Drew Daywalt is the talented author of the amazing children’s book The Day the Crayons Quit, a New York Times bestseller that can keep both children and adults entertained.
I was so excited when he agreed to answer some questions for Germ, and I was even more excited when I read his responses. If you’re like me, never knowing what to write next, then prepare to be inspired with Daywalt’s methods of thinking up stories. If you always know what your next story is going to be and don’t need help in this department, then read anyway for comedic value and for additional writing tips.
When did you first become interested in writing?
It’s funny, I think my storytelling and writing career goes back to playing with toys when I was about 4 years old. I loved action figures more than any other kind of toy because I could make up a story and allow them to be the actors or characters in it. I would spend all day in the back yard or in my room with my action figures creating grand adventures. It was incredibly satisfying for me as a kid. I didn’t like toy trucks or boats or sports very much. I liked little toy people that could help me act out and envision the tales that existed in my head.
As far as actual creative writing, I found that I could make people laugh in study hall in junior high school with funny stories and jokes on notes that I’d pass. An English teacher intercepted one once and laughed out loud. Afterward, he asked me to take his creative writing workshop, and I did. That was the start of my love for creating stories using the written word.
When writing a story, where do you start? Do you pick the characters first, the overall plot, etc.?
I tend to pick a situation first. I ask the question “What if?” a lot. What if crayons could talk? What would they say? That kind of thing. It’s a pretty childish method really, but then again, that’s where I draw my magic from, my childhood. So it works for me. After I have an interesting “What if?” then I try to find the character or type of character that would have the most conflict if I dropped them into it. Contrariness and fighting and struggle and be dramatic or funny, so this method is a natural generator for all kinds of storylines.
Can you tell us about your writing process?
Jeeze…. I guess I sit down and start typing and hope it doesn’t suck. I know that’s a crap answer, but it’s the truth. I do chew on ideas for a long time, sometimes as long as a year, and I mull them over and think about them so much that by the time I start to outline, the story is already done, for the most part. I do enjoy, though, when I’m writing and a character or a plot takes me on an unexpected tangent. Even if it doesn’t end up in the book, it’s a fun trip for me and shakes loose a lot of fresh thoughts on something I’d been thinking about for a long time.
How often do you write?
I try to write every day, for about 4 hours, if I can. After that I’m burned out, usually. My best work comes in the first four hours of sitting down, so that’s how I like to do it in an ideal world. I don’t always get to write that much, though, because I’m a stay-at-home dad as well as a writer and my kids are always pestering me for silly things like food and love.
Do you ever encounter writer’s block? If so, how do you push through it?
I think I do. I dunno. Maybe not. I mean, I do have times when I’m not feeling very creative. To me that’s just a sign that I need to get out and experience something new. I think, as writers, we can be too solitary, too closed off from the world. And that’s not a good thing since, you know, we’re trying to reflect on that world. So when I’m feeling not so creative, I get out of my studio, think about everything but writing, and travel or hike or play with the kids and the dogs. Once I let go of trying to be creative, the muse comes. She’s kind of a capricious bitch in that way.
Where do you pull inspiration from? Do you go looking for it, or does it find you?
I am a goofy guy with lots of varying neurotic and silly notions, so just walking down the street I’ll think of something outrageous, like, “What if the sidewalk hated my shoes on its face all the time?” And then I’ve got a seed for a story. If you hung me like a pinata and had kids hit me with a stick, I’d break open and ridiculous story ideas would pour out. And to continue the metaphor, I suppose the kids would all drop to the ground and scramble about as they ate my ideas, the little pigs.
How do you generally pick a subject to write on?
It’s all about my mood. If I’m feeling wary or frightened, I’ll write something scary. If I’m amused, I’ll write something charming. Sometimes I feel smart, and that’s the best time to write. Sometimes I feel like an idiot though, and that’s also a good time to write. If I’m awake, I’m thinking about creative things. It’s just the way I’m wired. Don’t ask me to do your taxes, though. I can’t organize or do math for shit. Also, I’m not a CPA.
What made you decide to write a children’s book? How did the idea for The Day the Crayons Quit come into being?
I actually was just staring at a box of old crayons on my desk in my studio. And I thought, wow, I’ve been rough on those little guys. What if they could tell me how they felt about that?
One of the things I love about your book The Day the Crayons Quit is its humor and how it isn’t “dumbed down” for a younger audience; the witty content is enjoyable for kids and their parents alike. How does writing children’s books differ from writing other genres? Is the process any different?
Kids never dumb anything down. Ever notice that? If anything, they challenge you. A kid will run into the room and say something like, “Jeremy just told Charlotte to not do that thing with her nose and she did it anyway and now there’s goop all over the swings.” And I’ll be like wtf? First off, who is Jeremy? Secondly, what the hell’s she doing with her nose? It’s like kids always assume you know everything and they jump right into their stories without any backstory or build up. It’s just BANG! And we’re off! Better keep up! I love that kind of energy, and I want to challenge and entertain with that philosophy. Don’t dumb down. Rather, “Smart up.” I’m telling stories to anyone who will listen, so the stories are geared to everyone, except maybe dumb people. Dumb people always hate my stories. But that’s okay. They can always get a smart person to explain it to them if they like.
Do you have a favorite quote about writing?
“The best writing is achieved by equal parts accident and architecture.”
It’s not the best quote about writing, but I said it, so I like it a lot.
Do you have any advice for young writers hoping to make a career out of it?
Everything important that anyone could write has already been written. The only true originality in the world is you, because you’re the only you that will ever exist. So you have to write from yourself. From a true place. YOU are the source of originality. Don’t write something because it’s what they like or what they want, or even worse, because it’s what you think they will want. You’ll never please anyone by writing what you think they will like. Therefore, you should never write to entertain anyone other than yourself. It’s dishonest to yourself, and it’s a frustrating way to live. Writing should be first and foremost an unabashedly selfish endeavor. Afterwards, if others like it, then that’s because it’s original, because it’s a piece of you.