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Word After Word After Word

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There was a debate raging on Facebook recently about the beginning of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an effort begun by a couple of friends and that has grown into, at last count, 120,000 individuals across the nation -- perhaps further -- churning out a 50,000 word novel in a month. Last year, more than 20,000 people managed to meet the challenge.

In a piece entitled, "Better Yet, DON'T Write That Novel," Salon.com's Laura Miller, a senior writer and a frequent contributor to the NYT Book Review, bemoans the freedom to "write a lot of crap," and she weighs the worth of writing at all -- everybody has to start somewhere -- with that of the dwindling desire to read:

Here's why: NaNoWriMo is an event geared entirely toward writers, which means it's largely unnecessary. When I recently stumbled across a list of promotional ideas for bookstores seeking to jump on the bandwagon, true dismay set in. "Write Your Novel Here" was the suggested motto for an in-store NaNoWriMo event. It was yet another depressing sign that the cultural spaces once dedicated to the selfless art of reading are being taken over by the narcissistic commerce of writing.

I say "commerce" because far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them. And an astonishing number of individuals who want to do the former will confess to never doing the latter. "People would come up to me at parties," author Ann Bauer recently told me, "and say, 'I've been thinking of writing a book. Tell me what you think of this ...' And I'd (eventually) divert the conversation by asking what they read ... Now, the 'What do you read?' question is inevitably answered, 'Oh, I don't have time to read. I'm just concentrating on my writing.'"

This lack of interest in reading is one picked up by a grim clip that can be found on xtranormal, pitting a scantily dressed co-ed v. the poet in residence at a college. The exchange carries these gems:

Poet: "Who are your favorite writers?"

Student: "Oh, I don't read other writers. I believe reading other writers influences my writing. I want to be original, therefore I do not read other writers. Can I come by your office at 8 o'clock? I have a new poem about breaking up with my boyfriend that is very personal. I want to get published. Can you help me get published?"

...

Poet: "Why don't you start by reading some poetry? I can recommend some very good books."

Student: "I don't want to read books. I want to write and be a published poet. I want to be published in the New Yorker and be a famous poet."

Poet: "Dear God. And you chose poetry to make you famous? Do you even know my name?"

Most of my writer friends -- many of whom teach in writing programs and many others who have been writers in residence -- found the clip hilarious as did I. Ask any published writer or poet (or, I discovered during a heavenly residency this Fall, painters), and they will spill the beans on how many times people come up to them and say "I've always wanted to write a book (paint a picture). I just haven't found the time." As if time were the one thing keeping us from doing anything. The industry joke is that the listener always wants to say, "And I've always meant to master brain surgery over a free summer, but I just haven't found the time."

Somehow, people always seem to assume that a non-lucrative profession such as writing or painting or dancing or acting must mean that talent and determination have little or nothing to do with success. That no sacrifice has been made, only indulgence. I feel the same flare of annoyance that other artists do in such moments, and I often rant about it around the dining table. Why then do I always ask people -- at book club gatherings, at readings, at festivals, at book signings, "do you write?"

I ask the question because most people do, or would like to write. I ask it because at some point or other, most people have weighed the stories that they carry and wondered how to tell them. A long time ago and not so long ago and around bedtime still, the tradition of story-telling is verbal. Parents and siblings make up stories. We make them up to disguise hurts, to impart advice, to cheer and to guide. How natural then to feel competence? How natural to feel that the stories that we tell each other are just as worthwhile as the stories we read on a printed page?

A book that is written over ten years is not necessarily worth more than a book written over ten weeks. If the story is good, it is good. If it makes some contribution to either changing a worldview or lightening our human load of cares, then it is good. If only one good book comes out of NaNoWriMo, that is still okay. While that good book was being written, 120,000 other people would have discovered either that writing is not what they wish to do, story-telling is, or that writing requires revision (as Miller points out), or reading (as the Xtranormal clip points out). Eventually, writing turns into reading. Understanding what it takes makes us value the result.

Last evening at the Merion Elementary school book fair here in Lower Merion, I sat next to a display of my books, a giant poster of the hard-cover behind me, a glamorous author-picture (that, I assure you, is not how I look in real life without considerable help), and a pen for signing. I also had some crutches thanks to the fact that I had got overly excited while cheering at a fourth-grade game that looks like but is not volleyball and suffered a "spectator injury." During a down moment I hopped about on the crutches browsing through the books. The book I picked up and bought was Word After Word After Word by Patricia Maclachlan (Katherine Tegen Books, 2010), a title that seemed to capture the impulse of the NaNoWriMo marathon.

From the review from School Library Journal:

a tale that draws readers into a dichotomous world that is serious and lighthearted, sad and happy, real and unreal. Children will enjoy the lively characters and warm friendships depicted in this early chapter book, and it will make a memorable read-aloud to help teach the important story elements that will encourage young readers and writers to explore the world of words as they find their own voices.

From the starred review from Booklist:

As the story draws to a close, even the adults in their lives are drawn into the magical power of words. Showing great respect for both her readers and her craft, Newbery Award winner MacLachlan makes every word count in Lucy's smooth-flowing, economical narrative.

I bought the book for the second and fourth graders in my life who both enjoy writing and love reading -- the high schooler, after a run of several hundreds of dollars in prizes for her writing, is now in the hands of her teachers. I recommended the book to a parent who said her youngest son "should be a writer." With a writer-in-residence (that would be their mother), is there really a need to buy a book that encourages writing? Yes! There is always a reason to buy a book, and there are never enough ways in which writing can be encouraged. If this particular book is the one that turns the one who wants to be a physician into the one who wants only to write, so be it. If NaNoWriMo is the thing that turns my good friend who conducts research in the medical field into the writer she has always been, so be it.

Story-tellers, story-writers, onward! Say it well, work hard, revise and you will find that there is room for us all. And while you are at it, read.