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Why We Write What We Write


            I never thought about why children’s book writers write for the genres they do before I entered an MFA program. Once I was there, though, I thought about it a lot. Both at Vermont College, of which I’m a grad, and at Hamline’s MFA program, where I worked as a Graduate Assistant during a summer residency, the lines of demarcation between the writers of each particular genre were clear and sometimes passionate.


The writers of fantasy I came to know were much the same as the readers of fantasy I’ve known in my life - my son, who was an avid fantasy reader, starting in the 5th grade, as well as the many fantasy fans I meet in the 4th and 5th grades when I make school visits. Both writers and readers of fantasy seem, to me, to be calmly self-directed people, often shy, sometimes reading fantasy to avoid the reality they see around them; other times, finding everyday life just a bit too mundane for their creative tastes.


The historical fiction writers were sometimes librarians, often teachers; people who like to learn things, to know things, and who find fiction a slight entertainment, not as meaty as stories based on real events. Many children in school, today, love historical fiction. In my experience, many of them are girls.


Unlike newer writers in an organization such as SCBWI, who often pick that genre because it seems more approachable, being shorter and simpler, the picture book writers I knew in both programs often chose that genre because of a love of poetry: a few words, carefully placed. But not always. Sometimes it was simply that the story they had to tell was a picture book story, and they recognized it as such; they liked that genre, and the reading of text out loud.


Early reader and chapter book writers (I’ve written both genres) were in a kind of limbo; a quiet group; no one really talks a lot about chapter books. I mean, what, exactly, are they? Although there are some tenuous guidelines for early readers, I don’t know that even publishers and editors have a clear definition of chapter books. Certainly, I’ve never heard two editors describe chapter books in the same way as to age group, subject matter, or length.


When you get to the middle grade and YA genres, that’s where you start hearing a bit more noise. YA writers are usually very proud of writing YAs. They feel that they’re tackling the cutting edge problems of the day and of that age group; that their books reflect the sometimes grim reality of life as it is for a teenager.


Middle grade writers are content to stay in that still-a-child-almost-a-teenager group. Problems generally center around family, school, and friends. Not many mg readers are cutting themselves or doing drugs yet or having sex yet. Whenever I visit a school, it’s the middle grade readers, grades 3-5, that I love to watch. Especially the 5th graders, who know something’s coming; they’re not sure what but they’re ready for it.


So what’s my point? Ha. It goes back to the idea of authenticity, I think. A few years ago when I taught at Wildacres, a now defunct writing camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, I used to ask my workshop group to “Quick, name an age,” and we’d go around the table doing that. Without fail, every writer knew exactly what age they wanted to name. When we talked about it after, everyone knew why they’d named that age, too. They’d had a great time, they’d last been happy, they’d been badly treated in high school, they’d had their feelings hurt, they’d been bullied … the list goes on but all of the memories were sharp.


When someone says, “Write what you know,” it can mean so many things. We’re all drawn, as writers (and sometimes stuck, as adults), to a stage in our lives where something either good or bad happened, which we remember forever. We either can’t get over it or want to. What’s important to us on that deep level isn’t always the first book we write. Often, it’s the thing we never get up the nerve to write. Or maybe write to reenact it, or to change its outcome, or to make up a happier, more important story. Sometimes, we write a book for the child we love because of what she loves.


Unless you were comatose at the time, every writer remembers their middle school and high school years with a certain amount of discomfort. Very few of us had perfect times. Yet, why do some writers stay in that genre, and others select a different genre? Need you have said,  “age 8,” when asked, in order to write an authentic chapter book? Is it enough to have helped a struggling 2nd grader learn how to read and seen the triumphant in her eyes when she finally managed to read an entire Early Reader in order to write a good one?

Is there such a thing as a happy childhood and, if you led one as a child, does that handicap you as a writer, as so many writers joke? What, exactly, motivates you as a writer and how can you tap into the real motivation in your past that will lead to the most powerful, successful writing and book?

 So many questions. So few answers. I have a feeling, though, that when a writer can find the answer, therein might just lie the roots of authenticity.




( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 10th, 2008 11:06 pm (UTC)
Absolutely, positively. I've done it; countless writers have. Different genres can be handled with varying degrees of heart/authenticity. Not to say that some don't require heart, but you can write a funny early reader which would ask different things of you than if you were writing a serious middle grade or YA. Many writers, myself included, switch between genres on any give day when the writing of one becomes arduous, or you feel you need a break from the mood you're in.

That's the problem with these blogs - I obviously opened a huge topic and made some sweeping generalizations. Coping with it all at one time is difficult. I'd love to be involved in a dialogue about all of this in real time, with my contemporaries. What do you invest? Why? Is serious more important than funny? etc., etc., etc.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 10th, 2008 11:35 pm (UTC)
It might be interesting for you to think about the 3 ages you came up with, what's important about each one, why you came up with it. The fact that your wip is different from what's being written or read sounds very interesting. I believe that category is changing on a daily basis. What's not being read today might be the Next Big Thing of tomorrow.

It might be that authenticity is felt, and that you can learn to identify and feel authentic emotions that'll lead to that kind of book. Best of luck with your VC experience - and hang onto your hat. It'll be everything you hope for, and much more.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )