Writing Your Truth

Back in February, I attended the SCWBI Winter Conference. When people in my critique group, or other writers that I know online ask me how I felt about the conference, I answer that I felt both elated and deflated. I learned a lot, but I was also reminded that I had a lot more to learn.

One session that stood out for me in particular was the late Saturday juxtaposition of Elizabeth Wein’s talk on authorial responsibility followed by Ellen Hopkins and her fight against censorship.

In brief, Elizabeth Wein talked about her books and their reliance on information covered by the Official Secrets Act. She talked about carefully considering what you write and how it might impact readers. She told an anecdote about how a family listening on to her book tape was crying so bad, they were pulled over and the officer thought he had discovered a domestic violence situation. Wein wondered if she had any blame for how readers experienced her stories.

Ellen Hopkins tackled the same question but offered a different answer. “Write your truth,” she stated. She almost demanded it of the audience. She argued that if her stories, and her first book is based on her own daughter’s addiction to meth, saved just one reader then writing your truth was worth it.

These women spoke differently, acted differently. I also wondered if they asked different things of their audience (a roomful of mostly hopeful, some experienced) writers.

I’m against censorship when it’s imposed on all readers, all books, an entire society as a whole, by one small group of people with opinions.

But on the other hand, I personally make selections about what topics and stories I choose to consume. I make choices about what stories I’ll read. No violent horror for me, thanks. Or ghost stories. Not even a big fan of crime mysteries.

Listening to these two dedicated, talented storytellers state their positions made me wonder about what claim, if any, authors have over their readers reactions.

As writers we are asked to imagine the reader we are writing for. Experienced writers, publishers, agents often tell us to have a clear image of our reader in our heads: what they look like, how they spend their day, what they love, what they hate. But what happens to that reader after they read our works?

In March, I attended a meeting at Creative Mornings Pittsburgh and listened to Siobhan Viviane talk about her writing for young girls. In her opinion, her readers explore possibilities, actions and consequences, vicariously through what her books. I asked her if she ever thought about her authorial responsibility, if she should write something, just because she could write it. Since I haven’t yet read any of her books, I didn’t know if the actions of her characters would inspire girls in negative or positive ways. I wondered how/if her writing impacted young women and their beliefs or choices.

And on an even younger note, my husband kind of hates the Junie B. Jones books because Junie B. models bad language and often poor behavior choices. Is she to blame, or is Barbara Park to blame, if our son copies those actions of a character he thinks is pretty cool?

If our story helps a reader, do we get to take credit?

If our story hurts a reader, do we have to assume the blame?

Can you have it one way but not the other? If you accept one way, are you also accepting the other?

I’m truly asking. I don’t know the answer, or if there is an answer.