For the third summer in a row, I’ve spent a week teaching a novel-writing course to high school students, and for the third year in a row I approached this particular week with anxiety. They’re teenagers, after all, a difficult crowd to appease, or at least that’s what I nervously imagine each time. And of course every year it goes just fine. The class is part of a week-long “English Studies Camp” at the university where I used to teach, and these are students who have willingly—excitedly—enrolled in such a thing when they could be doing, well, anything else with their summer besides going back to school. In other words, they are word nerds, they love reading and writing, and in my class in particular, they all want to be novelists.
This is very sweet. It is also very heartbreaking. For a long time I too wanted to be a novelist, but lately I’ve been far less enamored with this dream—and not just out of sour grapes for my less-than-best-seller status as an author. I’ve found myself wondering how much good all these novels out there are doing for humanity and for the mess of a world we live in. Does reading novels really make us better people, or does it just make us think we’re better people without making us actually do better things?
I don’t wonder any of this aloud in the classroom, of course. The world needs writers! I cry, and fires are lit in their eyes. But I don’t believe my own words. There are more valuable things than writing. I think everyone should be kind. I think everyone should do what they can for the environment, for the natural world. I think everyone should read. But should everyone write? In my opinion, no.
Still, I don’t want to be the one who demolishes someone’s writerly dreams (or worse, gives them the fuel to churn out a successful novel every year and dedicate them, in-your-face-like, to me). I had this in mind when the earnest young lady, the one who always came to class clutching at least three huge hardback books weighing more than she did, approached me after class and displayed a binder thick with handwritten pages. We had been working on outlining our novels, and she pointed out a tabbed divider in the binder that said “OUTLINE.”
“I created outlines of all my chapters for the first two books in my series,” she explained eagerly. She flipped to the next tab, CHARACTERS, which we had discussed in yesterday’s class. “I write lots and lots of notes, everything I know about my characters.”
As she went on, I admit that the mean-spirited part of me wanted to ask, Do you have an actual question for me, or are you just looking for praise and approval? I didn’t ask that, of course—I’m not that heartless, despite the way I sometimes portray myself in this blog—because it was obvious she wanted praise and approval, which I easily gave. Part of me still wonders, though, if I should be giving it. I don’t want them to want my approval. Ideally they shouldn’t be seeking anyone’s approval for the things they love to do, if they can help it. But they can’t help it much of the time, certainly not in a world that seems increasingly driven to seek the largest number of “likes.”
I see this reflected in the massive glut of popular YA books these students devour. So often the heroine is a supposedly “ordinary” person who is plucked from obscurity because of special powers she didn’t even know she had, culminating in her being the unwilling but much revered leader of a rebellion of some sort. It’s obvious why this trope is popular; when you’re a teenager, you often feel powerless and distinctly un-special. You wish you could be powerful, but a special kind of powerful: the kind of powerful that gains respect and admiration, because that’s what you’ve been led to believe you desperately need.
The young lady before me, like so many others in the class and so many others before her, had taken something she enjoyed and turned it into a driving desire for external validation. As she told me about the series she was writing—two books finished (“my mom helped me edited them”), several more on the way, a few recent attempts to contact publishers—I struggled to keep from looking pained. I’d seen some of her work; she was a good writer, certainly advanced for her age, and who knows, she could very well be successful one day. That’s not what pained me. Nor was it entirely the fact that the odds were heavily, ridiculously against her becoming successful in this way and that I might very well be nudging her towards years of struggle and ultimate disappointment. What truly pained the most was the thought that I was encouraging her to do the right thing for all the wrong reasons—the wrongest one being that writing was all about succeeding.
Well, actually, it kind of is. Even a blog post has goals; I didn’t write this just for me, or you wouldn’t be seeing it. I’m not getting money from it, and I won’t know who’s reading it for the most part, so to a large degree I’m writing this for my own satisfaction. Yet I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t like the “likes” these posts get. So, gist is, here I am supposed to be guiding these budding young writers based on my great wisdom and experience, when in reality I’m just hopelessly confused about it all. It was simpler when I was like them; I didn’t think so much about why I was writing, whether I really thought writing could save the world or if it was just self-indulgent whimsy at best and a tool of the hegemonic oppressors at worst (I didn’t think at all about the hegemonic oppressors). It’s not simple for me now, but truth seldom is.
The young lady who sought my approval (and bought all three of my books, by the way, and begged me to sign them, saying I was the first “real writer” she’d ever met—oh my heart! my heart in little jagged pieces prodding at my ribcage!) will most likely discover that on her own. Writing can still be a discovery of truth. Perhaps it will be so for her—and because of this, it is quite possible she will consider herself a success.