As a girl, I talked about being a veterinarian, a psychologist, even a professional softball player — I think because the paths to those careers seemed more straightforward, less potentially tragic. I had read many biographies of women writers — Louisa May Alcott, Dorothy Parker, Shirley Jackson, Lillian Hellman, Sylvia Plath — which seemed to equate being a writer with being poor, unhappy or crazy. But whenever I actually tried to picture my adult life, I saw myself sitting at a desk in front of a window, writing. Making a life as a writer is complicated — but writing is as simple as sitting at a desk in front of a window, fingers on the keyboard, as I do today. That vision is part of what has kept me going.
Here are answers to the questions I’m often asked about writing for adults and young adults:
Q: What writers inspired you to want to write and how did they capture your interest?
A: I read constantly—for pleasure, as part of my profession—but the books that influenced me the most as a writer were the books I read before I entered high school. I learned what a simile is from a picture book called I Can Fly by Ruth Krauss (illustrated by Mary Blair); another picture book by Joan Walsh Anglund (Nibble Nibble Mousekin, a version of the Hansel and Gretel tale) taught me what irony is with its revealing illustrations that contradicted the text on the page. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White taught me that the right word can save someone’s life. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain introduced me to characters so real they seemed to live outside the books’ covers. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith taught me about complex characterization—Francie’s lovable father, Johnny Nolan, is also the book’s villain. Lord of the Flies by William Golding, while not considered a YA novel, is the book that reminds me, when I write for young adults, not to condescend to my reader about the difficult passage of adolescence.
Q: What’s the difference between writing for adults and young adults?
A: The novel I just completed, Ghost Signs, is the first novel I’ve deliberately written for a young adult audience. Because my first novel, My Life As a Girl (Random House), was marketed as a “crossover” book (for YA and adult), I’m interested in what makes a book “YA.” It’s not quality or the protagonist’s age or even subject matter, I think. What makes a YA book resonate is the author’s ability to convey an adolescent sensibility: the immediacy, heightened emotion or sensitivity, and narcissism characteristic of adolescence.
Q: How did attending Bryn Mawr, a women’s college, influence your writing?
A: As a reader, I’ve noticed that boys’ stories are considered classic, while girls’ stories are often marginalized, genre, “young adult”. At Bryn Mawr, I was surrounded by amazing protagonists, who had more going on than what to wear to the prom. The experience taught me to think of girls’ stories as classic, and women’s lives as central.
Q: You’ve taught creative writing to high school and college students. Do you find any of your own lessons useful in terms of your own work?
A: My mantra with students is, “It’s just a draft!” I encourage them to be fearless in revising their essays and stories and poems. You must be willing to write a bad draft in order to write a good one, and you must be willing to revise until time’s up — and then to let go of your work. For me, releasing my work to an editor marks the real beginning: the opportunity to “re-see” the material, imagine a different path, even a different destination.
Q: What steps did you take to become a published author?
A: I wrote. I wrote in my journal, I wrote poems and stories for school and magazine contests, I wrote wildly exaggerated letters home from camp or vacation or college. At Bryn Mawr, I wrote an opinion column for the student newspaper, the first time I’d risked exposing my ideas to a smart and vocal audience I’d have to face in class or in the dining hall. That was a good experience; it taught me that writing isn’t meant to be a private monologue, but a public conversation.
After college, I worked for a magazine in New York, and began taking fiction workshops in the evenings at The Poetry Center. After the workshop ended, I continued to exchange work with three of the women I met there. Especially when you’re a beginner, it’s so important to have people who are waiting to read your work and who understand why anyone in their right mind would devote so much time and energy to finding the right words to describe experience. With my group’s help, I finished enough stories to apply to graduate school, and had already published several stories when I was admitted into the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
In graduate school, I finished a collection of short stories and discovered a new way of reading (to learn from writers I admired) and of writing (every day, no matter how busy I was or how uninspired I felt). My advisors taught me so much about the writing life — most importantly that, as with any job, you have to show up or you’ll be fired. And that if you practice consistently, you’ll get better — maybe even so skillful as to make all the hard work of writing seem effortless.
Q: What is the best advice you can give writers who wish to become published authors?
A: Write. Read constantly and critically — learn to articulate what you like and why. Find encouragement wherever you can. Set goals for yourself. Focus on the process, the satisfaction of capturing a character or making a scene come right, not on becoming rich or famous. (Of course, I didn’t listen when my teachers gave me this advice. I was too busy imagining what I’d wear to my book-signing party.)
Q: Anything else you wish to share with readers?
A: For many years, I was part of the Pennsylvania Young Writers Day program, a group of writers (poets, playwrights, song writers, journalists, novelists) who travel as a band of teachers to local elementary and middle schools. Teaching little kids taught me many things, not least of which is great respect for the people who teach children to read! I came away from these sessions exhausted and energized, reminded by students of something it seems important to share: Writing is play. It’s demanding, it’s absorbing, it’s all consuming sometimes—but it’s basically play. Let’s have a little fun, people.