Writer vs. Author — The Zena Sutherland Lecture by Linda Sue Park

Photo by Sonya Sones

“Writer vs. Author.” This dichotomy is one I deal with on a daily basis, sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis. I grew up in the age before social networking, so typing out words on a keyboard has long been a private activity for me. Even if the finished product was something I intended to share, there would be a time lag, of hours or days or even longer, between composition and dissemination. That has changed, of course — these days the lapse between writing something and sharing it has been reduced in many cases to mere seconds...and I’ll be getting back to this shortly.

When I’m working on an extended piece of writing, it feels like I’m in a cave: it’s dark and quiet and just big enough for me and my thoughts. (This being a metaphorical cave, it is free from bats and insects and frightening odors.) Many writers meet with a critique group or critique partners who exchange works-in-progress, a chapter at a time or some such. While acknowledging that this process seems to be valuable for a vast number of writers, the idea makes my stomach clench. I do have a couple of people who read for me, but I work for long stretches of time, sometimes a year or more, without showing anyone anything.

As a corollary, I don’t talk about my work-in-progress. Some writers find it helpful to talk out their stories, to share their excitement and enthusiasm. For me, talking about a story dilutes those emotions. I want the excitement and enthusiasm on the page; I don’t want that energy to have any other outlet. I also don’t know if the story is going to be any good until I reach the end, so how can I ask anyone else to read it? For years I never told either my agent or my editor what I was working on. Dinah Stevenson at Clarion Books, who has worked with me on most of my titles, knows nothing about my projects for months at a time, until I send her a submission with a cover letter that almost always starts out, “Surprise!”

Working in this way helps me deal with the “what was I thinking!??” phenomenon. I’ll write something — a scene or a chapter or a character — that scene or a chapter or a character — that I know is absolutely brilliant...only to realize, when the dazzling light of my genius dims, that not only is it not brilliant, it’s actually cringe-makingly awful. Keeping the work to myself enables me to experience most of those moments in private. And it eliminates entirely the second double-cringe of a reader having to tell me about the awfulness.

* * *

When writers are asked, “Who do you write for?” the answer is often, “I write for myself.” I confess that I’ve never understood this answer. If you’re really writing for yourself, then just keep a journal — it’s a lot easier.

I could understand the response, “I write for myself first,” because of course all writers are our own first readers. I’ve always thought of this as writing for the story. If, for example, I decide that the story I want to tell is best served by a bouncy, rhyming structure, the chances are good that it will end up being a picture book. If my protagonist is going to be ten or eleven years old, which most of them are, then I’m probably writing a middle-grade. If I’m writing a middle-grade, I will in all likelihood save the black-rubber-and- dog-collar-clad dominatrix character for another story.

* * *

Anyway, after many long months in the cave, making decisions like these, I finally stick my hand out, gingerly, tentatively, and someone prises the manuscript from my fingers. Usually that person is author Marsha Hayles, who has been my first reader for many years now. Author Julia Durango also reads for me on occasion. I consider and incorporate their comments, and then the manuscript is ready to show the editor.

Once the story is out of the cave, but before it’s actually published, I have all kinds of audiences to consider. My first readers, and then the editor. And the folks in sales and marketing and publicity. Then come the ARCs, and with them, the reviewers. I love reading the reviews of my books. Even the bad ones. Honest I do. They’re another step toward getting ready for when it’s not just my manuscript but I myself who will have to leave the cave.

Because it turns out that the cave opens directly onto — not just the world, but the cyber-universe! And to my everlasting astonishment and dismay, the denizens of the cyber-universe are very interested in The Author.

I’ve had difficulty adapting to this reality. As a kid voraciously reading my way through the Park Forest Public Library, I cared very little about The Author. In fact, I only really took note of an author’s name if I loved the book and wanted to search for another of his or her titles. I didn’t need or want to know about the author’s life.

When I was young, I had the feeling that a book didn’t exist until I picked it up and opened it. It had been written just for me. It existed in a tiny, perfect, luminous bubble — just me and the book; it had no previous history otherwise. And that’s still how I want to feel, both about the books I read and those that I write.

The reader’s awareness of The Author means that the book has a life outside the bubble. That acknowledgment lodges the book firmly in time and space. I want stories to be timeless, and to exist on a plane removed from our earthly sphere. I’m not talking about content, which of course should be fully evocative when it comes to setting. I’m talking about the experience of reading — about being inside that bubble.

