Welcome new Writers’ Program instructors Alexandra Alessandri and Dianne White! Alexandra and Dianne are both teaching sections of Picture Book I. Dianne is teaching in our asynchronous, deadline-driven online format starting January 18, and Alexandra is teaching in our remote online format with weekly Zoom meetings on Tuesdays from 10am-1pm PT starting January 17. They sat down with us to offer some insight into creative life and their upcoming courses. (Fun fact: they are also both WP alum!)
What sparks your creativity?
Alexandra: There are many things that spark my creativity, like observing the world around me, hearing snippets of funny exchanges, settling in with a great book, learning something new, listening to music, or viewing art. But perhaps my favorite way to spark creativity is simply by remembering. There’s something special about tapping into memories, whether it’s through prompt-based writing exercises or by flipping through photo albums, that really makes my mind wander into story possibilities.
Dianne: Great ideas are all around and I find that the best ones arrive simply by paying attention to the ordinary things I see and hear, the experiences I have, the words I read, and the people I meet.
A kindergartener was the inspiration for my picture book, WHO EATS ORANGE? We were on a field trip to a local farm when a student pulled an orange out of his lunch bag and asked, “Who eats orange?” It was such an unusual way to phrase the question and, as soon as he spoke the words, I knew it was the title of a book.
A visit to a bookstore sparked the idea for another picture book. As I walked by a display for the movie Frozen – and a sign announcing the song, “Let It Go” – my first thought was of all the things kids need to “let go of.” The edge of a pool when they’re learning to swim. A favorite shirt that’s suddenly too small. Saying goodbye to your parents and your favorite bear on the first day of school. GOODBYE BRINGS HELLO became a book about some of these transitional moments.
Paying attention to things in my everyday life helps me find the stories I can’t wait to tell.
What do you rely on for those times it’s difficult to find the time, energy, motivation and/or inspiration to write?
Alexandra: For me, it’s incredibly important to keep the creative well full. I find that when my well is empty, either because I’m overstretched by deadlines or because I’m not feeling well, then I struggle to find the energy, motivation, and inspiration to write. In these moments, I try to take a quick step back and make refilling the well a priority. I read, spend time in nature, watch movies, go down research rabbit holes I find fascinating—and all these things get me excited about diving into my story once more. I also remind myself that writing isn’t just about the physical aspect of putting words on paper. But taking that break doesn’t mean I’m not still in story. I’m still thinking about the story I’m writing, my mind subconsciously making connections as I refill my well, so that when I sit back to work, it flows easier.
Dianne: By nature, I’m goal oriented, and I don’t usually have too much trouble with motivation. But for years I worked full time and had to write in whatever spare moments I could grab. Finding (enough) time to write was my biggest challenge. And, sometimes, it still is. That’s when I depend on my calendar. At the beginning of the week, I choose three projects that will move me forward creatively. Choosing fixed, doable goals each week and keeping track of them has been a game-changer.
But we all know it takes more than time at the keyboard to make us better writers. The best writing comes from a well-lived life. Which means I never say no to time with friends, trips to interesting places, and the opportunity to learn something new.
What’s your favorite book and/or movie?
Alexandra: Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is perhaps one of my all-time favorite books, but there are so many others I love across different genres and age categories, like Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, Adrianna Cuevas’ The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez, and Joanna Ho’s Eyes That Kiss in the Corners.
Dianne: When I first started thinking about writing picture books, Cynthia Rylant was the kind of writer I hoped to be some day. She wrote beautiful, heartfelt picture books, but also novels, humorous easy readers, early chapter books, lyrical nonfiction, and poetry. One book of many favorites of hers is Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story.
What’s your favorite quote about writing?
Alexandra: I love this quote from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”
I love this quote because it’s given me (and my students!) the permission to write terrible first drafts, and in doing so, the freedom to write freely and more honestly, which has led to a healthier relationship with the writing process and stronger, more evocative works.
Dianne: I recently ran across this quote in author James Clear’s 3-2-1 newsletter. He wasn’t referring specifically to writing, but I think it applies: “One of the main obstacles between who you are and who you could be is courage. The courage to keep trying even if you’re not yet as good as you hope. The courage to keep trying despite your fears of what others may think. The courage to keep trying without knowing how the future will unfold. Your great work is on the other side of your early work. The only way to be exceptional later on is to have the courage to be “just okay” right now. This is how it is for everyone.”
Who do you wish you could write like (or: Whose writing discipline do you wish you had)?
Alexandra: Oh, goodness. I admire so many authors! But two authors I especially wish I could write like would be Padma Venkatraman and Elizabeth Acevedo. The lyricism in their works, both verse and prose, is simply gorgeous. And their stories are powerful.
What excites you most about teaching for the Writers’ Program?
Alexandra: As a former student of the Writers’ Program, I deeply value the impact its instructors and courses had on my own writing and career as a children’s author! So I’m excited about returning as an instructor to this institution which I hold dear. But I’m also incredibly excited about mentoring students through the creation of their own works, helping them find their voice and grow in their confidence as writers.
Dianne: Teaching for the Writers’ Program is a full-circle moment for me. I took my very first picture book/writing class at UCLA Extension years ago with author/illustrator Deborah Nourse Lattimore, whose books I had discovered when I was teaching 6th grade. That class opened a community of writers of books for young readers that I hadn’t known existed. I continued to take many classes over many more years – poetry classes with Kristine O’Connell George and Madeleine Comora, picture book classes with Ann Whitford Paul, April Halprin Wayland, Barney Saltzberg, Sonia Levitin, and Terry Dunahoo, and short stories with Barbara Abercrombie. In fact, it was at a UCLA Extension one-day workshop that I sold my first picture book in 2009.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program has been part of my journey every step of the way.
What do you hope your students get from your course(s)?
Alexandra: I hope my students learn to embrace the process of writing picture books—the messy, chaotic, but incredibly fulfilling process of creating stories for children. I hope they have fun, and that they learn to let go of the fear that might hold them back so they can write authentically, from the heart. I also hope they make personal connections that can last them beyond the classroom.
Dianne: Picture books are a child’s introduction to the world of stories. They’re one significant piece of what author Tamara Smith calls the “Vibrant Triangle” – the experience that unfolds between the picture book, the child listener, and the adult reader. I hope students will leave my class feeling inspired and grateful to be writing those stories that will forever hold a special place in a child’s early memories of books. To find our voices and be involved, even in small ways, with the stories that introduce readers to the things that matter most is a wonderful and powerful experience.
Thank you to Alexandra and Dianne for taking time to share with us. Look for more instructor interviews coming soon!