below are words of wisdom from Joe Bruchac, Barbara O’Connor, Mitali Perkins and Kashmira Sheth.
Reading these deeply centered responses helped me feel centered, and I trust that the words below will lift the hearts of all who are involved with and interested in young people. Whether you are a writer or not, these words speak to the core of what brings us together as a concerned community.
Every since I can remember, writing has been the path my heart has wanted to follow. It hasn’t been for money. Or for any kind of fame. I could write a long essay about all the times I’ve been told that I couldn’t do it, that I should give up. I am not just talking about the hundreds of rejections I received when I was first trying to publish poetry in literary magazines —- rejections that ranged from the dismissive and the brutal (“If you want to pursue a hobby, why don’t you try coaching a little league baseball team instead of writing?”) to the occasionally helpful. In the first creative writing class I took at Cornell University, my instructor kept urging me to drop out because I would never be a writer. In a fiction writing class during my masters degree program at Syracuse University, another teacher told me that I just did not know anything about storytelling.
Needless to say, considering where I am now, I didn’t accept their judgments and give up. I believed that what I had to say was worthwhile, even as I saw early on how long a road it was going to be before I begin to achieve any real success.
I think what kept me going was a combination of things. First of all, I did not choose to be a writer. I really had no choice. Succeed or fail, it was the way that called me. Secondly, and this has become more apparent to me over the decades, I was not just writing to tell my own story. It was to speak for others – – both in the human and the natural worlds. To share the lessons that have been given to me by so many.
Here is a simple one that I learned from Swift Eagle, a Pueblo/Apache elder more than half a century ago “The way to climb a mountain is one step at a time.”
I’m still on that journey.
I’ll confess that over the thirty years I’ve been writing for young readers, there have been times I’ve been discouraged. I didn’t get a starred review. I didn’t make a “best of” list at the end of the year. My sales figures weren’t what I’d hoped they’d be. I didn’t win a shiny gold sticker. But then, just in the knick of time, I’d get a letter from a reader or teacher that reminded me of the importance of books.
For instance, here is a letter from a teacher:
“J—- is a really small town with really big problems, and most of my students have seen it all. Your books allow them to make connections and realize that everyone has problems and gives them some hope or just some much needed good feelings.”
“I'll continue to put your books in their hands, to read your words aloud. Thanks for being reachable to kids who often feel overlooked and tossed aside.”
It’s letters like these that keep me going.
If I can make a difference in the life of even one child, my job is done - and I’ll keep going.
I wish I had treated my vocation of writing fiction with as much care as I do now. Maybe you can learn from my mistake.
I started out writing for fun. It was something I did on the side as a hobby. To my amazement, one of my stories won a contest and was published as a novel. Seeing my first novel reach readers was delightful, but it wasn’t until my second novel was published that I decided to invest in my writing as a career. That book, Monsoon Summer, was rejected by 22 different publishers and came out eleven years after my first novel.
Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t give up. But as I revised and revised and endured rejection after rejection, a sense of calling was deepening and growing. Driven by the love of my character (I didn’t want to see her disappear) and the conviction that stories really do change hearts and minds, I pressed on.
That was when writing changed from a pastime into a vocation. I began to invest in growing in the craft, taking classes in writing and seeking mentors. I also learned as much as I could about the publishing industry. I haven’t looked back since, and my sixteenth book just came out.
I love this quote by the writer Frederick Beuchner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” If you, like me, find great gladness in creating stories, it’s easy to see that people are starved for them. Won’t you join me? Let’s get writing, friends, and treat the gift of being able to do it with great respect and gratitude.
Sharing stories has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life. As a child I was dyslexic (though I didn’t know it at the time) and enjoyed listening to stories. My love of stories made me work hard at reading, and soon, I was devouring books. Most of those novels were written in my first language, Gujarati. I do believe that the original hunger of listening to stories and reading books later transferred into my love of writing stories.
Writing has brought me a lot of joy and I find that sharing stories with young readers is one of the most satisfying and fulfilling endeavors. In writing, as in any creative pursuit, there are times when it is difficult to keep going. When I am exhausted, when no new ideas seem to excite me, when what I have written seems terrible, I read fiction and non-fiction, read historical novels in my Gujarati language, and listen to vintage Hindi songs. Always, I reach out to my family and dive deep into my childhood memories. Most importantly, I draw strength from nature. Often gardening and digging in dirt provide me with perspective, answers and encouragement I am looking for.
My family has not only supported me in my writing but also has been an integral part of it. When I first started writing, my two daughters and my husband were the first readers of my stories. The Nina Soni series that I am writing now is inspired by my daughters’ childhoods. My parents provided me with a lot of details and family history when I wrote Keeping Corner. The places in which I grew up and the stories of my family members have provided concrete and evocative backdrops for my novels.
Finally, I remember how I enjoyed books when I was young and how they have impacted me and still impact me. Now, connecting with children via school visits or via letters has a tremendous positive impact on me. After one reader read Nina Soni, Former Best Friend, she told me how she saw herself in the story. Knowing that a child has not only enjoyed the story I wrote, but also has made a deeper emotional connection with it keeps me going.