Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Remembering Why We Write

I try to attend a writer's conference every three to six months.Writing is a lonely venture. Just me and these imaginary people who talk to me sometimes. I spend most of each day seated behind my desk, typing on my computer. It's a life I love, but I need to get out every now and again, and conferences provide that opportunity.

While the food is usually mediocre and the strange hotel beds creak in ways that wake me early, the workshops and the networking opportunities provide me with a bit of oomph. That is, I come away with  a nugget or two that will help me in either my craft or the business side of being a writer. And sometimes I come away with a bit more--with a reminder of why I write in the first place. (Hint: it's not for the book signings, lovely as they are.)

The SCBWI  Oregon spring conference I attended this past weekend was one of those that gave me "a bit more" and will no doubt be helpful the next time I question why I do this crazy art-making called novel writing.

Two different editors said things that really struck me.

First, Melissa Manlove, editor at Chronicle Books (check 'em out here) addressed her passion to create books that will resonate with young readers who have, perhaps, never experienced that magic which lies inside a book. She pointed out that it only takes one book for a non-reader to become a reader and that everything changes for the child who makes this transition. "Once you become a reader, it will change your whole life," said Manlove. Um. Wow. Yes. I might have cried a little when she said this. It's why I write. Because reading changes your life.

Next, Andrew Karre, editorial director of Carolrhoda Books, Carolrhoda Lab, and Darby Creek, issued a prescriptive for writers of young adult fiction. He insisted YA writers shouldn't write for teens. Rather, we should think of ourselves as writing about teens. Now, the difference is subtle, and may even seem to fly in the face of what I found so moving about Manlove's observation that books change lives.

As I thought through the apparent conflict between the two most moving things I heard at the conference, I began to see ways in which the two ideas co-exist. You see, a writer's job isn't to figure out how to write that book that will change someone's life. Rather, the ability of a book to affect someone (even profoundly) is an outgrowth--a side effect, if you will--of writing. The calling of a writer is to make the best art he or she can. If, each time I sat down at the keyboard, I asked myself the question: how can I change the life of a teenager through what I write, I would simply freeze. That is too weighty a calling, too large a task, and quite honestly, it's out of my control. But I can tell the kind of story I like and write it to the best of my ability; those tasks falls within the pale of "things I control."

And so, with the awareness that books can change lives and the awareness that I write about and not for teens, I'm inspired to sit down today and not rise until I've put in my 2,000 words, telling the best story I can. How about you? What inspires you to sit down and write?

Cidney Swanson is the author of the RIPPLE trilogy about a girl who turns invisible, the boy she's crushing on, and the neo-Nazi geneticist after them both. You can visit her at and
read a sample here

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