What Follows You

Jasper Fforde was born into a family of academics and had to overcome a belief that he couldn’t be a writer without any formal higher education. Seven books later he has concluded that the minimum requirement for writing is “being human.”

I couldn’t agree more. Writing schools (in the form of MFA programs) abound, and I imagine they serve a useful purpose. If nothing else, they get young and youngish would-be writers to write a lot under the tutelage of an experienced writer. Contacts can be made as well. Certain literary agents scour the ranks of Iowa Writers Workshop graduates for potential clients, and in her interview Zoë Ferarris described a soiree thrown by her MFA program where agents mingled with the new blood.

So all to the good. But in the end, all the writing classes in the world will never take the place of hours spent in the chair. Writing is not about a relationship between you and a writer teacher, or you and a critique group, or even you and your readership—it is a relationship between you and you. After you’ve written what you wanted to write is when the teachers and readers come in, and that is a particular relationship and experience unto itself.

The writing, however, is about you talking to you. Or, more accurately, you listening to you. Those hours in the chair are where you train your ear to hone in on your most authentic stream of thought and feeling. That stream is unique to you, and so it is ultimately impossible for anyone else to tell you where it is or what it sounds like.

Alone we are at our desks. Some of us fear this solitude, some of us are afraid to leave it. Yet there is nothing to fear, in leaving the solitude or in turning toward it. That silence and solitude is with you at all times, and if you train your ear well enough, you will hear it wherever you are—ending arguments, choosing the perfect gift, and putting you to sleep at night.

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What Every Author Wants

Whenever I interview children’s or young adult authors, we often end up talking about the enthusiasm of their readers. People who love books love them equally, it seems to me, young or old, but the young express it differently. The comments, for instance, posted on the Youtube version of our interview with Richelle Mead—who writes the very popular Vampire Academy series—are full of anguish and excitement. Reading these comments is like being asked to judge a competition for the world’s biggest Richelle Mead Fan.

By comparison, I was having dinner recently after my interview with Jasper Fforde near where a sizable crowd was gathering to hear him read. It was crowded enough that I had to share a table, and my tablemate, it turned out, was there to hear Jasper read. “Should be good,” I said. “He’s an entertaining guy.”

My dinner partner nodded solemnly. “And a very good writer.”

And this is what I hear from a lot of writers of adult fiction, or from writers of YA fiction who have adult readers: adults generally want to let the writer know that they know what really good writing is. Yes, writers have egos, sometimes very big ones, and yes they like to hear what fabulous writers they are—but by and large novels are not written as a four hundred-page test of our writing skills but as a means of sharing something we love.

This obsession with how well something is done is an affliction of sorts of adulthood. It’s to be expected, however. We spend so much time, particularly in school but often on up into the professional world, having what we do graded and ranked and judged, that life can come to be seen as a kind of test that we will either pass or fail. The adult fans obsessed with good writing are letting the author know he or she has passed, and with high marks.

Better, however, to let the writer know how much the book meant to you. It is a lovely human-to-human exchange. More importantly, by not bothering with how well the book was written, the reader gives a great gift to the writer by reminding him or her to always turn their focus back toward what they love. All that good writing has merely allowed someone of a like mind to experience a joy similar to that of the writer when he or she first discovered the story they wanted to tell.

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