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            The March/April issue of The Horn Book started off with a piece by Leonard Marcus entitled “The UN             Tapes.” It consisted of verbatims Marcus culled from more than 100,000 letters in Ursula                                 Nordstrom’s editorial files that led to the creation of DEAR GENIUS, as well as his conversations with many of Nordstrom’s authors, artists, and staffers.

            (Nordstrom, as everyone reading this no doubt knows, was director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973. The book DEAR GENIUS is a compilation of Nordstrom’s letters which were collected and edited by Marcus and  published in 1998.)

            Nordstrom was a genius, herself, in her ability to recognize the genius in writers and illustrators. She worked with Margaret Wise Brown, Shel Silverstein, E.B. White, Maurice Sendak and John Steptoe, among others. The list takes one’s breath away.

           

            The chance to read a collection of thoughts on writing from this giant of an editor, in such a meticulously compiled arrangement as that in The Horn Book, is a pleasure, to say nothing of privilege. Not only does it give a writer a portrait of how an editor works on the very highest level, but Nordstrom’s thoughts on writing and the writing process provide an invaluable education.

           
          
To cut to the chase, I was particularly struck by something one of Nordstrom’s editors said about “authenticity” and the high regard with which Nordstrom held that concept. Margaret Warner, who was Nordstrom’s assistant, said, in part: “Her greatest gift to me, though, was as a mentor – what it takes to write with authenticity, how to recognize an authentic voice in a piece of work, however rough it might be.”

 

    From where I sit, at least, authenticity is not a word that’s being bandied about in this present-day world of children’s books; voice rules the day. Editors look for voice, writers agonize over how to create it. When I came to that quote and realized that an editor of Nordstrom’s stature had held authenticity as a sort of gold standard, I thought: why aren’t we talking about authenticity? What is it? How is it different from voice? How can a writer achieve it?

 

    To my mind, voice and authenticity are not the same thing. And I, for one, was very pleased to be able to think about writing in slightly different terms. I can hear Audrey Hepburn singing, “Voice, voice, voice, I’m so SICK of voice” as I sit here now. Not that I doubt its importance for a minute. I’m just worn out with listening to writers agonize over how to achieve it and trying to come to grips with it when it’s such an amorphous element.

Finally, I thought: another way to look at things.

    For my own purposes, I think that voice is the result of the whole of a writer’s experience, coupled with the depth of their understanding of their character, compounded by their ability to use craft to achieve their desire results, while authenticity is closer to truth: the ability of a writer to write while allowing full access to their heart’s deepest motivations (a fearful act), and state what they’re trying to say without guile, but with earnestness and truth.


How does that sound? Close, but no cigar? Is something missing? Something not quite right?


    I asked two editors, Sarah Shumway from Penguin Putnam, and Martha Mihalick from Greenwillow, what they thought about authenticity, and whether it was the same as, or different than, voice. I’ll put their thoughts on the subject here tomorrow.
 

    First, I wanted to go back and re-read DEAR GENIUS to see if Nordstrom had more to say on the subject. (I hadn’t read the book since it was first published.) When I opened it the other day, I saw that I’d written “243” on the first page in pencil. Flipping to that page, I saw that I hadn’t underlined anything on it. But reading through it, I came to this in a letter from Nordstrom to author Mary Calhoun: “I read something in a book about Shakespeare’s sonnets that I’ve never forgotten – about ‘the economy of the closed heart,’ and I don’t believe in the closed heart whatsoever. I think it is death. I keep a little scrap of paper with part from that book in my handbook and quote it to you now ‘The open heart must give itself away in order to maintain its existence … It is confronted with a perpetual dilemma: it can know of its being only through self-loss. The alternative is to conserve itself until it has withered away.’”

 

    I’m sure it was that “open heart” concept that struck me then because it strikes me now. Maybe writing with an open heart leads to authenticity. There can be no hiding behind slick language and superficial plot when your heart is fully open and you’re allowing it to inform your writing.

 
    Sometimes, we writers are like dogs, gnawing on a bone, when it comes to talking about writing. But I find this matter of authenticity interesting. If I can be authentic and, at the same time, capture and communicate a distinctive voice, will I create a classic???

 

    Tomorrow, I’ll post what the editors had to say about it. For now, I’ll leave you with two bits from DEAR GENIUS which may shed more light on her definition of authenticity:

 

“Reflecting on the sodden tradition of the teen novel prior to the 1960s, with its shadowless depictions of home, school, and community life and its stifled acknowledgment of sexuality, Nordstrom wrote:

            ‘Is there a real world where young people always respect their always respectable parents? … The ‘rigid world of good and bad’ is infinitely easier to write about than the real world. Because the writer of books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.’”

 

    And this: “When asked to explain how she chose the books that Harper published, Nordstrom often said: ‘If I can resist a book, I resist it.’

    Interesting … maybe because it’s not authentic enough?

