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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.

What should we tell an avid young writer?

Writers are continuing to write no matter whether publishing is dying, or closing itself off to all but the bestsellers, says an online op-ed piece posted yesterday at The New York Times. The essay, by a Times editor, describes “staylit” — writing by writers about continuing to write. Apparently this is now a thing.

I continue to write too, so maybe at this moment I’m producing staylit — except that the Times piece got me thinking less about my own stuff, and more about a group of eighth graders that I sat with in their school library about ten days ago, at Hanscomb Air Force Base in Bedford, MA.

The base has a middle school, and each recent year the sixth graders have read my book The Revealers. I started this visit talking with the whole school, grades 6-8 (it’s a fairly small school); then I had good discussions with all the sixth graders during their English class periods. In the midst of this I spent one period in the school library, talking with a self-selected group of eighth graders who are interested in writing — who, I learned, in most cases are actively writing, and actively publishing their work online.

I might have expected two or three kids who’d fit this profile. I got two long tables full. Again, this is a small school: but here they all were, telling me about publishing their work at and at, about joining groups of poets and fantasy writers on those sites.

I thought it’d be a good idea to talk with them about the fast-changing world of publishing — about how it’s getting much harder for writers to break into, and stay in, getting published in the traditional-book way, while at the same time, as some of them already knew better than I did, the online world is opening up new ways to publish your work and reach readers, even if that didn’t mean you were earning money by it, or were getting a book of your own to hold in your hands.

“Writing is scary,” writes Anna North in her Times piece. “It is especially scary now, as advances shrink, publishers fight with Amazon, and the death of the novel is forecast with ever-increasing frequency.”

As a working writer I’m aware of these realities. So what should I have told these avid eighth graders? Should I have said, Give it up? Should I have quoted the Sex Pistols: There is no future for you? Well ... I didn't.

There’s something about sitting with a group like this, knowing that what you say may stay with them or even make a difference, that brings you pretty naturally to what's important. And that, I’m pretty sure in this case, is this: Doing creative work will always matter in your life. If you want or need to write, you are lucky and you should do it. Yes, the marketplace is changing — marketplaces are always changing, and right now the ways that writers reach readers have entered some sort of radical upheaval that no one really understands ... but we will always need stories. We will always need the work of those who must express themselves; and that work will always find a way to reach those who value and appreciate it.

More than that, for a group of adolescents who are struggling to find who they are and how they can matter in the world, learning to be comfortable and even skilled with your own creative process — with doing the work of turning an idea in your head into something that’s real in the world — is possibly the most powerful thing you can learn how to do. It’s not impractical at all, I told the young writer: No matter what path you wind up taking in your life, it will always be worthwhile that you did this.

Yes, right now it’s looking harder for writers to earn a living as writers. It’s harder for musicians, too. But can you imagine a world without stories or music? Neither can I. When this work is who we are, many of us will find ways to do it and to share it. Those eighth graders are already finding the new ways that are emerging.

Imagine that.

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