I thought I would begin the new year with a quote from my friend and fellow VCFA alum Stephanie Greene. Stephanie is the author of over 20 books, including two marvelous chapter book series: Sophie Hartley and Princess Posey.
When I asked Stephanie what quote or quotes motivate her as a writer, she graced me with a long visit, wandering through her thoughts about books, writers who inspire her and how she tries to meet that inspiration in her own writing. Make a cup of tea and settle in.
“I have always understood that the best writing comes from the heart because that’s where what I felt were the best books I read as a child hit me first. And the truth of the emotions found in those books are what kept me thinking about them all my life. One, universal emotional epiphany, as Robert Olin Butler referred to it; that’s what a book needs, upfront, in order to hook the readers to whom it hopes to speak. The Secret Garden, for example. That was the first, and most-lasting, emotional epiphany I experienced as a reading child: a plain little girl loved her beautiful mother so much, but her beautiful mother didn’t love her. Take me away, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
“The idea for the first Princess Posey book, which turned into a six-book early chapter book series, came when I saw a sign in front of a local school that said: KISS AND GO LANE. My immediate response was, “that could be hard on a child.” The first line of the first book became, “You’re leaving me,” said Posey.
“All of my books, even the funny books, especially the shorter books, began when I recognized/felt a universal emotional hot button. It might have been something I overheard, witnessed, read about, or remembered. For the longest book I’ve yet written, The Lucky Ones, Wallace Stegner set the bar for what I hoped to accomplish when he said:
“It begins in the senses, it is done with words, it ends in communicated insight. And when it is truly successful, the insight is communicated to the reader with a pang, a heightened awareness, a sharpening of feeling…”
“I think I accomplished that in that book, mainly because the place in which the story is set was so familiar to me, so much a part of my childhood. And what the girl, Cecile, experienced was part of my fabric. But even the books I’ve written that aren’t as directly personal to me, have been governed by that quote. And also by something Ernest Hemingway said about his own writing:
“I was trying to write … and I found the greatest difficulty … was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced …”
“The idea of putting down what really happened, and letting the action produce the emotion that the watcher experienced, or, as we say in MFA programs, showing the reader what was being felt, instead of telling them. That’s a tough thing to accomplish. It’s why so many writers starting out tell their entire story. Because they don’t have faith that the actions of their characters, alone, will add up to what they’re trying to say.
“Of course, we should never go into a book trying to say something. We should try to make the reader feel what our characters feel. But more than that, we all need to develop the self-confidence as writers to understand that if we write what actually happened, in action, what was going on between, under, around, and through the characters, it will be felt by the reader.
“But the main quote that had guided my writing over the years, I have to admit, is Hemingway’s idea that
“if you talk about it, you will lose it.”
“For me, at least, that’s entirely true.”
But oh, what a talk it was. Thank you, Stephanie.