Episode 95! "An Audit of My Experience," a Conversation with Molly B. Burnham
Welcome to episode 95 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Every week this podcast will feature an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
In this episode, Molly B. Burnham discusses her essay "An Audit of My Experience," (which can be heard HERE) with Jacqueline Davies. .
On today's Podcast you will hear:
Molly B. Burnham is the author of the Teddy Mars Series and 2016 recipient of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators’ Sid Fleishman Humor Award. She grew up in Washington DC in a family of writers.
She studied theater in London, England, and holds a Masters in Elementary Ed. and an MFA in Writing for Children. She taught kindergarten, third grade, and at a school for emotionally challenged middle- and high-school-aged students.
Molly lives in Northampton, Mass., with her husband, two daughters, a dog and a cat and next door to pigeons, but sadly not next to Grumpy Pigeon Man. She really likes pie, both to eat and throw.
Jacqueline Davies is the talented author of YA and middle grade novels as well as picture books. Her beloved The Lemonade War series, tells the story of a brother and sister who make a bet to see who can sell the most lemonade in five days. The second book in the series is The Lemonade Crime; the third book is The Bell Bandit; the fourth is The Candy Smash; and the fifth and final book in the series in The Magic Trap. Her newest book Nothing But Trouble (HarperCollins, 2016) tells the story of two smart girls in a small town who can't help but get into trouble by pulling pranks. See more about Jacqueline at her website.
Jacqueline D.: Hi, this is Jacqueline Davies, and I'm here today with Molly Burnham to talk about her wonderful essay, An Audit of My Experience, AKA a List of Thoughts That Seem To Go Nowhere, but Might Go Somewhere. And I'm excited to have you here, Molly, thanks for being with us.
Molly Burnham: I'm excited to be here too.
Jacqueline D.: Excited to see where this is going to take us, because as you said, it might lead nowhere. It might go somewhere. We just don't know. So I want to start off by talking about the thoughts, feelings, struggles you might've been having before writing this essay that led you to this particular form, because it's an unusual form. It's a compendium of possibly unrelated items that challenge the reader to make their own connections, which I love. It's one of the things I loved about it. So what were the things that you were thinking or feeling before creating the essay that led to this form?
Molly Burnham: I think that I had so many feelings and it was almost like fireworks going off inside of me, and I would feel one thing and then another thing and another thing, and I couldn't quite ... When the idea came to try to write something, I found that I really had too many topics, but almost I would put it as emotions around each one. And I've always been a list maker.
Jacqueline D.: Me too.
Molly Burnham: It helps me to keep track of things. Yes. And in my book, in Teddy Mars, I have lists as well. So I realized once I gave myself permission and actually some friends gave me permission to not have to do one topic in a formal essay, I realized that I could touch upon all of these different areas that I felt are very central to this idea of being a woman in kid lit.
Jacqueline D.: So would you sum it up by saying it was a sense of the overwhelmingness of the moment, the overwhelmingness of being a woman in this moment, the overwhelmingness of being in kid lit at this moment?
Molly Burnham: Yeah. Yeah, I would. I think that overwhelming is a really good word, and the overwhelming feeling of this has been a struggle that we have all been going through for so long, as children, in our early teenage years, in our middle teenage years, in our twenties and our thirties. And there's just the sense of are we still going back to this? And we are still going back to it, but it's definitely, it really felt overwhelming and at the same time explosive. I mean I really do ... There is an anger and a frustration to it, as well as this overwhelming feeling.
Jacqueline D.: Which can make it hard to just handle in the ordinary, standard, here's an essay type of form.
Molly Burnham: That's right.
Jacqueline D.: Which is why I love the list format that you use. Now, let's get to some of the items on the list. There are too many for us to cover in one interview, but I'm going to drop in on my personal favorite, shame. Let's get right to shame. You write very clearly, succinctly, "I can feel shame, I can shame and I can be shamed." Can you give us some examples from your own life of each of those different or some of them, moments when you have felt shame, when somebody has shamed you, and also when you've shamed somebody else? Can you think of any?
Molly Burnham: Gosh, that's a really big question, and I want to be very careful about that. I think that as women in a world that can expect us to fit in certain boxes, that when we don't fit in those boxes, we are then shamed. So that could be anything from the clothes that we wear, the age that we are, to the art that we create. I think that maybe that's, is there anything, I don't know that I would have more to say about that. I think that it's a human quality too, to shame. I don't want to dump this as a male/female dynamic, because I think that when I was writing that, what I was really trying to say is that I do think that that's a very human quality, and I think that women can shame each other. I think women can shame men. I think that we do it to children also.
