The Writer's Page: Yes, And...

In improv comedy there is a hard and fast rule: whatever your scene partner asks you to do, no matter how ridiculous or outrageous, you always answer, “Yes, and…” Saying no ends the scene and cuts off all possibilities. Saying yes continues the scene and provides infinite opportunities.

It’s a good rule to follow in the writing life, too, whether writing silly, serious, or somewhere in between.

Thirty-five years ago, an acquaintance asked me to write a children’s book about a family like hers: a family with two moms and a child. I could have said, “No, I’m a poet, not a children’s book author.” I could have said, “No, I’ll never find a publisher.” I could have said, “No, I don’t have time.” Instead, I said, “Yes, that’s a great idea. Thank you for asking.” And I got to work. Two years later, Heather Has Two Mommies was born.

Every time I am asked to write something, I say yes. When my friend Roger Grodsky asked me to write a children’s book with his nickname as the title, I rolled up my sleeves to write The Boy Who Cried Fabulous. When my spouse asked me for a picture book to comfort the children of her birthplace after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria, I considered it my responsibility as well as my honor to write Alicia and the Hurricane: A Story of Puerto Rico / Alicia y el huracán: Un cuento de Puerto Rico.

But when Jason Marsden, a former executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, asked me to create a book for very young readers about his friend Matt, a student at the University of Wyoming who was murdered simply for being gay, self-doubt almost prevented me from saying yes.

In a way, Jason’s request started with Heather Has Two Mommies. If I hadn’t written Heather, I never would have been asked to be the University of Wyoming’s keynote speaker for Gay Awareness Week in 1998, the year that Matt was killed. I never would have arrived on campus the day that Matt died. I never would have met Matt’s friends and teachers. I never would have promised to keep Matt’s name alive as best I could. I never would have written October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, a YA novel in verse that explores the impact Matt’s murder had and continues to have upon the world. And Jason never would have asked me to write another book about Matt, a book that would be geared toward younger readers.

I have learned that lack of belief in myself is no reason not to say yes. It took me ten years to write Always Matt: A Tribute to Matthew Shepard. I didn’t know how to approach such a subject for the picture-book set. I tried many times in many ways from many points of view. I could have given up, called Jason, and said, “No, I just can’t do it.” But I kept at it.

Finally, I had a text I was satisfied with, a text that focused on Matt’s life instead of the end of his life, a text that showed him as a person, not a headline. A text written in poetry, not prose, told from an omniscient third-person point of view.

I sent the book out and waited and waited, hoping my editor would say yes.

My editor at Abrams, the brilliant Howard Reeves, didn’t say no, but he didn’t say yes. He said he was interested in the project but didn’t see it as a picture book. He asked if I would consider publishing the book in a different form and genre.

I could have said, “No, I wrote this manuscript as a picture book, and I want it to stay a picture book.” Instead, I said, “Yes, and I can’t wait to hear your ideas.” And so we set up a meeting. Howard suggested that we publish the book as a fully illustrated “family book,” which was a genre I’d never heard of. He explained that a family book is a book meant to be read and discussed by entire families. And in this case, he hoped that families would be inspired by Matt’s story to make the world a better, safer place for the LGBTQIA+ community.

Yes, I said to my editor, whose vision is as much a part of this book as my own. Yes, I said when Howard suggested we bring Brian Britigan onboard as our illustrator. Yes, I said when Howard asked me to write a preface and an epilogue to add to the poetic text that makes up the body of the book. Yes, I said when Howard asked if we could change the title of the book from Always Matt: The Story of Matthew Shepard to Always Matt: A Tribute to Matthew Shepard. And YES! I cheered when I held the first beautiful copy of the book in my hands.

One yes leads to another and another and another. When one says no, one knows what will happen: nothing. When one says yes, one doesn’t know what will happen. And that’s what makes life — especially the writing life — so magical and exciting.

From the March/April 2024 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Lesléa Newman

Lesléa Newman's books include Always Matt: A Tribute to Matthew Shepard (Abrams ComicArts), illustrated by Brian Britigan; October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (Candlewick); Sparkle Boy (Lee & Low), illustrated by Marina Mola; The Babka Sisters (Kar-Ben), illustrated by Tika and Tata Bobokhidze; and Heather Has Two Mommies (Alyson Books), illustrated by Diana Souza. She has received an NEA poetry fellowship, two Stonewall Honors, two National Jewish Book Awards, and the Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award.

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