Is Your Writing “Real”?

Before I get to the topic addressed in the title, let me take care of a little business first. To choose the winner of the $20 Amazon card for use in purchasing Believe by Sarah Aronson, I turned to the Random number generator instead of drawing a name out of a box. (If you’ve reached this blog for the first time and are totally mystified, click here to learn more about Sarah.)

believeLooks like everything’s coming up . . .

Brickhousechick!

Congratulations, Brickhousechick! Please comment below with your email address or contact me at lmarie7b(at)gmail(dot)com.

Okay, now I’ll tell you what else has been on my mind lately. First, let’s travel back in time a bit. Picture in your mind large dinosaurs roaming the earth. (Feel free to think of the movie Jurassic Park, if that helps.) I was an undergraduate then, writing genre fiction. But in my critique group, genre fiction wasn’t exactly celebrated, nor was writing books geared toward an audience of kids.

“That’s not ‘real’ writing,” several members of the critique group informed me.

I touched the paper on which my story had been printed. It felt real to me.

“Real writing is writing for adults. Anyone can write for kids.”

I heard sentiments like that expressed over and over through the years. The implication was that writing with “literary merit” (whatever that may mean) can only be found in books for adults.

I stopped writing genre fiction or stories for kids for many years and wrote novels for adults. Now, I shudder to think of the manuscripts I wrote—sad, pretentious things they were—in my quest to be “real.” Don’t get me wrong. I like adult fiction. I just know my heart was in none of those manuscripts.

Velveteen-Rabbit-and-Skin-HorseAs I ponder the question of what “real” writing is, I’m reminded of a quote from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams (illustrated by William Nicholson). If you’ve never read that classic story, you can read it here. The Rabbit asked a question of the Skin Horse, another toy in the nursery.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

I love the Skin Horse’s response:

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

Some might discount the love a child has for a book or a toy. They cite the fact that children don’t have fully formed frontal lobes or the fact that kids often like interesting mixtures of things—like peanut butter and eggs or peppermint and pickles. But how many of you readily recall books you loved as a child—books that were a formative part of your life? And judging by how well received the Toy Story movies have been, many people have fond memories of old toys.

My entire life changed when a librarian handed me a copy of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. In case you’ve never read this blog before (I’ve written about this experience before) or have never seen this book, let me school you: this is a science fiction book for kids. A Newbery-award winning science fiction book for kids, in case you’re of the belief that writing a book for kids isn’t all that challenging, since even a ferret could be trained to write one. (If you truly believe that, I’ve got some swamp property to sell. . . . See me after this post.) I decided to join the ranks of writers then and produce the types of stories that transformed my existence as a kid.

So, what is “real” writing? That which is that life changing, life giving, life affirming. Whatever turns a light bulb on in your head, puts a spring in your step, or makes you laugh or weep with joy. Whatever you LOVE—whether it’s science fiction, fantasy, humorous contemporary fiction, historical fiction, poetry, chick lit, guy lit, graphic novels, nonfiction—that’s “real.” Because writing what you love makes it so.

Velveteen Rabbit image from word-ink.net

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43 thoughts on “Is Your Writing “Real”?

    • And that’s the gist of it–writing what you care about. I also had to get serious about my writing. I wrote parodies too, until my advisor told me to right “for real.” So I’m writing the kinds of stories I love to write.

      The thing I love about Terry Pratchett, however, is that he’s very serious about Discworld. It has that parody sensibility, but it’s so well crafted, and his characters are flat-out wonderful.

  1. Interesting post. My definition of ‘real’ writing? Anything that makes the reader feel. I don’t care what they feel. Love, joy, laughter, tears . . . give me emotion and you’ve written something real. There are even some ads (very few, I will admit) that are real writing.

    • I can’t watch a Hallmark card commercial without bursting into tears. I know. I’m weird that way. So, I know what you mean. Reaching someone with a story–that’s a gift!!!

  2. I’ve come to terms with the fact that what I write will never be considered “serious” writing by a lot of people. There’s a professor at work who is always urging me to stop wasting my talent on my novels and write poetry full time.

    • Misha, I know the feeling (though no one would ever tell me to write more poetry). It’s sad that the professor doesn’t realize that a well-crafted novel is poetry, but of a different kind. I can’t help thinking of Catherynne Valente’s books. I wonder if she hears the same thing: “Why don’t you produce more poetry?” Anyone reading her books would realize her poetric sensibility, just like people who read your novels will realize.

  3. Excellent post – and I get where you are coming from with the idea that children’s literature is not real, I can imagine what was said to you. My argument is the same as yours, every element of writing is real, it doesn’t matter what genre it fits into, it takes talent, patience, perseverance and many many other qualities to produce a book. If it is in your heart and your story moves people then it is real. Simple. 🙂

    • Thank you, Jade. And yes, those qualities are necessary. I can’t help thinking of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Many critics disliked it, but viewers absolutely loved it. It struck a chord with them!