                       

           

 

 

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
tamilewisbrown
Apr. 7th, 2008 03:29 pm (UTC)
Fabulous post, Stephanie!
The authenticity concept has really set my mind of fire. In a couple of weeks I'll be blogging about "who you write for" As I've begun to ponder the various aspects of this I ran across a quote from R. L. Stine (um not exactly a writer I personally choose to emulate but anyway here it is...)
"I hear other authors saying, 'Write from your heart. Write what you know. Write what you feel.' That's horrible. What a way to turn people away from writing. I've never written a single thing from my heart. I write to entertain people. I pick out an audience, and I learn about them and what they like, and I write the best book I can for them."
Personally I'd say ick. But I'm not a kid. And I was certainly never a reluctant reader. When I was in second grade my favorite part of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was reading about how Charlie's family suffered, eating cabbage soup and sleeping in one bed. I couldn't express it then but the poignancy gripped my heart and made me feel more alive. Okay, I've always been weird, I guess.
No one has ever accused R. L. Stine of authenticity (and apparently he has no interest in seeking it) yet his work is undeniably popular and for lots of kids "entertaining". Authentic emotion isn't necessarily entertaining. In fact, I'd venture to say that it's often hard and painful, although certainly something doesn't have to be fun to be a joy.
Okay, I'm rambling here. I haven't quite clarified my thinking on this and I don't want to get off on a tangent.
But what a fantastic thought provoking post Stephanie!!! Thanks!!!
scgreene
Apr. 7th, 2008 03:44 pm (UTC)
I have to agree with Stine, Tami, that if you sit down in front of a computer and tell yourself you're now going to write from your heart, it might be enough to send you, screaming, for the woods. It's much too murky in that heart! To say nothing of personal. Who, in their right mind, would do that?

Heart does have to weigh in at some point, though. Well, maybe not with every sort of book. Not the Stine books. And when I say heart, I don't mean deep, dark, heavy feelings. Heart's funny and light and carefree. "Miles and miles and miles of heart!" But it's still heart.
tamilewisbrown
Apr. 7th, 2008 03:50 pm (UTC)
Okay. I can buy that. And I certainly don't advocate sitting in front of a key board and saying "now I will EMOTE"
But hearts are twisty, quirky, messy things. Mix them in with story conflict and there's often some dark with the funny, light and carefree.
Perhaps Sarah Pennypacker's Clementine books are a good example of perky, happy, strong of voice... yet conveying authentic emotion. Clementine has tremendous self doubt on occasion but she's always entertaining.
tamilewisbrown
Apr. 7th, 2008 04:20 pm (UTC)
Okay. I can buy that. And I certainly don't advocate sitting in front of a key board and saying "now I will EMOTE"
But hearts are twisty, quirky, messy things. Mix them in with story conflict and there's often some dark with the funny, light and carefree.
Perhaps Sarah Pennypacker's Clementine books are a good example of perky, happy, strong of voice... yet conveying authentic emotion. Clementine has tremendous self doubt on occasion but she's always entertaining.
scgreene
Apr. 7th, 2008 05:10 pm (UTC)
I would have liked to be there for Martine's workshop. Her comments reflect something one of the editors said and which I'll post tomorrow. Sometimes, if feels to me that while voice has to be purposefully created unless it's organically part of the book from the start (lucky writer), authenticity may already exist based on the writer's feelings. That doesn't make as much sense as it should. Needs work.
bondgwendabond
Apr. 7th, 2008 07:33 pm (UTC)
Martine gives great workshop. :)

Are you talking more about character voice or authorial voice? Because to me the "authentic voice" in the second part of that UN quote is the authorial voice... and it has to be there for the rest to work. But I absolutely get what you're saying about authenticity (I think); that said, I don't think that authenticity is _necessarily_ at war with artifice. Though I'll admit it often seems that way.

Re: the above, it puts me in mind of Jane Yolen's saying in her revision talk that there are three kinds of books: head books, heart books, and pocketbooks. (And, of course, there's overlap.)

(Anonymous)
Apr. 7th, 2008 08:03 pm (UTC)
Authorial voice, for sure. Kind of like the underpinings of the whole thing. Belief. I don't know ... that's a good comment of Jane's. I wonder what Ursula would make of head books. At war with artifice ... hmmm ... I bet we could come up with some examples of books at which those two things aren't at war, but none spring to mind.

What do pocket books have - neither heart nor head?
bondgwendabond
Apr. 7th, 2008 08:07 pm (UTC)
Jane said ideally a book would be all three! :) Pocketbooks are the ones that bring in the money, so I guess they'd generally be more about realizing commercial potential. (Which clearly doesn't necessarily conflict with something deeper.)

I think of voice as the magic part, so it's really difficult to talk about or approach it intellectually.

Artifice is really just a fancy way of saying craft. It's all a construction, but authenticity is when we make all that be in service of something true, maybe? The problem seems to come in when you're repackaging falsehoods about how the world works.
scgreene
Apr. 7th, 2008 08:05 pm (UTC)
That was me. I replied in the email and it came up anonymous.
scgreene
Apr. 7th, 2008 08:20 pm (UTC)
Or, as Carlos Fuentes said, "Bad books are about the things the writer already knew before he wrote them."

What can I say? He doesn't know any female writers.
(Deleted comment)
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )