Twelve Questions with Carol Kim
Carol Kim delights in sharing stories with children. Whether she is uncovering striking facts about snakes, telling an inspiring story about children saving the world, or recounting the fast-paced antics of kids and pets, she seeks to spur children to love books and reading. She is multi-published in the educational market and is currently working on a children's picture book.
1. Can you speak about what artisthood looked like to you as a child? Did you have creatives in your family or your family’s close circle of friends, or did you strike out in a new direction from your family culture?
There were some mixed signals about artisthood in my family as I was growing up. I loved reading—it was by far my favorite activity. My mother loved books too. She would talk to me about her favorites—which included lots of classics: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, The Count of Monte Cristo, Little Women, Of Human Bondage…I read them all starting from a young age. Some of them I loved (Count of Monte Cristo, Jane Eyre) while I suffered through others (Anna Karenina, Of Human Bondage). I remember she absolutely worshipped Gone With the Wind, and one day she gave me a copy to read. But on the condition that when she told me to stop reading to go to bed or come to the dinner table, I had to do it!
So my love of reading was enthusiastically encouraged. I would write stories all the time as well. I actually still have copies of some “books” I wrote when I was barely old enough to write—I think I was about seven.
But whenever I talked about wanting to study English in college, I was immediately shut down. Growing up Korean American, the only acceptable fields of study and professions were doctor, lawyer, engineer, or pharmacist. “What are you going to do with an English major?” That was the question I was always asked.
But on the other hand, my mother enjoyed painting. She went through a phase when I was in elementary school where she painted abstract, geometric designs on huge canvases. We had them hanging on the walls in our house. But this was just a “hobby,” and not considered anything you pursued as a vocation. My mother also suffered from poor health, and there was a period of a few years when she could barely get out of bed. As she recovered, she started watching painting shows on PBS. One artist did Chinese brush painting, and she started trying it out on her own. I am convinced her rediscovery of art saved her, both physically and mentally.
So on the one hand, I was raised to believe art was not something you did for a living. But on the other hand, art was also something that could heal you. It had a significant role in my life growing up.
2. Is there a formative image or event around creative calling for you? What made you want to pursue your artistic field? And was there anything in particular that gave you the courage to take that first step?
Whenever I would read a story that transported me, or introduced me to characters that inspired me, or I felt a connection to, I felt such a yearning to create a story that did the same for others.
There were many books that gave me this feeling. But one of my all-time-favorites was Watership Down by Richard Adams. I LOVED that book. I still do. I also loved The Hobbit and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. I would say those books really instilled that deep love of books in me and made me long to be able to write.
What gave me the courage to take that first step? Well, I didn’t have the courage for a long, long time. But having children of my own, and my wish to motivate them to pursue their dreams, was a wake-up call for me. I couldn’t spur them to be courageous and push themselves out of their comfort zone if I wasn’t modelling it for them!
And one day when a good friend asked me, “Now that your kids are in school, what do you WANT to do?”
And I knew the answer. And finally had the courage to say it out loud. “I want to write.”
3. What are some creative works of others that have made the greatest impact on you, stylistically or personally? Is there a work that makes you fall back in love with your craft or industry when you’re discouraged?
My experience going to the Austin Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators (ASCBWI) was a huge boost for me. It allowed me to see there were so many people who were just like me who had 1) both succeeded in becoming a published author and 2) believed they could become a published author. I saw that I didn’t have to hide and be ashamed that I wanted this dream for myself. Because it was clear that this was a goal that was open to anyone who was willing to work for it. It wasn’t that you were larger-than-life, or had some special power granted to you (well, there are some genius writers), or had “extra” time and resources available to them.
As for some particular work that gets me inspired again? Basically if I just pick up a book, whether it’s for adults or children, and it tells a good story, that’s enough to get me going. There are so many wonderful stories out there! Some get me juiced up more than others, but anything written reasonably well makes me want to sit down and write.
4. Can you share a low point on your creative path and talk about how you dealt (or are dealing) with it? Or can you speak about a greatest fear that you grapple with?