Jacqueline D.: But do you think women go to the place of shame more quickly than men do? Men perhaps tend to take those feelings and metabolize them outwards, kind of like spread them out in terms of maybe a reaction against something. Shame is such an internal thing.
Molly Burnham: Shame is such an internal thing. I can absolutely say, well I guess I will say this story. So I think that anybody who has, and something that we are really experiencing right now is the shame around sexual harassment or sexual abuse, and anybody who has experienced that will almost always go to a place of shame first, that it was my fault. The naming of that and the processing through, which is what I go to with mindfulness, I think is a very important piece to all of this. So do I think that women go to shame more quickly than men? I think that we do.
Jacqueline D.: Yeah. You also talk about aversions to many things, and some of the items on the list you then point out are things that you are averse to. But let's just start with just some basic list of some aversions. What are some of the things that you are averse to?
Molly Burnham: Okay. Aversions.
Jacqueline D.: Anything from food, to types of conversations, to questions that interviewers might ask, anything you're averse to.
Molly Burnham: I know it's funny, as soon as you asked the question I'm like, "I'm actually not averse to anything. I like it all." That's not true. I think that negative feelings are something that I have a strong aversion to. So for example, I will try to, if I do something wrong, in certain circumstances when I feel safe and in a good place, I can take responsibility for it. When I feel unsafe and my back is up against a wall, or I feel, you know, then I can't, and I want to push that feeling of uncomfortableness as far away from me as possible.
Molly Burnham: It's interesting how I can receive criticism about my books and yet I don't want to say the wrong thing. So if I am talking to kids, for example, if I use my words wrong with children and I feel badly about that, and I mean, I don't even know. I can't even think of an example of this. Maybe when I was a teacher, I think when I was-
Jacqueline D.: Oh we've all done it, where we sometimes mangle what we're saying. We realize afterwards, "Oh that was not the best way to say it for kids to hear it."
Molly Burnham: For kids to hear it. And then I go around in my head and then I try to push the memory away instead of just sitting with it. Again, it's an uncomfortableness. It can be any topic that I feel uncomfortable with, which generally has to do with my state of being. Can I accept myself and my mistakes? And in the times that I'm very vulnerable, it is harder for me to accept my mistakes, and I will push them away.
Jacqueline D.: Wow. You really, you made that a very internal thing. And it's interesting, when I think of aversion, I think of things outside of myself that I dislike or push away. The thing for myself that pops immediately to mind is lying. I have a real aversion to lying, both to doing it myself, but also when I discover that somebody has been lying. That's something that I have a really strong response that I would call an aversion.
Molly Burnham: Yeah, I think that it's, I definitely agree with you. I think I could go through and really think about external and internal aversions and that that's a fascinating ... that would be a list [crosstalk 00:09:35]
Jacqueline D.: I know. There's your next piece to write.
Molly Burnham: I have an aversion to people treating others badly. I just don't want to hang out with those people, and I will not. I will not hang out with people. I have an aversion to people who want to take up the largest amount of space in a room, and I will move away from those people. And I think that that is connected also to what you're talking about, which is which are people who don't seem to have a sense of reality and need to twist it. That in a way feels like those are kind of healthy aversions. Because why should we hang out with people who lie or take up a huge amount of space or can't be charitable with space, can't extend the hand and ask the question?
Jacqueline D.: And this leads into the next thing that I wanted to talk about because another one of the items on your list, your compendium list is value. So I think the aversions speak to the things that we value, right? We are averse to things that are in contradiction to our personal values. Now you talk specifically about the roles that you play in no particular order. Daughter, sister, mother, writer, wife, community member, friend. And you speak about these roles under the heading of value. What's the connection there between the roles that you play for other people and the idea of value? Is it self value? How you value the way you perform those roles? Or is it the value that you provide to the people to whom you provide the role?
Molly Burnham: I think that this topic in particular I find really fascinating. It sort of makes me think of an accordion and that it has this multiple range. So it is how I value myself in those different roles, and it is also how those roles are valued in the world. So again, sort of the external/internal pull and the accordion moving in and out in a way, I guess it's a concertina really. So the role of mother, for example, has a certain value, and we've just gotten through Mother's Day, which is a really complicated time for a lot of people who might not be a mother or might have lost their child, and what their role is. And yet for so many people, it's this huge day to celebrate their mothers.
