I loved elementary school, junior high, high school, and college. Graduate school, not so much. Why? After sixteen years of structure, with clearly defined homework assignments and what kids now call "prompts," for the first time I had almost complete freedom to write on any subject of my own choosing. I was paralyzed with the endless possibilities of choice.
Worst was picking the topic for my doctoral dissertation in philosophy, the work that would define me as an emerging young philosopher. Staggered by the enormity of being able to write on any topic in the entire field, I gratefully abdicated that crushing burden of responsibility. I asked a more senior friend what I should write on. "Coercion," he told me. Although I had never given a moment's thought to that subject, one word was all I needed. Off I trotted to the library, found every book and article I could on coercion, read them, asked myself questions about them, and finally thought up something (sort of) fresh and original to say about them and wrote it down. Dissertation: done.
Now as a children's book author, I have the same terror of too much freedom. Should I write a picture book, easy reader, chapter book, middle-grade, YA? What genre: realistic contemporary fiction, historical fiction, a novel in verse? What should it be about? Help!!
I'm happiest when I have some kind of assignment from the publishing gods. Right now I'm working on the fourth book in my Franklin School Friends chapter book series for Farrar, Straus & Giroux. I was told they want it to include a spelling bee. Yay! I had already written the first three books in the series: Kelsey Green, Reading Queen, Annika Riz, Math Whiz, and Izzy Barr, Running Star; now the only two previously introduced main characters left were Simon Ellis and Cody Harmon (whose names, alas, won't be able to rhyme with anything). So: a spelling bee book starring Simon.
My imagination leaped into gear. I had something to work on, the way an oyster needs a grain of sand to start forming its pearl. I began brainstorming spelling bee ideas, thinking of funny things for the comically enthusiastic principal to do, challenges that would confront good-at-everything Simon as he strove for spelling bee victory, problems and obstacles that would fit neatly into 15,000 words (not 14,000, not 16,000). I still had plenty of room for creativity and imagination, but now I had a framework to hang them on, an underlying structure to festoon with all the spelling bee sparkle I could summon, which was tons.
Freedom? Pshaw! As for me, I'm freer when I'm less free.