As a newly published author, I felt this so strongly that it influenced my decisions on jacket-flap copy. For my first book, Seesaw Girl, there is a brief bio on the back jacket flap. But for my next two books, The Kite Fighters and A Single Shard, if you locate a first-edition copy of those books, you will see that the back flaps have review quotes for previous books — and in accordance with my wishes, no bio.

I was grateful that Dinah Stevenson honored this request. However, for my fourth book, When My Name Was Keoko, she gently insisted on a bio. And a photo. I acquiesced with what I hope was good grace, as Dinah is almost always right about these kinds of things. But I still don’t look at the back-flap bios of the books I read until after I finish them.

These days it can sometimes seem as if the response to a book is determined not by the quality of the story and the writing but by the author’s popularity on Twitter or Facebook. Some authors have embraced this new paradigm. They post early and often, tweet back to their followers, pin photos of themselves and their pets and their coffee mugs. They spend a great deal of time building communities in the virtual world, which in turn can result in building an audience for their books.

My own attitude toward online activity has swung wildly between extremes. Sometimes I feel like either a curmudgeon or a virago, grumbling or shrieking — “Why does it seem like it’s never about the book anymore?” Other times I feel resigned: the world is moving on, and I’d better move with it; if not, I’ll get cast aside or trampled on. On those days I will tweet and respond to a Facebook message or two.

Most of the time, though, I feel quite bewildered. Everything changes so quickly! Just when I got my website figured out, blogs became the thing. So I started blogging. Blogs were followed in rapid succession by Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, and as I type these words, I’m sure I’m already behind on the latest platform.

I’m trying to evolve as a citizen of a universe that now includes cyberspace. Over the years, I have had several con- versations about this with a number of wise people in the children’s book world. They made the point that, for some readers, a connection with the author is a way into a book. Who was I to say that this was the “wrong” way? If knowing that I love dogs and guacamole will get someone to open one of my books, shouldn’t I be willing to sacrifice these kinds of harmless details on the altar of Reading?

I have tried to adopt this point of view, but at heart I remain resistant. I want my stories to outlive me. If I do my work well, the goal is for the books to be around long after I’m gone. So what happens when I’m no longer here to tweet? Shouldn’t the story stand on its own for readers without access to The Author?

* * *

My first book was published in 1999, which to me doesn’t feel like very long ago, but it’s both factually and metaphorically accurate to say that it came out in the last century. In the decade-plus that has passed since then, reality television and social networking have come to dominate the cultural landscape. As a consequence, I’ve observed that access to the author has morphed from rare privilege to — for many young readers — standard expectation.

When, as adults and educators, we encourage students to write to the authors, friend them on Facebook, research their bios on Wikipedia, follow them on Twitter, I’m sure it’s true that, for many readers, we are enriching their experience of the book. But my fear is that we are also sending the message that the book in itself is somehow insufficient.

And that is a message that I am truly uncomfortable with. Does the fact that we know so little about Shakespeare diminish the appeal of his work? Not to me. Not to my Generation-Y daughter, who at age fifteen pronounced Othello her favorite read of the year. The notion that a story should stand on its own is hardly a new one. In The Well-Wrought Urn, Cleanth Brooks pleaded for consideration of the text shorn of authorial intent and biography — in 1947, almost sixty years B.F. (Before Facebook), and he had no idea what was coming.

Or maybe he did...

* * *

I hope fervently that I’m not coming across as a Luddite on an anti-technology rampage. I love the internet for many reasons. Research, for one, which could be a whole talk in itself. Skype, for another. Using Skype has enabled me to present to dozens of schools that cannot afford my in-person visits, which are usually booked by wealthy private schools.

Last week on a flight I saw a moving example of the benefits of the new technology. I live in Rochester, New York, which is home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. On the plane, I noticed that the two young men seated next to me were signing. And then they both hunched over their phones, texting and tweeting madly. It occurred to me that for the deaf community, the cyber-world is a level playing field.

I’m also happy to concede that for certain kinds of reading experiences, technology has been a boon. For example, I would far rather follow breaking news on the New York Times website than listen to the talking heads on the twenty-four-hour news channels, with their endless repetitive vamping that keeps Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert gainfully employed.

* * *

How will the various media of our age affect storytelling? I’m assuming that most of you are, like me, People of the Book; that, like me, you’re greatly invested in story as written text. The preeminence of books in our lives is a direct result of a technological advance: the printing press. Without this means of efficient and economical reproduction, the story in written form would never have attained its dominion over our imaginations.

The wide availability of the printed text, and of stories in that form, may seem both venerable and ineluctable from where we sit. But what I think of as the “Printed Text Era” is about the width of an eyelash on the timeline of human existence.

When I realized this in the course of preparing this talk, a question then struck me rather forcibly. Is there anything about story in written form that’s inherent to human nature?

Spoken language and, by extension, oral storytelling are logical to me in a biological and evolutionary sense. It’s true that other animals communicate using vocalization, but humans’ capability for both memory and transmission of memory is a huge part of what sets us apart. Visual storytelling makes the same kind of sense to me. As creatures we have always been sight-centric; compared to other species, our senses of smell and hearing are pitiful, and we started painting on cave walls a relatively short time after becoming bipedal. Art that is visually representational seems to be part of our hard wiring.

Spoken language, oral storytelling, and a predilection for images would appear to be encoded in our DNA. But when you think about it, written language is almost grotesquely unnatural. A squiggle represents a sound which when put together with other squiggle-sounds makes a shape that represents an object in the physical world without any pretense of replicating the shape of that object, yet causes us to conjure its image in our heads by means of decoding those squiggle-shapes...This is a jaw-droppingly complicated process, truly remarkable in its sophistication. Especially when you consider once again the brevity of the existence of written text relative to our own existence.

* * *

When I visit schools, I tell the students that because so much communication these days takes place online, they are going to have to be better readers and writers than any generation before them. I give them examples of how a thoughtless Facebook post can come back to haunt a person years later. I plead with them to make a habit of pausing and thinking and maybe even — gasp! — rewriting before they hit “send” or “tweet” or “post.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that by the time they finish high school, young people in the U.S. today and in many other parts of the world will have read and written more words than their grandparents did in their entire lifetimes. Quantity does not equal quality — the nature of reading and writing in the virtual world, its ease and spontaneity and sheer velocity, seems, to many of us, less and less compatible with reason and thoughtfulness and contemplation.

In a 2010 op-ed article for the New York Times, author Nicholas Carr wrote:

The pages of a book shield us from the distractions that bombard us during most of our waking hours. As an informational medium, the book focuses our attention, encouraging the kind of immersion in a story or an argument that promotes deep comprehension and deep learning.

When we read from the screen of a multifunctional computing device, whether it’s a PC, a smartphone, a Kindle, or an iPad, we sacrifice that singlemindedness. Our attention is scattered by all the distractions and interruptions that pour through our computers and digital networks. The result, a raft of psycho- logical and neurological studies show, is cursory reading, weak comprehension and shallow learning.

That same year, Carr published a book called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In the three years since then, social-media use has exploded: Facebook users alone, at over one billion and counting, would now constitute the third-largest country on the planet. If what Carr wrote in 2010 was true then, it’s even more true now.

* * *

The speed with which people have adapted to cyber communication is to me nothing short of breathtaking. Billions of people all over the world have thoroughly integrated the internet and now smartphones and tablets into their lives. How many of us start to feel panicky or at least uneasy when we can’t find our cell phones, or even when the battery gets low...almost as if part of our body were missing? While I sympathize with Carr’s viewpoint, I’ve found my own thoughts taking a slightly different tack. To me, the logical explanation for the rapid and complete integration of today’s technology is that there must be something “natural” about it, in terms of our psychological and physiological evolution.

Could it be that the absorption of text in these media is so often supported by visual imagery — the trillions of photos, graphics, videos — the creation and utilization of which, as the cave paintings show, seem to be instinctive for humans? And in the absence of such imagery, as with tweets or text messages, does the relative brevity of the writing and reading involved in these communiqués dovetail with the amount of that com- plicated decoding our brains actually “want” to do?

When I talked to a friend about this recently — Dr. Kathryn James, curator of Early Modern Books and Manuscripts at Yale University’s Beinecke Library, who spends her days pleasantly buried in parchment and vellum — she said, “I’ve got one word for you: Clarissa.

