Why Do You Write? Adult and Teen Writers Speak Out

For the past seven years, the PEN Children’s Committee has organized a visiting writers program at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School in New Orleans. New Orleans native Fatima Shaik organized the program to support the staff and students at the King Charter School, the first school to open in the Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. The success of the program, through which I spoke about my own historical YA novel Gringolandia in spring 2011, led to calls for similar efforts in New York City-area high schools.

Unlike posh private schools, the inner-city public and charter high schools have no money to bring authors; yet they have enthusiastic readers and writers who deserve support. I saw these enthusiastic readers and writers when I visited Arts & Media Prep in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn along with Fatima Shaik in June 2013. Ours was the pilot visit initiated by teacher, YA writer, and PEN Children’s Committee member Michael Guarneiri (known at A&MP as “Mr. G”), and its success has led to Michael and the Children’s Committee organizing an Author Day at the school on April 1, 2014. Openings are still available for authors who would like to participate, and plans are under way to organize similar Author Days at other schools.

At last year’s event, Fatima and I spoke to a group of 13 students, mostly ninth graders. Michael, aka Mr. G., had prepared them well. Their questions were interesting and addressed many of the problems experienced writers continue to face: “How do you start a book to get the reader’s attention?”, “How do you keep the story developing beyond the first chapter?”—and everyone’s favorite—“What happens when you’re in the middle of writing something and you get a great new idea?”

When we went around the room to answer Fatima’s question of “When did you begin writing?” we found out that most of the students started around sixth grade. They speculated on their reasons—that was when they left the cozy elementary school and met a lot of new people; they began to understand more of their world and gained the skills to write down their thoughts and stories; they were inspired by a book they read.

A few minutes later, Mr. G asked the question he said he could never answer adequately when, in college, someone asked it of him: “Why do you write?”

A dozen hands went up. And the answers were interesting and inspiring. The first to respond, a ninth grade boy, said, “It gives me power over the world.” He had spoken about that a little when he said he started writing in sixth grade, when he realized that the world was big and he felt small and powerless.

The boy sitting next to him said he wrote to express his opinions. He had ideas about what the world was like and how it could be better, and writing both essays and fiction in which his characters had different opinions were ways of getting his views out there.

A girl who writes poetry said she did it to convey feelings, and the other poets, as well as many of the fiction writers, agreed.

“To escape the real world,” another girl said. We talked about different ways of using writing as an escape, including fantasy and science fiction.

One of the older girls said that when she was in sixth grade, her cousin died. She felt sad and angry, and she had trouble getting over the anger. Writing was her way of handling her anger because she could give it to her characters and didn’t have to express it openly.

Another girl agreed that writing was a way of working through her problems and trying out various solutions. She described it as a kind of “dreaming for yourself.”

The idea of “dreaming for yourself” was picked up by several other students. It could take the form of giving the main character a good life that one imagines for him or herself—for instance, solving a problem or achieving a goal. “Dreaming for yourself” could also be seen as allowing characters to express thoughts and feelings that one cannot say out loud, hiding one’s own feelings behind the characters’.

“Writing is closest to playing God,” concluded a ninth grade boy.

For the students, “Why do you write?” has two basic answers. It is a means of expressing who they are, and it gives them a way of gaining power in a world over which they have little control.

I appreciated the students’ eagerness to share their experiences. Too often, we think of young readers as our “market”—the people who buy and read our books and send us adoring letters that make our day. But communication needs to go both ways, which is why the type of author visits we do at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School and at Arts & Media Prep are so important. Young readers and budding writers should know that their experiences and ideas are valuable and that we’re not out there primarily to sell them something or entertain them, but also to listen to them.