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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

A writer's work, in one sentence

“What’s the one sentence that best describes the work you do?”

An eighth grader named Angel asked me this, earlier this week in the library (okay, the media center) of Roselle Middle School in Roselle, Illinois. At that moment the room was filled with the school’s eighth grade, all sitting on the floor. I thought about Angel's question for a second and then said, “An act of faith.” But there are a lot of other sentences I could have come up with just as well.

I thought of “an act of faith” because, as I told the eighth graders, you work on a book for years, usually, alone in a room somewhere. You don’t know if anyone will read it; in most cases you don’t even know if it will be published. Odds are, again in most cases, that the answers to both those questions will be no. Most books that are published fail to find readers. Most books that are written never get published.

So it’s always an act of faith. What else could writing be, really? It’s presumptuous to think that this is how you can best spend your time, working over and over on your own words, your own stories, your own way of saying something. And yet, we do.

But sure, I could have offered other sentences, in that moment. I had to wonder, afterward: what could they have been?

A sense of purpose. You HOPE you have that, at least ... why else would we do this?

An exercise in futility. I never would have SAID this, but sometimes it sure feels that way.

The right to say your piece. Sure, that would have been good to say to eighth graders! And I guess we do have that right. I mean right?

A love affair with stories. For me, at least, I often think it really comes down to this. There’s far too much opinion being aired in this digital age, and opinion is pretty empty in the end ... but a good story never is. We don’t need all this clamor of viewpoint ... but we sure do need good stories.

Yeah. Maybe that’s what I should have said.

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