Molly Burnham: I think that we put value on all of those things and we squirrel around. I think that in our culture, because we are an economically based democracy, a very strong economically based democracy, we value things oftentimes that have a monetary value, and we give more value to those things with a monetary value. So how is a sister a monetary value? It's not. It's about community. So in fact, we should be valuing those at a higher rate. I suppose I could've put teacher there also. I think that that's a really interesting thing to look at how teachers are valued in our society. Which doesn't, it feels that there are many of us who value teachers, and yet there are a few who demean them. And those people have a lot of power to control their lives.
Jacqueline D.: It's very much in the news right now on teachers rising up and saying, "We need to be valued more." Not just we as people or as in the role of teachers, but education for the kids needs to be valued more, and that costs money. Money is what's needed.
Molly Burnham: Money is what's needed.
Jacqueline D.: So this is the perfect intro into the last question I'm going to ask before we wrap up with our final two questions, which is you talk about there was a call for a more generous approach to art and storytelling. So now we're getting back into the world of writing, the writing for children, and one that I feel is at odds with the capitalistic approach we have followed in the US for years. What would your ideal system, let's just stay focused on children's book publishing industry, the work of making children's books. What would be your ideal system for having that work that doesn't look like what it looks like today?
Molly Burnham: Yeah, and I don't know a lot of other systems, but I know a few other systems. In the Scandinavian countries, there is an appreciation of art, and so there are more opportunities for people to, I suppose for some people they would ... Well, let me finish one sentence. It's hard when there's so many thoughts. In the Scandinavian countries, artists can receive, there is funding for the arts that is more available to lots of artists.
Jacqueline D.: And it's sustaining. It's enough to live on.
Molly Burnham: It's enough, so it's enough to live on. It's a sustaining practice. And with something like that, in a way you equalize the playing field. One of the hardest things about being a writer is entering into the field and maintaining a safety net to support yourself as a freelancer. And I think that in America there is no way. We just don't even imagine that that's a possibility.
Molly Burnham: So right away there is a financial instability, and I can speak for myself that my family is continually experiencing, which puts a great strain on our family. It's one that I do with thought and with intention. And our family has accepted that, but if we lived someplace else and that there was more a supportive social system, so that the arts were seen as valuable. Again, circling back to this idea that we put value on things that make a lot of money, whereas the arts are not going to fit into that category, but they're so important to the human psyche and our lineage, and to know who we are. And to know who we are, then we know, then when we get somewhere where we are uncomfortable, at least we can go back to who we are to get through it.
Jacqueline D.: Yeah. So the financial instability of course has an effect on the making of the art itself. Not only can you do it, but what kind of art do you make? What kind of art do you make when you are feeling financially unstable or insecure? What kind of art do you make when you feel like you've got a floor beneath you and you're comfortable knowing that you're going to be able to meet your basic human needs?
Molly Burnham: That's right. So there's two things that I'm thinking about in that. One is that you can go to the, you know ... To make art to sell, we'll create a certain kind of book. To write a book, not thinking about its market will be another kind of book, and then to make art while feeling incredibly ... I mean making art is complicated enough as it is, and if there is more insecurity in it, it is harder to make it. Of course it can be made. I'm not giving anybody any excuses, but it does put some static into the brain.
Jacqueline D.: Yeah, for sure. This has been so incredibly interesting. There's so much more we could talk about in this list. I hope that there'll be another list from you. Before I let you go, I'd like to ask you the two questions we always ask the people that we have on our podcast. The first is what are you working on now or what are you interested, excited about right now that is going on in your work?
Molly Burnham: I finally actually have a couple of things that I'm really excited about. I have a middle grade book that I'm really digging into that's about a dog named Swagger, and the secret element of this is that the dog loves to cook. I'm having a really, really, really good time with that. That's really what's taking up the most of my space. In the book there's also a wonderful cat named Abel who is a poet, and a pigeon named Paloma.
Jacqueline D.: Oh my goodness. That sounds fantastic. Classic Molly Burnham. I'm sure it's going to be extremely funny. Finally, what we always ask our interviewees is if you could reach for the stars, have your wildest dream come true related to your career at the moment, what would that wildest dream be?
Molly Burnham: My wildest dream would be that Amy Pohler would discover my book and love it and share it with her kids, and then want to make it into a movie.
Jacqueline D.: Fabulous. That would be great. And star in it, would she star in it?
Molly Burnham: Absolutely.
Jacqueline D.: Definitely she should star in it.
Molly Burnham: Yeah.
Jacqueline D.: That's a great one. Okay. Well, Molly, thank you so much for being with us today. It was a real pleasure and look forward to talking with you again.
Molly Burnham: Thank you so much. Bye bye.