“My soul is seventeen.”
Kiera Cass is a woman with open arms. Open eyes. Open mouth. (And I mean that as a compliment. Open mouths lead to all kinds of good things: understanding, song, the eating of peanut butter M&Ms.) Unlike certain writers I know, she appears genuinely to appreciate the existence of other human beings, specifically young ones.
In the hour or so that she chatted with a smattering of folks at her hometown library on Tuesday, Kiera had kind words to say about the gazillion people she’s encountered in her career as a writer. However, the one (nameless) person about which she did NOT have nice things to say was a young adult writer she met who hated young adults.
Kiera may have been too polite to ask the obvious question—“WHY IN THE HECK ARE YOU WRITING FOR TEENS?”—but it’s a question worth asking.
It’s one I’ve had to ask myself of late. Not because I’m a hater; I happen to adore teenagers and all their energy and intelligence and worry and wildness. The question is one I need to ask myself for the simple reason that I am also writing for teens. So really, why am I doing it?
When I was myself a young adult, I wasn’t exposed to a lot in the teen lit genre. I went straight from Ella Fannie’s Elephant Joke Book to Chronicles of Narnia to Kurt Vonnegut. Oh yeah, I cried me good over some Judy Bloom at some point in between, but that was about it.
Thus, as a young writer, it never occurred to me to write for young people specifically. I didn’t know people DID that. (And at that time, not so many of them did.) Plus, I just wanted to play with language and make up tiny stories and think about true things. Translation: I became a poet. And in good poet fashion, I spent years and years writing lyric observations of the sky that were ignored by everyone and everything, including the sky.
Then I had an idea that was not a poem and was not a tiny story and was not “great literature.” It was fun and light and entertaining (or at least it entertained me). Around the same time I was teaching a class on the American bestseller, and a whole slew of college freshmen started telling me about their favorite books. I started reading the books they were excited about, which were in this new (to me) genre called “young adult.” As a writer, the notion that authors could write books for young people—not for snooty intellectual-types—was quite frankly a revelation.
Suddenly, writing the big bad novel was not so scary anymore. I just needed to focus on the idea of telling an entertaining story and let the rest take care of itself. I didn’t have to impress Kurt Vonnegut or the people who read Kurt Vonnegut. I didn’t even have to impress the people who kept books by Kurt Vonnegut unopened on their bedside tables. I simply had to please myself and my imagined audience. (Oh yes, and my co-writer, the astounding Madelyn Rosenberg… but more about her in a future blog.)
This experience of writing a YA novel has opened a sort of floodgate of possibilities for me. When I was in high school, I may have had the soul of a crusty 80-year-old fisherman… but now, as I have gone forward into life, I think my soul may be aging in reverse order.
I’m not quite sure I could say, like Kiera Cass, that it’s seventeen.
My soul is a little more gawky and hopeful and clueless than that.
Closer, I think, to sixteen.
** FOOTNOTE: Just want to add that I do not intend to dis Kurt Vonnegut in any way. He is one of my faves. And he had some great stuff to say about the writing process, too.