Chances are good that if you understood that reference, you were an English major who suffered through a course on the eighteenth-century British novel. And if you’ve never heard of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, that is exactly the point. The novel was published in 1748 and was a best-selling sensation in its day. It came in at a nice round one million words, most of them — by the author’s own admission — unconcerned with plot or character but rather with “moral sentiments.” I would wager that the majority of today’s readers would find it almost impossible to get through the book.

Movies have also changed the nature of storytelling; what we consider a “good story” nowadays has been heavily and unavoidably influenced by the cinema. Instead of a million words of moral sentiments, today we prefer event and character, and in particular the “goal-driven protagonist.” I suppose we could have a chicken-or-egg argument about whether the goal-driven protagonist was originally a product of the novel or of cinema, but over the last century movies have reached a far wider audience than novels and are therefore at least responsible for popularizing the concept.

Whether we’re talking about the greater reach to audiences afforded by the printing press or by cinema, there’s no doubt that technology has had an overwhelming influence on shaping story. The question of how today’s technology will shape story is being answered not in the near or distant future, but at this very moment.

In a desperate search for the positive, I grasped at the idea of community. We Homo sapiens are social creatures and, strange as it may seem to some of us, a person alone in a room with nothing but a palm-sized piece of plastic and some wiring can be part of a vital and active community. Collaborative work, the creation of a story by more than one person, is an area that has already seen a great deal of growth. It will not surprise me if the crowd-sourced story soon becomes a popular commercial product. Already, fanfiction sites produce hundreds of crowd-sourced stories every day. It doesn’t seem to matter to the participants that the quality of the writing is often appalling; what matters is the sense of community.

* * *

That community includes The Author: The generation raised on tweets and texts and a constant barrage of screen images has the expectation of access to The Author, which I talked about earlier. But what do these new paradigms mean to me as a Writer?

I have no desire to compose my novels in 140-character increments, or with 140 other people — is that the way we’re headed? Could it be that we are all witnessing the demise of the novel and other forms of longer written narrative?

Of course, it’s not a prediction that I myself wish to come true. To give me hope, I tried to think of a way that the tortured process of decoding a lengthy text into image and story has some kind of intrinsic appeal to human nature.

After a lot of thought, I was greatly relieved to discover that I believe it does — because of the importance of memory to us as individuals, as a culture, and as a species. A long memory is both an evolutionary advantage and a rarity among the creatures on this planet. Reading a lengthy narrative is one way to keep those memory neurons firing over an extended period of time. When you read a novel, you have to follow the plot, visualize the setting, and keep track of the characters and their motivations — and you have to do all of that by decoding the shape-squiggles. Memory is at work on several levels: remembering the elements of the story; recalling our own experiences and emotions that resonate with those in the story; and of course the decoding act itself requires heroic work from our memory cells.

Then there’s the feedback loop. After we’ve read a story, it comes back to us at random delightful moments. One of my favorite childhood reads was a book called Roosevelt Grady, by Louisa R. Shotwell. There’s a scene in which young Roosevelt helps his mother shuck corn for dinner. “He liked to pull off the long green jackets and then go after every bit of silk and grub it out.” Forty-plus years after I first read that sentence, it’s still with me, and I think of Roosevelt every time I shuck corn. He made me love grubbing out the corn silk on every ear. How many tweets or texts are today’s young readers likely to remember in forty years?

So here’s where I am with this now: the forms of communication and storytelling so prevalent in cyberspace these days have attained such rapid ubiquity because they do indeed appeal to our basic natures. Their assets include visual stimulation and shorter periods of having to use our brains’ higher functions.

Seen in this light, sustained reading could possibly be considered anti-instinctual and if this is the case, fear for its continued influence is justified. But what if reading is framed instead as evolutionary? That the ephemeral image plus a quick hit of written text is regressive, whereas engagement with the written word in its longer forms is crucial to our development as humans?

It’s definitely self-serving to come to this conclusion, because it means that I can just keep on writing novels as I always have, without regard to the effect the new technology is having on my readers. But it’s nice to rationalize it as a noble contribution in the evolutionary struggle. And there’s a delicious irony in being able to say, “Put down that smartphone and pick up a book, because if you don’t, we’re all going to end up Neanderthals.”

