When I applied to the MFAC program back in 2011, I did not realize how little I knew about the process of writing picture book manuscripts. During my first semester, one of my several attempts, Mommy’s Little Sapling, was a story I wrote for my daughter, who I gave birth to in the beginning of the semester.
I became a mother via the help of an anonymous donor. My goal with the story was to find a way to talk about donor conception without using clinical terms such as donor, sperm, egg, etc. I wanted a story that I would feel comfortable sharing with my daughter, and hopefully with other moms who conceived a child similarly and would likely have to face the “where’s the daddy” question.
At more than 1500 words, and too much detail, the grief I feared would surface with editing such a personal piece led me to shelve the story. In 2014, I decided to face the words again and revise the story for workshop at summer residency. The problem was the new version had even more words. I knew this was the wrong direction, but I did not know how to proceed with fulfilling my need to complete this story before I completed the program.
We always take a risk when we share a part of ourselves with others, but the wonderful part of workshopping at Hamline was that all participants strive to become better writers as we also learn from each other. The feedback I received gave me directions to consider, without judgment. Ultimately, though, it was again up to me.
That autumn marked my final semester and time for production of my creative thesis. I had learned that the word count with picture book manuscripts does not matter as much as making sure each word counts, yet I seemed to obsess about the number of words. Perhaps because numbers are something I can control when working with a subjective craft that sometimes never feels finished.
One day, while I still feared cutting the story, I found myself thinking about the tone of books that have resonated with me over the years. Suddenly my mind focused. It was Patricia Maclachlan’s gentleness in Sarah Plain and TalI, and the quietness in Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon that I admired and wished to emulate for this writing.
I took some deep breaths, reviewed the story and then dove in with the blades, freshly sharpened. Like a whittler, I cut away the excess words, smoothed the rough spots, glued back pieces I desired to keep after all, and eventually revealed Ayla’s Family Tree. Maybe because I did this lovingly, with my end goal in mind, cutting did not hurt as I feared. To this day I do not miss the parts I severed, although it is enlightening to remember the original version as a means of reminding myself where I was versus where I am presently.
My daughter is six and three months old now. Ayla’s Family Tree became the story I desired. Although it still needs a home so other parents and children can access it, for my daughter and me, it is a reminder of family and what brought us together.
Fear has a way of impacting so many parts of the writing process—from starting, to continuing and editing, to deciding when a work is completed, and more. For me, allowing myself space, time, and learning from other writers was what I needed to focus and edit with intention and less pain; however, it wouldn’t have worked had I not paid attention.
Now, if I can apply my learning to cut away the clutter at home, I shall be set. Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, the final version of Ayla’s Family Tree holds firmly at 478 words.
Tamara Rubin (Tamara Riva) is a 2015 MFAC graduate. She is currently in her first year as an elementary school media specialist, following 10 years teaching special education. Outside of work and finishing her media specialist graduate coursework, she likes to spend time reading with and to her daughter, writing and thinking about writing, and embracing new learning and discoveries each day. She has a blog at https://tamarariva.blogspot.com/ (which she will be updating shortly) where she writes about children’s books and other musings.