Ever since my first faculty residency, I wait for what silliness the different classes at the Vermont College MFA in children’s and YA literature will unleash upon this portrait every semester. (That first time, he was Pippi Longstocking, and it was blazingly clear to me he’d always longed to embrace his inner Pippi.)
Today–the start of my fifth residency–we were anything but silly, though. We sat in a faculty meeting and discussed evaluating student semesters. Brilliant writers walk here. Graduates and faculty have books on the NYTimes bestseller lists and have won Newbery and Printz honors and the SCBWI Golden Kite award. (Long ago, I longed to enroll in an MFA program. Teaching here is like getting a shot at that dream…and I always learn amazing things about the craft of fiction.)
But weak writers walk here, too. Relatively weak, anyway. And sometimes people even wash up. The piece we argued long and hard about is what’s so hard to measure: passion. Every time I’m in Ethiopia, I see that bone-deep passion for soccer. (This time, I REALLY saw it because I flew KLM, and fans of the Oranje are crazy about the possibility of their first World Cup title.) And I see the power of wanting to do something over and over and over.
Talent? I don’t know. I’ve seen talented writers who will never publish a word.
Good characters are characters that go after what they want with huge determination. Lanie can hardly stand to live if she can’t be outside. Just like our characters, the writers who want something so very much are the ones I tend to put my money on.
When I embraced my dream of writing children’s books, I thought about how long I’d invest if I were going to become a doctor or lawyer. Would I give any less respect to books? I decided I’d give myself ten years of hard work before I gave up. And it did take almost ten years to get my first book published with a NY publisher. But, as someone wisely said, those ten years would have gone by anyway…and to live the life of an artist…a writer…is everything to me.