  4. Congratulations, Brickhouse! She deserves it! For me, real writing is anything that strikes a chord with the readers emotions. I’m surprised by the comment made to you by your critique group. Of course writing for children is real writing.

    • Jill, I’ve heard comments like that for many years. I’m also tempted to write a post about graphic novels and how people see those as “just for kids”–as if they’re a lower life-form. But sadly, yes, some believe that writing for kids is so simplistic it couldn’t be very challenging. But I agree that striking a chord with readers is paramount. This is why we write!

      • I’m definitely up for a post on graphic novels, because that’s what I’m working on right now. Even in our writing program for children and young adults, some of us got pushback for wanting to write graphic novels. (I didn’t because I wasn’t working on one at the time, but now I am. And since I can’t draw, I’m photographing my scenes using a popular children’s toy.)

      • I’ll give it some thought then. I love a graphic novel. One of these days, I might write one. I’m glad you’re working on one.
        I’m amazed at people who still feel that graphic novels are “just for kids” or “just comics” and not worth the time. Obviously, they haven’t cracked open some of the ones I’ve read (i.e., Watchmen; American Born Chinese; Marvel 1602; The Elementals; the Bone series, Castle Waiting, etc.).

  5. I remember a few classmates like that in my college days. The quote from the Velveteen Rabbit really rings true though. The individual decides what is real to them or not, which sounds a bit like me saying everyone is schizophrenic. The first thing that came to my mind when I read this post was this: If only books for adults are real then why are so many YA books popular lie Harry Potter and Hunger Games. What about The Hobbit, which was originally written for children? I think people that say this are really saying ‘I don’t like genre fiction, so it’s obviously not made for adults.’ I’ve met a lot of aspiring authors that fall into that pretentious mindset.

    • I think those classmates would give their eye teeth to have the royalties J. K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Suzanne Collins, Terry Pratchett, George R. R. Martin, or Rick Riordan receive. Sadly, they believe that a made-up world has no “literary” value. Well, they’re missing out!

      I’m not saying that everyone has to read genre fiction or fiction aimed at kids. To each his own, I say. But one grows weary of the ways people use to demean others. And the “what is real and what is not” argument is one of those ways.

  6. About what is real, that double episode Doctor Who story came to mind about the Gangers. (Think one of the episodes was called The Rebel Flesh). You know, the one about those doppelgänger thingies that had all the memories and life experiences of the ‘real’ humans they were created from. Not sure if you’ve seen it?
    Also, speaking of Jurassic Park and dinosaurs-did you see my last post with the dinosaur prank video. You tink how did they fall for that? But then…..

  7. WOW! Thank you L.Marie & Random number generator!! Woot, Woot! Suddenly all my aches and pains feel better. 🙂 I am so excited and cannot wait to read, “Believe”!!! I’ll email you with my info.

    This is such a wonderful post. You are so right about what real writing is. It’s easy to get caught up in what the critics say and steer away from what your heart is telling you to do or what inspires you. Good for you for staying true to yourself. 🙂

  8. L.Marie — I found this post very inspirational on exactly the day I was feeling that I have nothing new to add to the literary community. Maybe the point isn’t whether or not I have something new to add, it’s the fact that I have passion for what I do and the doing of it makes me happy.

    • Laura, some of the hardest posts I’ve written–and this is one of them–have come on days when I felt I had nothing new to add. I knew I had to write it though for others who might feel the same way. Glad it inspired you.

  9. Kidlit and genre writing are definitely “real” writing. I also loved A Wrinkle in Time as a kid; it inspired in me a crazy desire to be a physicist like Meg’s parents. College cured me of the physicist dream, but L’Engle definitely made her mark on me. 🙂

    • I love the Urban Dictionary. If only I could have used it and Wikipedia for some of my research papers in high school. Alas, we didn’t have such newfangled things back in the stone age.

  10. Having written a book for adults and now a book for children I can honestly say that both were as challenging as each other to write regardless that one was aimed at the women’s fiction market and the other at 9-12 year-olds. Real writing is what the author is passionate about and that should come across on the page. When I think back to the books I have enjoyed the most and that influenced me, they’re most definitely the ones I read when I was a kid – Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, Arthur Ransome etc.

  11. I love that quote from the Velveteen Rabbit! And I shake my fist at all those people who don’t respect the value and complexity of children’s books and/or scifi/fantasy. Most of the books that have stuck with me all these years have been books I read as a kid.

  12. Great post, Linda! Real is what you love! I love books from various genres, and they are all equally real to me. A good book is a good book regardless of genre. And it takes skill and hard work to write one–regardless of genre or the age of one’s readers.

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