Monday, May 9, 2016

The Superpower of Words

Back when I was pregnant with my second daughter, I took a part-time job as a clerk at a local library. This meant that my duties consisted of checking books out (remember those old-fashioned machines that stamped a return-date card with a satisfying "ka-chunk"?  I miss those!) as well as shelving books and other materials that had been returned. Sending me out to the shelves with a full cart of books was a dangerous proposition; I could get lost in those shelves while purportedly emptying the book cart. But management kept me on the job anyway.

And it was at this library that I discovered my three hero writers: two British writers by the names of K.M. Peyton and Robert Westall, and one American writer named Richard Peck. They all wrote books that were Middle Grade to Young Adult, and my introduction to each of them involved a story of the supernatural. At the time, Mr. Westall and Mr. Peck pretty much wrote nothing but supernatural tales, and while K.M. Peyton did not, she has an outstanding ghost story titled A Pattern of Roses. If you have a chance, check it out. It's a fantastic read. All three of them gave me the direction I needed with my writing, because I had not yet realized that YA Supernatural was where I wanted to be. I learned this about myself when I realized I wanted to be like them.

While I wrote fan-girl letters to Ms. Peyton and got two hand-written letters in reply (safely tucked into my binder of letters from real authors), Mr. Peck gave me one of the best moments of my entire writing life.

Writers work in isolation. Unless you are the sort of writer who likes a writing group (that's not me), we pretty much labor alone. What feedback we get is from our beta readers ("here are the things you need to fix"), our friends and family (usually pretty positive), and reviews on sites like Amazon, where the comments can range from very nice and heartening to incredibly mean and soul-wrenching. I have had reviews that have kept me up at nights, or have caused a three-day paralysis where I don't go anywhere near my work and sometimes shed a tear or five. We are real people behind those books and trust me, no matter how often it happens, bad reviews wound.

But we also get really great stuff from readers - people who tell me they are waiting for the next book, or that they're having a really good time with my characters, and that's like a balm for a wounded soul. As Mark Twain put it, "I can live for two months on a good compliment."

 So back to Mr. Peck. I was lucky enough to attend a weekend conference courtesy of The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) because I am a member of the organization. The conference was a writing and critiquing event and not only was Mr. Peck our keynote speaker, he was actually going to hear us read an excerpt of whatever we were working on at the time. I read the invitation and realized even though I was terrified of reading my work in front of my hero, I would have regrets for the rest of my life if I didn't take this chance. I took it.

And so Mr. Peck got up in front of the classroom we were using for this event, and gave a talk about writing and the journey of publishing. Then it was our turn to read our own work, one at a time. I was sitting way in the back as is my custom, and I listened in awe as my colleagues each read several pages of their work. They were all so good at what they did. I was thinking I wasn't even at the same starting line as these people, but I had committed to this and there was no choice. 

When it came to my turn, I took some pages from my yet unfinished book, Haunted, and read aloud to the room and to Mr. Peck the scene where Cassie meets Daniel for the first time. I was both chilled and sweating bullets while I read, but not enough that I wasn't aware that my hero had gotten up from the teacher's desk at the front of the room, walked around to the back, and perched himself on an unoccupied desk across from mine. I kept reading, so nervous that the papers I held were trembling. And then I finished.

I looked up and the first thing I saw was him staring down at me, and then he said, "Well, you're very good, aren't you?" holding my gaze and giving me a little smile. 

I almost fell off my chair. He hadn't said that to anyone else although it seemed to me that there were at least fifteen other writers in that room who would have deserved that. I don't even remember what I said in reply. I think I managed to thank him. But I'll tell you what: I never looked at that stack of papers the same way again, and I went on to finish writing that book. And hopefully some of you have read it. 

So when I get those bad reviews, when my sales start to tank, when I get stuck at the keyboard and those ideas just aren't coming, I think back to when Richard Peck said that to me and feel about as awestruck as I did at that time. And my soul smiles a little. His compliment (that I have been living on for eight years, let alone two months) is side-by-side with that of a professor I had for a fiction writing class in college who told me, "You're really pretty good at this. Have you ever considered doing it for a living?" Just three short sentences, twenty-one words, when taken altogether, but enough to prop me up when my writing life feels too hard or too sad or too depressing or too dark.

Some people say words are just words, but I beg to differ. My hero writer and my college professor gave me words that help keep me validated even at my lowest. Words are powerful and lasting and they can be used to destroy or to affirm. Even when not at my keyboard, I try to be careful how I use them.

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