Monday, February 15, 2010

A Conversation on Resonance & Responsibility

Resonance and connectivity are things that I look for a lot as an editor, things that I ask writers to pursue in their storytelling, urging them to open up their stories as wide as possible. Doing so can lead to one of the most powerful kinds of writing, in my mind: when a book reaches beyond merely telling about a particular set of characters, and becomes a story that echoes as familiar and personal and true in the hearts and minds of all different kinds of readers. If, as creators of stories, we recognize and believe that stories are what connect us, then of course that potential for deep connection is one we want to make the most of, right? And if we're lucky, the connections do, in fact, emerge: between readers and characters, between readers and their classmates/friends/family members/fellow humans, and sometimes between readers and authors, too.

But what happens, once the connection is made? Do we talk enough--or at all--about what that can mean, especially for writers of deeply resonant and real (but also sometimes deeply painful) stories?

We talk a lot about "responsibility" in children's and YA books, and one of the fascinating things about that word is that, like any word, it means something different to different people. To some, it means militant safe-guarding of young readers from stories that may, ultimately, shape them, even in the slightest of ways, into a different person than they were previously. But to most of us working in publishing, whether as writers or industry folk, "responsibility," especially in the context of YA, usually translates best to "honesty."

Most of us remember what it was like to be a teen, and we know teens today, too. And the truth is, growing up is (still) hard, and (still) confusing, and it isn't always safe, and sometimes it's positively cruel, but every teen has to stumble through it somehow. And if there are books that might help him/her do so with a little more certainty or a little less loneliness, so much the better. In a way, it means we're all in this together: authors and agents, editors and publishers, librarians and teachers, with all the other invisible walls between our linked-but-separate professions broken down. We're all in it together for every single teen who might, just might, reach for a book while seeking to answer some variation of the questions that we still remember asking ourselves: How, exactly, do we learn to grow up? To become human? To survive the turbulent mess of fears and glories and heartbreaks and changes that any kind of significant becoming entails? To find out which things actually matter, to understand what part of everything is true?

My Jesuit university extolled an ideal that's at the heart of their mission/philosophy of education, and that ended up at the heart of me, too: cura personalis, or "care for the whole person." In other words, it's not enough to care for or feed a person physically, you must also look after his/her unique emotional, spiritual, and mental needs and hungers, too; we must offer a deep respect for everything that makes a person human. In this way, we can help others--and ourselves--them grow, by refusing to segment a person into only the elements we might feel comfortable seeing. Ultimately, if reaching outward, you cannot only give attention to singular aspects of a person's full humanity, or you have failed to truly care for them after all. It's a philosophy that I think can offer a deeper meaning to, but demand a deeper responsibility from, any profession: from doctors to social workers to teachers to writers of books for teens. Because we do care for those we encounter, and deeply: writers care for the teens who will read their books, and editors care for those teens, too--and also for the authors, caught somewhere in the middle of this chain of connectivity.

Which brings me to the question that Janet Reid is asking on her blog today. It's not a question that I have any answer to (would that I did!) but I agree with her that it's an important one for all of us to weigh, and to think about in terms of today's social media-driven world. What happens when a teen does find a story that speaks to him/her powerfully, and that book becomes a lifeline--when a reader reaches out, believing the author has the answers he/she is seeking, or wanting a continuation of what felt like a deeply personal connection? And then in turn, what's an author to do when that same sense of immediacy that we extol in writing for teens comes through in a reader's communications--when they email/blog comment/Facebook message/MySpace post/Tweet/etc, etc. an author offering their own story, brimming with vulnerability and then desperately--or even just hopefully--await an answer, a meaningful response, a deeper connection, a promise that there's a way past whatever moment they're in the midst of living? And how does an author begin to shoulder that responsibility, that hunger, that need on the part of readers, somewhere in the midst of the other work of being a writer?

Media is so often blamed when things go wrong in the lives of damaged, hurting, unhappy, teens. We blame tragedies on the influence of violent video games and movies; we blame magazines for encouraging hopelessly unrealistic self-images. In the resoundingly opposite direction, it's long been the stance of children's/YA book folks that the greatest thing we can--and do!--offer to teens is hope, in the form of stories. But social media has changed--or at least, slightly shifted--so many other aspects of publishing that I guess we shouldn't be surprised that it's changed the author-reader relationship in some regards, too. And I don't think that new-media-heightened hope for connection is an aspect of the job that a writer can simply chose to turn away from and ignore--I don't think writers of books for teens would choose to do that, or I don't think they'd bother writing for teens at all. So somehow, it seems that a writer's job isn't just to serve words and stories and characters anymore--it's also to serve the searching/freely-sharing/sometimes-broken readers who come barreling, virtually, into their in-boxes. And for writers, that fact is powerful and beautiful and utterly overwheming, all at once, or so I suspect.

