An "It's Complicated!" post by author Cynthia Leitich Smith
Meanwhile, nearly every author must write characters and situations that spring from beyond her own experiences, identity markers and comfort zone. If your specialty is, say, nonfiction about creatures of the sea, perhaps not. But muse on the global environmental-industrial-health effects of overfishing or, hey, toss in a merman, and believe me, you’re right back in the thick of it.
If you live in the world, you’re in this conversation—and, yes, staying quiet is a statement, too. What that silence means may vary from writer to writer, but for far too many, it’s a product of fear.
You, the fearfully silent, I’m talking to you. Have you ever thought “I’ll mess up” or “they’ll reject me,” and then set aside a story or character or plot line?
If so, you’re not alone. As a teacher and mentor, I’ve heard those thoughts expressed countless times.
Usually, “I’ll mess up” comes from those seeking to reflect someone different from themselves. Different in terms of culture, ethnicity, region, religion, sexual orientation, social class or another attribute that folks use to, at least in part, define themselves and each other…one that carries with it baggage and lends itself to heightened sensitivities.
You who care so much that you’re immobilized, silenced, I’m asking you to make yourselves heard. You already know how. Set aside preconceptions, take advice, study. Make friends and listen to them—when they talk and when they’re quiet. Risk rejection. Ask permission. Take no for an answer. Don’t take no for an answer. Weigh differing opinions. Admit mistakes. Learn from them.
Love large, and never forget you’re working for the young who may not have a voice but could be affected, for worse and better, by yours. Here’s a hint: You’ve made real progress when you start “getting” inside jokes. To laugh with is to be simpatico.
Usually, “they’ll reject me” comes from those reflecting a less-than-role-model character or situation within their own community or one that conflicts with mainstream priorities and expectations.
I understand that you don’t want to upset your auntie or that university professor who’s been such an advocate. I too have felt the pressure to sit pretty in the curriculum box and craft text the grownups will consider precious or important or, perhaps worst of all, safe. I ask you: Do the perils of ruffling the literati outweigh your commitment to young readers? To your art?
I applaud the lionhearted—the Ellen Wittlingers and Coe Booths and Cassandra Clares and Benjamin Alire Sáenzes—but pray for more of them. I pray for you.
I can’t promise that you won’t make a mistake or be unfairly criticized. But all writing stems from courage. If writing for and about all children requires more courage, then hunt it down.
Own your awesomeness and redefine this conversation. We’ve been self-congratulating, self-flagellating, cycling, and choir preaching too long. Make me less bored. Please.
Open your teeth and roar.