Spotlight: David L. Harrison
Update: March 6, 2012…
Read David’s post about his e-publishing journey for his book, GOOSE LAKE…in his post, WRITERS AT WORK, About this business of Internet publishing, Part One.
David L. Harrison, author, speaker, literacy advocate, and poet laureate of Drury University, spends a few minutes answering questions for the spotlight. His first published children’s work, The Boy With a Drum, appeared in 1969 and sold a record two million copies. Since then, Harrison has tirelessly worked on over eighty titles, penned hundreds of magazine and journal articles, and contributed to just as many anthologies. Introducing David L. Harrison, writer extraordinaire…
Q) Your background includes music, science, business, and education. How has your knowledge in these areas enhanced your writing style, and would you give us examples of how each has flexed your writing muscles?
A) Wow. Okay, might as well sit back, maybe put on some coffee. This could take a while!
1) The Music Factor
For a period of roughly ten years, starting around age ten or eleven, I was rather involved with music. My instrument was trombone and I practiced it one or two hours most nights, sometimes more. Starting with the Boy Scout Band, I went on to play in concert bands, orchestras, marching bands, German bands, jazz bands, Dixieland bands, and brass quartets. I was the high school student band director, led the marching band as the drum major, and was chosen first chair in the Missouri all-state orchestra. At Drury I was a guest soloist with the touring band. I paid for much of my high school and college expenses by playing in dance bands, performing as principal trombonist in the Springfield, Missouri symphony, and giving private lessons to budding trombonists. I also took voice lessons, became student director of our church choir and sang an occasional solo. I also sang in a barbershop quartet.
So yes, music informs my writing, not just my poetry but my prose as well. People say that my rhythms flow easily and naturally. I agree although now and then a metronome-minded reviewer doesn’t understand the syncopation or counterpoint that I sometimes employ to achieve desired effects. Language is a living thing and poetry, which reflects that life more than any other form of writing, must be free to move with the kind of song it sings. Read a poem silently, you do it a disservice. Read it aloud in a traditional voice, much of the magic remains hidden. Sing it, or read it aloud as the lyricist intended, and the poem truly lives.
Here’s an example of a poem that benefits from being read aloud or, better yet, sung.
To his honey doodlebug,
“You’re sweeter than a rose
And I want a little hug.”
So they hugged and they giggled
And a little later on
They had a thousand kids named
And Honey Doodlebug
And they all lived together
In a snug little rug.
Read it silently. Read it aloud. With expression, with exaggeration. Now sing it. My tune, which came to me as I was writing the poem, is a sweet little love song. A band I sometimes perform in arranges this same poem as rap. It works either way. Why? Because poetry lives in the mind and imagination and culture of the reader almost as much as it does in the poet’s.
2) The Science Factor
Science encourages controlled risk taking. I’m free to think and postulate, to take leaps of faith, to experiment; but in the end I have to prove my hypothesis and others must be able to duplicate it before it’s believable and acceptable. Perhaps most of all, science teaches observation. Every writer observes. The scientist in me insists that I record what I see or sense with the same attention to details that I once (long ago!) used in the laboratory. A number of my poems and stories are strongly informed by these old habits of controlled risk taking and discovering small, telling details.
Here’s an example. This poem appears in my new (and first) eBook collection. Goose Lake reflects my observations of the lake behind our house over the past twenty-two years.
boil out of the west
freighted on winds that rip
leaves from trees
and howl like packs
of ghost hounds.
Ducks shrink into their feathers;
turtles dive to wait it out;
raccoons take to their trees;
below grass roots, tunnels flood.
pink-naked in the rain
wriggle blindly on the grass where
Robins snap them up
at their going out of business sale.
3) The Business Factor
For ten years I worked at Hallmark Cards, first as an editor and later as editorial manager. At that point I supervised staffs of writers, editors, and clericals. For the next 35 years I owned and managed manufacturing and retail businesses with eight locations in four communities. My wife and I still own a gift shop that we bought 28 years ago.
I don’t think my business experience has made me a better writer but it may have made me more aware of my “client” base of editors, artists, publishers, parents, teachers, librarians, and children. I think I probably plan better and organize my time for maximum productivity. I’m sure that I’m a better salesman than I used to be. Tooting one’s horn is always tough, but it’s somewhat easier if you can see it as a business plan that needs to be implemented.
4) The Education Factor
I’ve been called a teacher. I suppose I am in the sense that I like to share with others what I know, enjoy the challenge of learning with students, and feel at home in front of an audience. In the early years, I wrote books. At some point it occurred to me that there is more involved in being an author than telling a story. Children’s literature does not stand alone. It does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a continuum of activities, experiences, cultures, personal issues, hormone wars, school and peer pressures – in short, the real world. All of it. I had a lot to learn about the world of children’s literature.
I began joining professional organizations such as International Reading Association and National Council of Teachers of English, subscribing to and reading their journals, attending and presenting at their national conferences. I teamed with teachers and college professors to write books for teachers. I served on a school board and a community college board. I started a number of literacy-based projects, from collecting books for school libraries to campaigning to raise awareness of the importance of reading to preschool children. These and other related efforts to gain a more comprehensive perspective have made me a more aware writer and, therefore, a better one.
For example, a story about cows and what zany things they might do behind farmer’s back takes on added value for early readers because I end each line throughout the book with the same rhyme.
WHEN COWS COME HOME (opening stanza)
When cows come home at the end of the day,
They chew their cuds and gently sway
And swish their tails in a cow-like way,
When cows come home at the end of the day.
Q) If we could follow you around for one week, what would we experience? At the end of that week, as we sit together and you reflect on the events, what would you say to a protégé?
A) There’s no set schedule in my life but I begin with the goal of working twelve hours per day Monday through Friday and squeezing in a few hours on weekends. What actually takes place changes all the time but includes a laundry list of activities, a mixed bag of things that writers do and things that husbands, sons, fathers, and businessmen do. During the last seven day period, here are some of the things I remember doing.
- Worked on contracts for two projects
- Completed the introduction for a book I’m co-writing
- Identified who will write the foreword for that book
- Sought information about how to market eBooks.
- Wrote an episode for “Writers at Work,” an ongoing series on my blog
- Wrote a poem to read at a conference in California
- Finished a poem for another book with a different partner
- Exchanged comments with her about our project
- Wrote and circulated notes from a recent meeting of a committee I chair about an upcoming senior writers workshop
- Wrote and circulated notes from a recent meeting of a committee I chair about encouraging parents to read to their preschool children
- Went to the bank to withdraw cash for upcoming trip to California
- Posted on my blog about an upcoming poetry workshop in Pennsylvania that I’m co-leading with Eileen Spinelli and Rebecca Dotlich
- Reviewed a book about New Jersey and posted it on my blog for February
- Read and offered suggestions on an introduction by a co-author
- Wrote about new products for our gift store that we bought at the Atlanta market the previous week and sent as an e-blast.
- Spent some time at our store on two days
- Had lunch on Wednesday with my mother
- Met with the head of the school of education and child development at Drury
- Wrote an agenda and attended a meeting for a committee I chair
- Entered new notes in my file of observations about the lake behind our house
- Exchanged numerous e-mails with my co-author on a different book
- Exchanged numerous e-mails with my publishers of a new DVD series I’m developing
- Shopped for supplies for my mother
- Made an appointment with my insurance agent to clarify renewal questions
- Exchanged notes with editors at Random House, Boyds Mills Press, Teacher Created Materials, International Reading Association, and Phoenix Learning Resources.
- Responded to a fan’s letter
- Responded to an inquiry about making a school visit
- Responded to several hundred other e-mails from a variety of people on a variety of subjects
- Signed and mailed three books for a friend
- Wrote checks and mailed my 4th quarter tax estimates
- Sent invitations to two potential speakers for a workshop I’m working on
- Responded to poems posted on my blog
- Worked on two more poems
- Attempted to get some filing done
- Left on Thursday for California to participate in and present at an educators’ conference
- On the plane going, began responding to this interview
- Attended the conference Friday afternoon/evening and all day Saturday
- Left on Sunday to return home
- On return trip, worked on this interview and started two new poems
- Arrived home Sunday evening
- Responded to some of the e-mails that piled up while I was gone
- Sent thank-you notes to my sponsors at the conference
- Quickly reviewed a new contract that arrived while I was gone
It was a week busier than most mainly because I was getting over the trip to Georgia, preparing for and taking the trip to California, and anticipating the trip to Florida that begins later this week. Travel can be invigorating but it usually comes at heavy price. During 2011, I was gone more than 60 days. I try to write on the road but I never get as much done that way. At the moment I’m involved in more than a dozen book projects including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and titles for teachers. That’s one of the reasons why I usually receive and attempt to respond to 100 or more messages a day.
So what would I say to someone following me around? You’d better feel passionate about being a writer because it’s a lot of work. This past week was mostly taken by the responsibilities of being a writer rather than the act of writing, but even in weeks when I have more solid blocks of writing time there are still dozens of interruptions that must be handled.
Learn to focus. Organize in some way that works for you. Keep lists of what needs to get done. Finish what you begin. Meet your deadlines no matter what. Go to bed planning what you’ll tackle first thing next morning. Keep a good calendar. Don’t waste time always being right. Try not to fight with your spouse. Save your energy for matters that count.
Q) You candidly share that your own apprenticeship lasted 97 months and 152 submissions, referring to apprenticeship as when your first big break occurred. Tell us about that time in your life and contrast it to now, offering us the wisdom of your publishing experiences.
A) Writing is an art form. Words well chosen and perfectly arranged hold vast power. We understand this as readers but for many it still comes as a shock to learn how hard it is to write well. Only as the rejections piled up did I finally realize that I had picked out a tough profession. No wonder that so many beginning writers eventually give up without ever experiencing the thrill of seeing their work in print. No wonder that those who do stick it out until the day-of-days when their first acceptance changes everything remember that moment for the rest of their lives.
Not everyone is destined to become a writer. Or an outfielder. Or a teacher. Or a computer whiz. Hooray for diversity! If writing is your dream, pursue it with gusto and the kind of determination that will carry you forward long enough to live through the inevitable rejections. Writers somehow, in spite of all obstacles, write.
In the early years I tended to think that every idea I came across was destined for greatness and had to be written. I skipped around from satire to serious, from novel to short-short story to essay without sticking to anything long enough to develop much skill. Typically, I might have ten or twelve submissions out and a backup list waiting when manuscripts were returned.
Eventually I became more selective about what I chose to write. I learned that it’s better to write one thing well than to produce five mediocre efforts. By slowing down and revising more critically, I finally began selling my work. I finally became a writer. I don’t know if publishers are any choosier today than they ever were. The competition is more global so that makes it harder to catch an appreciative eye for your manuscript. But more competitors also means more junk flooding editors’ computers all over the world and this makes a beautifully wrought manuscript stand out.
The current advances in technology that make online self-publishing a relatively inexpensive and available choice will no doubt change the landscape in ways that we don’t yet understand. As for me, I’m working both sides of the street and keeping my options open.
Roxie, I hope you didn’t run out of coffee reading this. Thanks for the excellent questions. I enjoyed thinking about them.
Thank you, David! For more on this creative author, check his website,