So what's the next step? It's a two-pronged query, I think: one set of answers may spell out some ways writers can best respond to teens who, though virtual strangers, are craving connection in a way that validates/orients/respects/sometimes even rescues them. But the other part both precedes and follows that, and it's for all of us: How do we (agents, editors, publishers, fellow writers, booksellers, educators, and the children's publishing community as a whole) equip writers to receive the stream of stories teens offer in return for the books they've just read?

It's a big question. I welcome your thoughts.


  1. Wow - great post. There's so much here, I feel like I should take a little bit to process and then come back and comment.

    I think resonance is what I hope for when I write. That connection I've felt in many books, where it seems like the author just *gets* me. And this is one of the reasons I decided to write YA - because that chance of connection is so alive.

    Responsibility, on the other hand, is one of those sticky words (as you said...) that means a lot of things to a lot of different people. I'll probably have to think about the best way to express my opinion before I post... ;)

  2. Great post.
    I don't have answers, either.
    Fortunately, I am not inundated with reader's stories as much as some authors are, so usually I can find some way to respond. But often they want more - a visit, an ongoing relationships, something. It's hard to know how to gently set boundaries sometimes.
    There's a talk I give - "Young Adult Fiction and the Stewardship of Pain" - second half of that title is stolen from a Frederick Buechner essay. I find the idea of being a "steward of pain" really helpful in thinking about what I do in my writing, and the interaction that takes place between reader and book, and later the interaction between author and reader.
    At the same time, I don't think any author (or musician, or celebrity athlete, etc) is OBLIGATED to readers in this way (to extend friendship or support beyond the pages of the book). Personally I think it's a good way to be human, but I understand all the reasons authors have for not doing this---especially the more popular ones who would literally never have time to write if they reached back to readers in post-book conversations, or the ones who take the stories so much to heart that they can't deal. I think it's up to each author how far she decides to go, and she should not be judged for anything other than the book.

  3. Molly, this is an absolutely gorgeous post, and gives me much to think about. I suspect it is a rare YA author who writes expecting to avoid her teen readers, and I think some notes from readers are impossible to ignore. Just acknowledging the connection can go a long way. But I do see the difficulty in being prepared for how time-consuming and difficult the correspondence can be.

  4. How to respond to teen readers?

    I recall an SCBWI conference where someone shared a story about the wonderful Paula Danziger. A teen approached Paula as a book signing was winding down and it was obvious the teen was hurting in some way. Paula not only chatted with her, but also took out her nail polish and put nail polish on for the teen. Now that is something that teen will remember all her life.

    Personally, I am probably too reserved to do something that amazing. And many other writers may be as well. But Paula's spirit of kindness can be expressed in the way that feels right to us.

  5. I am not a writer, but as a performing artist I have had people share with me how much my performance moved them. What I can say is that the reaction from two different people is never the same, and often times, what the audience gets out of the performance isn't even what I as performer intended.

    That goes to show, then, that even if a writer's work touches a reader, it's not to say that the writer and reader would have a connection separate from the book. It's the work that the reader connects to a lot of times, not the creator of the work.

    On a separate note - Molly - I think I always knew we had a connection. I'd recognize a fellow Jesuit-educated woman anywhere :-) SCU for me.

  6. Thanks for the wisdom & comments, and for thinking about this question along with me. I know I packed a lot of different ideas into this post (the dangers of late-night blogging! I get verbose!), but I think it's really valuable to hear responses to so many different parts of this whole question, about the flip side of social media, as it were.

    There's so much great stuff to ponder here already: the image of a writer as a "steward of pain" is a beautiful sort of aching thought, and that Paula Danzinger story is wonderful! (I'm so sad that I never got to meet her!)

    And thanks, Sara, for reminding us that every author comes from a different place, with a different desire/ability for outward ripples and book-based connectivity in the first place.

    Let's keep talking about this if there's more to say!

  7. Molly, This post blew my mind - so much to mull over. Bravo!

    (Please forgive me, in advance, for the rambling I'm about to do!)

    As a writer, I do my best to be as true to the story and characters as possible. I'm aware of my audience as I write, yet I know I have little control over their impressions. The best I can do is be as authentic as possible and hope my stories help my readers along their path. Does that make sense?

    Songwriting is different. As a songwriter, I write for myself without the audience in mind. Of course, being an artist, I always hope the audience will find their own kernel of truth within.

    I love the Paula Danziger story. I could definitely see myself doing something similar. I have a very hands on personality no doubt stemming from my Brooklyn DNA. ;-)

  8. Great post, Molly. Last night I found myself on Twitter coaching one teen on how to memorize the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English and another one who was working her way through Midsummer Night's Dream. I'm a teacher at heart still, although I no longer have a classroom and must confine myself to a minimum of characters. Still, it worked and we connected, all of us grateful for it.

