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.


Said the green-eyed beetle

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

Green-Eyed Beetle

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.


Clouds moody and dark

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.

Homeless worms

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,

 his blog, and read an excerpt from his latest book, Goose Lake.

You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and contribute to the word

 of the month contest for young people and for adults.

Find a full list of David’s works, advice on how to begin a poem,

 and his writers at work series.

 Read more Spotlight posts


  1. Hi, David, Excellent article/interview. I especially enjoyed reading about your musical background which is strongly demonstrated in your lyrical poetry. It was very interesting to read how music, business, education and science play a part in David Harrison the poet. I’m a fan and always glad to hear what you’re up to, David. Keep on writin’. Gary D

    1. Hi Gary, thanks for hanging around! I agree, I’m a fan, too, and I learn so much from peeking behind the curtain 😉

    2. Greetings, Gary!

      I appreciate your comments. I’m a fan of yours too so your remarks mean all the more to me. With all best wishes, David

  2. Roxie and David,

    Roxie, thanks so much for setting this one up. You did an outstanding job. Definitely not disappointed David! I especially enjoyed your list of things done during a week. I noticed you made time for your mom too. That speaks volumes about you. Thanks for taking the time to respond to each of the comments left here too. I admire you and your work.

    1. Linda,
      I’m so glad you had time to come back! He’s amazing, and so inspirational. I agree, the fact that he takes time for family does address his character, another reason why he’s such a great role model to us all. 🙂

    2. Dear Linda,

      I’m sorry to be so slow in saying how much I appreciated your kind words about the interview. It was a pleasure to work with Roxie and I’m delighted to meet several of her readers this way. For someone who grew up pounding on a manual typewriter, this is fancy stuff!


    1. Hello, Charles,

      I went to the gym yesterday so it’s Harrison power for sure! Cough cough. Besides, I leave the real power to you. Thanks for reading and commenting!


  3. Great interview! Thanks for sharing it. As a writer with a varied background, I, too, feel that every experience I have contributes in some way to my craft – whether it’s my subject matter, my style, my marketing, or simply my perseverence. Keep up the good work, Roxie and David…I’m looking forward to reading more!

    1. Hi Matt, you are so right – everything wraps together in one mind-blowing package and comes out as creative material for others to read. Thanks for sharing and I’m so glad you stopped by. Always welcome here! 😉

    2. Thank you, Matt. Artist/author David Melton used to quote his age when kids asked how long it took him to create a book. “It took my whole lifetime,” he would say, “and all the experiences I’ve ever had that made me who I am today.” I always thought it was a fine answer and kids could understand it.


  4. What an awesome interview! I found it interesting as well as inspiring. In addition to learning particular things that have shaped David’s writing journey, I especially liked how he reframed how most aspiring writers approach the daunting task of publication by pointing out that the more people that are submitting the easier it is for excellent work stand out. Kudos!

    Ken Slesarik

    1. I am so glad, Ken, that you found David inspiring! True, publication is daunting, the more we put our work out there the more we see that. And it’s definitely easier to spot great writing when the sea is afloat with average work. IMHO, this is why his writing has withstood the test of time… 🙂

    2. Greetings, Ken!

      I thank you for your kind remarks . I know that you are a great teacher who continues to inspire students to stretch their imaginations and learn to become better poets and writers. I take my hat off to you. When you have time to write about your current project, it will be a pleasure to feature it on my blog.


  5. This interview should be published and kept active forever. Every high school student, college student, and young adult seeking their path should read it. Certainly David’s words here will help teachers and parents teach children and others how to hear the song the poetry sings as they discover the meaning of the words.

    Thanks Roxie for putting the spotlight on David

    1. Thank you, Maryann, the pleasure was all mine. I agree, David’s talent is valuable and should be passed along to as many people as possible. Perhaps he’ll write a book with all of his teaching gems…???

    2. Dear Maryann,

      What a lovely thing to say! My thanks to Roxie for sharing my thoughts with so many readers and my thanks to you for taking the time to post such a wonderful compliment.


  6. Facinating interview David. Interesting how your background in music, science, education and business have shaped your work. I hear your trombone and singing voice in your poems. I agree – poetry to be best appreciated needs to be spoken, sung, even danced. I tell my students that a good test of a poem’s sound is like the ole American Bandstand “rate a record” – can you dance to it? does it have a beat? If you can rap your poem and it feels good it probably is good.

    1. Great point, Nile! You sound like an awesome teacher – using the beat to ‘rate’ – how creative you are! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

    2. Hey Nile, thanks for reading and commenting on my interview. I enjoyed the experience of thinking back to those earlier times and how they impacted on my writing in various ways. Best wishes for your upcoming visiting professorship in China! I’m so impressed!


  7. My thanks to Roxie and everyone who has dropped by today and left kind comments. You have certainly made this a special time for me.
    With my best wishes,

    1. David, thank you, for a wonderful interview. I’ve enjoyed meeting your fans, they are fabulous!
      No wonder you have the charisma to be a super-writer, you draw from their positive energy! Keep up the marvelous work 🙂

  8. Wow, what an amazing list of accomplished tasks! I was able to accomplish one of those same things this week–“lunch with Mother”–but that’s about it! This was inspiring, David!!

    1. A true taskmaster…nose-to-the-grindstone and fabulous writer. Love your sense of humor, Janet. I look at his list and think I would’ve never kept up for more than 15 minutes! whew 😉

    2. Ha! Janet, I will bet that your routine schedule puts mine in the shade. You are alway very gracious. But thanks for the compliment and thanks again for all your help when I was struggling to get GOOSE LAKE up and running as an eBook. I’ve loved being in the three e-publications that you and Sylvia Vardell have already published.


  9. I need to go lay down 🙂 David…you are a wonder. Thanks Roxie for asking the perfect question. So interesting to read!

    1. Wow, my thoughts exactly, Mary. I hung my head in shame when I read about David’s dedication and commitment to his work…no wonder he’s so productive! Please come by often!

    2. Hello my friend!

      Thanks for reading the interview. Roxie did a superb job of posing thought-provoking questions. I’ll get back to work on our project on Monday. Promise!


    1. Dear Laura,

      I’m so happy that you came by to read the interview. Thanks! I’ll see you around the IRA Engage blog!

      All best,


    1. Thank you very much, Patricia. I’m sitting here on the patio and life seems fine today. I appreciate you comments.


    1. Great link, Mary, thanks! I’m so glad you had some time to read and share your thoughts, he’s a remarkable writer, gifted on many levels and truly kind-hearted. Love that you participate in W.O.M.!

    2. Hi Mary Nida!

      Thanks for your kind words and for mentioning Word of the Month Poetry Challenge. I hope this will bring some new poets to join our fun.


    1. Thanks so much, Veda! I’m flattered that you came by. I want to tell you how much I’m enjoying your own new eBook, JOE’S GHOST! Way to go!


  10. Roxie,
    I look forward to reading this one! I have to rush off at the moment, but I’ll be back. Thanks for posting a great guest interview.

    Linda A.

    1. Hi Linda,

      Thanks for leaving your comment. I hope you are not disappointed when you have time to read Roxie’s interview. She made me work hard!


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