And never doubt that there are young people out there who continue to value books as much as we do. A few years ago, an eleven-year-old boy named Daniel stood in a long line in the hot sun, waiting for me to sign his copy of A Single Shard. When his turn came, he said, “I was keeping track of how many times I read this book so I could tell you, but I lost count after about sixty-two.”

Daniel is an inspiration to me each time I sit down to write: I try to make every single sentence worth reading at least sixty-two times. And he’s also why I feel so fortunate to be writing for young people. You never again love a book the way you do when you’re a child. How many adult authors, no matter how vaunted or popular, have fans who have read their books that many times?!

Daniel’s copy of the book was battered and creased and worn-out and very, very beautiful. My guess is that he would not have read the story sixty-plus times on an iPad, because he would have gone on to the next newest thing to tap or swipe. The book as an object has value that goes beyond sentimental preference, because instead of being located on a continuum where the newest and latest have priority, the story in a book exists in that timeless bubble I spoke of.

* * *

I’d like to conclude this talk with a few remarks about libraries. I learned about the importance of libraries during a publisher’s tour to Korea ten years ago. Koreans are proud that a book set in Korea, written by a Korean American, won an important literary award in the U.S., so I was interviewed dozens of times. And one question that I was asked repeatedly never failed to startle me. “You talk about how much you read as a child,” people would say. “Were your parents wealthy, to be able to buy you so many books?”

I began to ask questions myself, and I learned that while Korean universities have libraries, the school library and the public library barely existed there. So Koreans used (and continue to use) bookstores as nonlending libraries. Every store I went to was so crowded you had to squeeze through the aisles — crowded not with people buying books, but simply standing and reading, the children usually sitting on the floor. I had never before seen such a vivid demonstration of the human hunger for books — and this, in a country with just about the highest per-capita internet use in the world.

We might think it is our standard of living that the rest of the world admires and envies, and I’m sure this is true. But beyond that veneer of consumer goods and luxuries, what people truly desire is access to the knowledge and information that might ultimately lead to a better life — the collected wisdom of the ages found only in one place: a well-stocked library.

To the teachers and librarians and everyone on the frontlines of bringing literature to young people: I know you probably have days when your work seems humdrum, or unappreciated, or embattled, and I hope on those days you will take a few moments to reflect with pride on the importance of the work you do. For it is indeed of enormous importance — the job of safeguarding and sharing the world’s wisdom.

All of you are engaged in the vital task of providing the next generation with the tools they will need to save the world. The ability to read and access information isn’t just a power — it’s a superpower. Which means that you aren’t just heroes — you’re superheroes. I believe that with all my heart.


Linda Sue Park is the best-selling author of children’s books including the Newbery Medal–winning A Single Shard (Clarion). Her article is adapted from the 2013 Zena Sutherland Lecture, which she delivered on May 3, 2013, at the Chicago Public Library.

Linda Sue Park

Linda Sue Park is the best-selling author of children’s books including the Newbery Medal–winning A Single Shard (Clarion). Her next book, Gracie Under the Waves (Allida/HarperCollins), will be published in September 2024.

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Brooke Van Sickle

Wow, this is fantastic! Thank you for your thoughts, Linda Sue Park. I agree with you on the need to hold your story ideas to yourself. Many authors list that as one of their biggest tips for new writers because you lose the drive to finish. And despite all the technology we have, print books outsell e-books and continue to grow in sales each year. The internet is a double-edged sword but can be very valuable as an author, if you're wanting to get your message above the noise. However, most platforms are dropping organic reach dramatically, in favor of paid reach, which affects everyone who is trying to get their content in front of readers. And I'm like you. I never feel the need to read the bios, unless I'm really intrigued by their writing and want to know where I can find more to read. Story is one of the oldest forms of communication we have as humans. And although we now have technology that provides some of that, at its root, we will always crave those stories. Whether that's in book form or through an online blog. I was particularly intrigued by your story of Korea. It's amazing that even without the opportunity to access books, people will actively search for the content. I think that shows us, as writers, how important it is to be providing stories to readers. Thank you for all the stories you bring to the world and don't worry if you're focusing on all the channels. I believe books have a way of reaching readers when they need the story the most!

Posted : May 06, 2019 01:31



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