Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Check your teeth

Who do you write for?

There are usually two answers for children's writers (or possibly all writers, but somehow the question gets thrown at us more.)

1) For a specific audience. Keep the age of the reader in mind! we are admonished. Watch your vocabulary. Make sure you hook those wiggly young'uns with lots of action. Observe real children. Keep adults out of it. Be a storyteller, not a navel gazer.

2) For yourself. Anything else is pandering. Write to entertain your inner child, and age appropriateness will take care of itself. Universal themes will save the day. Write the book you want to read.

I waffle back and forth between these answers.

I'm definitely aware of the age I'm writing for when I'm drafting a piece. I can't help it; I've tried not to care, to let the manuscript decide, but I'm in the business of making my work public, in all the best sense of that world. (Think public libraries, public interest, the reading public...) I want to be part of the goings on in the town square; I respect the power of words to reach beyond my own little world, and to ignore my audience seems...well, RUDE. I want to talk with them, not at them, and how can I do that if I don't bother to get to know them?

On the other hand, I simply can't sustain the energy needed to write a novel unless it's making me happy, too. My inner child throws a fit, a stinking hissy fit, if she's bored. And she likes to be thought unique, special, in that wonderful "only you can write this book" kind of way. But darn it, she's so often right that I can't ignore her either.

What to do? What to do?

I came across another possible answer, and it occurred to me that maybe I'd already written a book this way:

You must write as if you were talking to a stranger.

Crooked House excerpted a bit of a blog post by Thaisa Frank, and I went and read the whole post. Printed it out, even.

I'm still thinking about it. Perhaps this is what I did when writing Letters From Rapunzel.

"To create a common bond, the writer must write to the reader as one would write a letter, and not for the reader, as one would write a paper in school. The writer must also be able to step back, and, at times, write from a distance, yet with the intention of wanting connection.

This is a special sort of connection. From the beginning of time, writers have forged a singular language of intimacy, much of which is nurtured by the fact that writing involves the meeting of two strangers."

Yes, I do crave that intimacy. So much of life involves being polite or reserved or pretending we don't see the frond of spinach wedged between a diner's teeth two tables down. (Her own tablemates will tell her, right?)

Writing a book gives me both intimacy and distance. I can be totally, embarrassingly personal, but I don't have to be there when you're reading it. I can even disguise the embarrassingly personal within other characters, mixing everything so skillfully that you can't tell what I've done and what I've only thought of doing or seen another foolish soul doing.

When I write, I can whisper to that stranger: check your teeth. And she can whisper back: Thanks. Have you checked your breath?


  1. I love the image of your inner child having a hissy fit.

    When I write, I often find that I have someone very specific in mind while I'm working. I don't always realize it right away, but after a while it becomes clear to me that I am writing the way I might talk or write to a particular friend or a member of my family. So it's my voice, but I'm trying to connect to something particular in that other person (usually, I am trying to amuse them). Anyway. I always wonder if other people work like that.

  2. I'm not a novelist, but I think this is an intriguing question. I like to hear authors talk about the subject of audience, to whom they're writing (the passionate Sendak-response: WRITE ONLY FOR YOURSELF, or else! or the keep-the-child-in-mind response). I can see how both would come into play. Of course I would. I always see both sides to just about everything, sometimes to a fault, but I really and truly can see how both can be considered.

    I like Thaisa's suggestion. New way of looking at things.

    That's nothing profound. But, as a reader, it's all interesting to me.


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