When I first started trying to write for kids, I tried my hand at kids’ magazines. I researched some ideas, wrote the stories, and submitted them. And got rejected. This was a time when I didn’t really believe in myself as a writer. So I didn’t have the confidence to just take failure as a learning experience. I took it as a sign that I wasn’t good enough. When I think about how easily I gave up, it kind of makes me cringe. In my heart, I knew that most successful (that is, published) writers all experienced piles of rejections. But there was this part of me that believed the only way I could be validated was to get an acceptance right away. This was not hubris—it was actually my lack of confidence that had me thinking this way.
All I could see was this long road where I put in so much of my time and effort in coming up with ideas, researching my ideas, writing it down, and finally submitting something—only to be rejected. Every story took me months from conception to completion. I just couldn’t see how it was ever going to amount to anything. So of course what I did was stop writing for kids.
5. Could you distill the most important thing you’ve learned about your craft or your identity as an artist into one sentence?
I believe as long as you keep showing up and working on improving your craft, you will eventually reach your goal.
6. Our childhood experiences shape us, the positive and the painful. Sometimes we have access to unusual resources, and sometimes loss, loneliness or lack can be a rich tool to move us forward. Are there any unusual circumstances, weird childhood habits, or difficult challenges that shaped the way you see or interact with the world? How might these things show up in your craft?
Growing up in southern California in the 70s and 80s meant being one of only a handful of Asian Americans in my community. (When I go back and visit my family in Orange County now I am astounded by the explosion of the Asian American population—and especially the Korean American population. I remember talking to an Asian friend of mine when it first struck me what a huge shift had occurred—“We’re taking over!” I told her).
I was ashamed to admit that during my childhood, there were many times when I wished I was white. I didn’t want to look the way I did. I didn’t want to eat our weird-smelling foods. I wished my parents didn’t speak with an accent.
It took me a long time to embrace my heritage in a matter-of-fact way. But I understand that my experience growing up helps me identify with kids who feel “otherness” among their peers. I wouldn’t say I felt I didn’t belong—I always had lots of friends and being part of the “model minority” meant I didn’t feel looked down upon. But just feeling apart from the norm—when you are a kid you want so much to blend in—that is something I want to write about so kids can see themselves in that experience.
7. Talk about a failure or disappointment—can be related to your career or not—that led to greater success or sent you on a more authentic or whole-hearted path.
When I first decided to become a freelance writer, I focused on copywriting, which is basically writing promotional pieces, usually for businesses. I had no experience, no clips, no idea what I was doing. I took whatever kind of work I could find, and for very little pay. As I got clips, I found clients who were marginally better. I didn’t have a niche (which is a questionable strategy) so I wrote for all kinds of businesses. These included sales letters for a print shop, a produce wholesaler, a hair salon, a computer repair shop. Some assignments were more enjoyable than others. Most were rather tedious. I had a regular gig where I wrote for one blog selling people on a currency-trading program. Another was for a company that stored “dangerous goods” (which can be anything from cooking oil to chemicals). I wrote maybe one post a month for these clients. And as time went on, when I would get the assignment, I would be filled with dread. I wasn’t making stuff up, but I sure didn’t know much about the subjects. And for the currency trader—well, it felt somewhat unethical to me. Because I personally don’t think currency trading is something you can learn in a few weeks. And it’s a pretty financially risky business. Most of my posts would try to center on the notion of being informed and understanding the risks. But I started running out of material!
Anyway, I finally realized how much I was hating these assignments. This was not why I was finally pursuing my dream of becoming a writer—to create questionable posts for businesses I knew nothing about!
I finally told my client I wasn’t going to be able to provide posts for him anymore. What a relief!
I took a year off from freelance writing (it was a period where I needed to really focus on my oldest child who was going through a rough patch). And when I came back to the idea of writing, I decided this time, I am focusing on work I enjoy! Which was writing for children. I focused my energies on children’s writing, and eventually got the kind of work I could enjoy. The pay is still terrible, but I feel so much more joy in the work.
8. What does a good creative day look like for you? What gets you in flow?
The best creative days for me are when I do it first thing after I get up. My routine always involves meditation and journaling. But I used to think I needed to spend time writing when I had a chunk of time to do it. Well, we all know how well that works! So instead I just try to do some creative writing as part of my regular morning routine. Even if I only have ten minutes.
When I do that, and I reach the end of the day having been pulled in a bunch of different directions with no time spent writing, I at least have that little bit of writing from the morning under my belt. It feels sooo much better to me.
As for flow, I think the best thing to get me in a groove is a deadline. I need that outside pressure hanging over me to force me to do the work.
9. What has your experience with loneliness and creativity looked like? How do you find creative community?
I don’t usually feel lonely when it comes to creativity. But what I do feel is a lack of confidence, so I prefer to write in isolation. I can’t come up with prose on the fly—when I observe people doing that I am astonished. I’m too self-conscious! There’s a group here in Austin called the Typewriter Rodeo. They will work at an event where people can just walk up to them and give them a random topic. And I mean random! Like, “I just spilled my coffee” or “my two-year-old refuses to wear socks” or “I love grackles.” And the writer will bang out a poem on their vintage manual typewriter ON THE SPOT. It’s amazing. I could never do that.
Anyway, I used to be so afraid to step out into the world of creatives. For one thing, I didn’t think I qualified. I tried a couple of online writing classes, because that didn’t feel so scary. I did have one friend who I felt comfortable sharing my work with. And she finally encouraged me to attend the ASCBWI conference. The Austin kid lit community is really special. It is such a supportive, kind, friendly, encouraging group of people, that I was able to show up a little more, and a little more. And I know now that creatives do best in a community. We need that energy and exchange of ideas and support. Once I finally started making an effort to meet people, it all just snowballed. Now I feel part of this giant community of kid lit writers and I love it.
10. What would be some things on your go-to resource list (ie. books, podcasts, online courses) that you would love to share with others? Any habits or spiritual practices that keep you on track or pull you up when you’re down?
Well, since I am all about the world of kidlit, that’s where most my resources fall into.
But I do also enjoy some inspirational/business podcasts, such as: Do it Scared with Ruth Soukup, Online Marketing Made Easy with Amy Porterfield, WorkLife with Adam Grant.
I found Claire Zammit’s Feminine Power course to be very helpful.
I also love all things Brené Brown! All her books, her Netflix talk, her TED Talks, everything.
About five years ago I took up a regular meditation practice. I love the app Insight Timer—so much good stuff there! Some of my favorite guides are Sarah Blondin, Andrew Johnson, Bethany Auriel-Hagan, and Kim Newning.
As far as habits/spiritual practices, I try to meditate every day, as one of the first things I do after I get up. Then I write in my journal for about 10 minutes. I really try to do this before looking at email, the news, anything.
I also like using oracle decks, and will usually pick one card a day, after meditating.
And lately I’ve been trying to do a bit of writing as part of my morning practice as well. Even if it is just for 15 minutes. That way, if I never get to any writing the rest of the day, I don’t feel like such a loser! On the many days when I would allow everything else in my life to keep me from writing, I would get so frustrated at the end of the day. I would tell myself, “if writing is so important to me, how come I can’t make time for it?” By starting out my day with it, I feel so much better now.
11. What does success as an artist mean to you?
Success as an artist used to me publication by a traditional publisher. I still want that and am working toward that.
But I understand now that having the courage to make whatever it is you want to make and sharing it in some way is success. Sharing could simply mean putting that painting you made on display on your wall. Or having someone read your story. Or making a meal out of love for your family. Just recognizing that these are all forms of creative expression is the key.
12. If you could go back in time and speak to yourself at any age, what age would you choose and what would you say?
Remember how I said I loved Watership Down as a kid? I was so enamoured of it, I wanted to write my own version of the book. I was maybe 13 or 14 years old? I typed up a book on our manual typewriter—I probably had 50 pages. And then I read it over, and hated it so much I threw it in the trash.
I would go back to my 13/14 year old self, and I would tell her not to give up. I would explain how much time and effort was needed to get better at writing. And I would explain that if she started on that journey now, she would be in much better shape as an adult! (Unlike me!). I would explain to her that she had a story to tell that no one else could, and if I worked at it consistently, over time, I would finally start writing stories I could be proud of.
Carol Kim can be found at www.ckimwrite.com