    As children's writers, esp. YA ones, we're now finding ourselves "stalked" (their word) by lots of followers. I don't mind. I like to be available when I can be. It would have meant the world to me as a teen to have contact with real live writers, and I'm happy to be able to do that when I can. It is a weird and wonderful phenomenon for someone like me.

    -Amy, author of forthcoming FORGET-HER-NOTS, (Greenwillow, 3-2-10)

  9. As the Creative Director of a manga company, I've been dealing with these questions for six years. We constantly receive not just fan e-mail, but hand-written letters from girls as young as twelve who will tell you how important a particular series was to them and in what way it is similar to their own lives.

    When we opened up an online community, we made sure we did research on how other teen website handle difficult questions and troubling situations and tried to provide responses that were appropriate based on each fan's situation. We also sought ideas from our staff about how to make readers feel as in touch as possible with the authors, who are mostly Japanese and do not communicate in English, making them difficult to access even when they are online. We got each and every manga-ka (author/artist) to draw and scan a special thank-you letter for English-reading fans, which we printed off and sent to fans who sent us letters. This meant a great deal to fans who wanted to stay connected with a particular series or author. They also loved the contests we ran for items that came directly from the author; sometimes, when an author cannot give their own time to each and every fan, a small gift is a very meaningful alternative.

    Readers are, to some degree, a responsibility. A book is a conversation as much as it is a story. You are presenting them with ideas, and they are likely to respond to those ideas, whether through fanfic, fan letters, or even cries for help. I recommend that every publisher work with their authors for young readers to create a policy for dealing with the reader-author connection in a professional, but emotionally resonant, way before the author's first book ever hits stores. And for authors who don't want to connect with fans, discuss the possibility of having a go-between who can field online communication with fans and still give them some semblance of the communication they seek.

    In my experience, readers -- especially young, female readers -- want a book to be the *beginning* of their relationship with the characters and world and author, not the end of it.

  10. I honestly found your post extremely touching. I'm in the midst of writing a story about a boy coming to grips with the sad/nasty side of life and while my critique partners love it they keep wanting me to add some "fun" elements to it but part of this story is based on real life and I haven't hit the fun yet, nor do I want to. Life can be cruel and teens know that first hand.

  11. I think I'm going about the author/reader relationship backwards. I don't have an agent, my novels aren't published, but to build a platform, I started a teen advice column about a year ago.

    So I'm now inundated with questions about life, love, and the universe... from teens who can't even buy my books yet! I get questions ranging from "Is it okay for girls to ask guys out?" to "What can I do about my BFF who's always depressed?" I struggle with some of the more difficult questions, but my philosophy is simple.

    At the base of my computer monitor, I've taped the words, "Touch each being as your own beloved child." It's with this mantra in mind, that I try to tackle my readers' toughest questions.

    Incidentally, by day I'm a middle school English teacher, and I maintain the same philosophy in my classroom.

    Because teachers are required by law to disclose information which may put students in danger, I encourage all of my blog readers to use a pseudonym. That way, I'm neither obligated nor capable of reporting their confessions to parents or police. It offers them a secure forum in which they can vent without judgement or fear, and using a pseudonym teaches them to apply safe Internet practices as well.

  12. I really enjoyed this. Thank you! This is where my passion lies. Touching lives and helping kids to make a change for the better. Google "Annie Fox" - she does an amazing job of blessing those that read her books with the connection that they crave through her website and personal correspondance with EACH email she receives!

    I think as writers, that connection is WHY we do what we do! As a former HS art teacher, I SO get this! You remember what a high school art class looks like, right? Lost souls donned in black showcasing the bane of their existence on their death-rock t shirts, a handful of facial piercings and an emptiness in their eyes.

    It makes my heart ache. As a 30-something mom of 3 and former foster mom I am well aware of the children who have ABSOLUTELY nowhere to turn. Nowhere! As far as MY responsibility to MY calling to touch those lives, I take that very seriously.

    I have spent 4 years trying to break into the picture book market, all the while jotting down ideas (and starting a few) for YA/MG. I am in the schools weekly and work with teens and tweens who NEED these topics to be a part of their lives to give them HOPE!

    My latest 'jotting' is raw. Painful. Our biggest fears can be also be the starting block for our biggest accomplishments. I wish I had that outlook as I suffered through those years.

    As writers, it's the gift of OUR hindsight that can be the gift of LIFE for THEM.

    That's where our passions as writers should commence.

  13. I really connected with this post. It has made me think about how readers might connect with my writing. I know certainly that sometimes I focus so much on the writing I'm doing and how it affects me, that it's easy to lose how it might hit the intended audience.