Recently, I stumbled upon two engaging, thought-provoking things that really resonated with me even though they seem almost to contradict each other: a blog post by middle grade and young adult author Lindsey Leavitt and a podcast in which young adult author Sara Zarr interviewed another young adult author, Siobhan Vivian.
In the blog post “Embracing the Cute,” Lindsey Leavitt explains that she looked at Goodreads reviews for her YA novel Going Vintage, which is coming out in March, and several complimentary reviews describe the book as “adorable,” “hilarious,” “fun,” and “quirky.” (You can read the first three delightful chapters of Going Vintage here, and Lindsey is lovely—she was generous enough to send me an ARC of her novel Sean Griswold’s Head a couple of years ago and then Skype with my students about her writing process). Lindsey suggests that she might have bristled at these descriptions back in high school, when she resented being called cute. But now she is trying to “embrace the cute” and accept that she gravitates to writing fun, quirky stories, and her strengths as a writer enable her to tell those kinds of stories well.
She writes, “I don’t do gritty or profound or twisted or raw. I still love to read these kinds of stories, still love to understand other world views and backgrounds. But when I spend a year with a book, I prefer it to be something that makes me giddy and satisfied, an escape for me and for you. There are days where I question this, days that I wish I was more of something else, but that’s like wishing I was shorter or had thicker hair.”
I appreciated this blog post for a couple of reasons. First, I also like to write fun stories that could be seen as light, and it’s easy to feel like that kind of story is less important than a book that is “gritty or profound or twisted or raw.” Second, the post makes the point that writers should recognize and use their gifts—that we should embrace what we do well rather than beating ourselves up about what we don’t do well.
One of the best things about my MFA program was that my advisors helped me to become aware of my strengths as a writer. I tried out lots of different kinds of writing and got lots of insightful feedback, and, in the process, I came to realize that I have certain strengths, like using humor and creating endearing, vulnerable-yet-strong characters. (For the record, I also discovered and worked on many aspects of writing that are challenges for me—my MFA definitely wasn’t all about celebrating things I do well. And see what I did there? Using the word “challenges” instead of “weaknesses”? Much less discouraging that way.)
Anyway, part of what I learned during my MFA is that I can write stories for different age groups and with different narrative styles and structures, but it makes sense to know that I have a couple of fundamental strengths and to look for ways to take advantage of them. I think it also makes sense to write what brings me joy, not what I think other people would find most impressive (although obviously, no writing project is going to bring only joy). Like Lindsey, I like to read all different kinds of books, but when I think about what kinds of stories I want to write, I think back to the books I read over and over when I was growing up and the ones I want to read more than once now. Those are the kinds of stories I can spend enough time with to try to write.
Soon after I read Lindsey’s blog post, I was very excited to find Sara Zarr’s “This Creative Life” podcasts, because I’m a big fan of Sara Zarr’s books, and I listened to an interview she did with another author I really like, Siobhan Vivian (Sara also has an interview with A.S. King, whom I blogged about last weekend!). While Lindsey Leavitt’s blog post is about owning your signature style of writing, this interview is all about branching out and writing something completely outside of your comfort zone.
Siobhan Vivian talks about writing The List, which was a scary project because it was so different from her other novels. The List is written in third-person point of view, while her other novels are in first person, and it follows a daunting eight point-of view characters. In the interview, Siobhan talks about how difficult The List was to write, but she explains that she eventually got to a point where she felt like she’d told the story she wanted to tell, and therefore she was proud of the result, whether other people liked it or not. (And incidentally, lots of other people liked it. I, for one, tore through it when it came out last spring and was just as into it when I re-read it this week after listening to the podcast.)
On the surface, the main takeaway of this podcast seems contrary to the main takeaway of Lindsey Leavitt’s blog post: the podcast suggests that it’s scary and difficult to move away from the kind of book you gravitate toward writing, but the suffering and self-doubt inherent in writing something so different are worth it, because you might end up creating something really special.
But when I stop and think about it, I realize the blog post and podcast don’t really contradict each other after all. Both are about blocking out what other people might think (or what you think other people might think) and writing what you truly want to write. And writers can both embrace our strengths and sensibilities and try out different things. Lindsey Leavitt’s books may all share a certain humor and quirkiness, but her tween Princess for Hire series is very different from her YA realistic novels, and The List diverges from Siobhan Vivian’s other novels in its tone and narrative structure, but it still focuses on girls in high school, navigating relationships and forging their identities. And in fact, it took leaving my comfort zone and trying out different kinds of writing to discover that I had some consistent strengths.
One of my favorite articles about teaching is Peter Elbow’s “Embracing Contraries in the Teaching Process,” in which Elbow writes about all of the seemingly contradictory roles that teachers have to fulfill. Lindsey Leavitt’s blog post and Sara Zarr’s interview with Siobhan Vivian reminded me that the writing process is just as full of seeming contradictions as the teaching process…and, well, I suppose the rest of life is, too.