I have been a working writer (and teacher) for over 20 years, and in that time, I’ve come to believe that a writing life is uniquely structured to transform the soul. It will not give you the glib and easy surface of #blessed on Instagram but, if you clear space for it, writing (and its Siamese twin reading) will keep you forever curious and interested.  And if that’s not the recipe for a good life then what is?

I didn’t realize how passionately I believed this about writing until COVID hit.  ER doctors in New York started sounding the alarm about the scarcity of ventilators. I knew, with the tranquility of truth, that should I land in the hospital, the 30-year-old mother must have the ventilator, not me.  

Not because I don’t have children – after all, there are people I love fervently in this world who depend on me – and not even because I have a good 10+ years on that mother.  But because I can say, without hesitation, that I’ve had a good run.  And when I look to why, beside the people I love, it’s that I’ve read amazing books, terrible ones, and really fun ones. And because, I’ve worked like crazy to make space to write my books.  Certainly, I have others to write, but if I don’t get to them, I’ll know that I did what I could with the time I had.

Which includes my writing here.  

The last time I tried my hand at blogging, I discovered that if you don’t feel passionately about something you shouldn’t be posting about it.  And, back then (in the days of MySpace and LiveJournal), I felt it was only ‘appropriate’ to discuss passions with friends, in person; not with strangers in cyberspace. 

In the intervening years, I’ve built a teaching career and worked with students as far flung as Europe and Saudi Arabia.  I’ve come to believe in the value and possibility of sharing what I care about from a distance.  It is absolutely true that much of writing is a solitary endeavor, but nothing important gets done alone.  No matter where you are in your writing journey, I’d like to share it with you. Even if it’s only by sharing what I’ve learned on mine.  Please poke around, email with questions, take what is useful, and discard the rest.   

{Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger}

I started teaching for the same reasons that someone joins a convent or becomes a priest; to share a transcendent faith.  Not the kind you may be picturing however, for this church is built on how writing transforms the soul.   In the classroom, I open the doors to my cathedral, and we all learn more about why we write, read, and live.  

If you are here, you too know (or have guessed) that writing and reading bring the same meaning and richness that love itself promises.  Maybe you teach and write as well, or are working on one, the other, or both. 

Teaching has turned out to be the perfect complement to my quiet life as an award-winning children’s book writer. Teaching brings the noise of efforts, glee, and good conversation. I work so my students flourish in the same way I write so my characters spring to life.  Both are a process, and I succeed when I don’t focus on results, but on what I love about the doing. 

I can’t force my characters alive, but I can work on them.  I can’t make students become writers, but I can show them how to work towards their unique voices.  The number one thing I teach is how reading teaches you to write.  Almost all of us write because we read.  

In fact, I would argue that we write in order to read. More on that later. 

At various times, I’ve had students who want to be writers, but don’t want to read widely.  It can’t be done.  The romance writer Sarah MacLean clearly has a lot of talent, but the fact that she reads a romance novel a day is why her books so epitomize the best of romance novels. 

When I was struggling to finish my first chapter book (which at the time, I thought was a picture book), my editor at Chronicle sent me books.  Picture books, middle grade books, and more.  Some were literary, some silly.  The point was to let me read myself into knowing how to write my book.   The point was for the books to teach me.

 To write, we should read deeply within genre but also outside of it. 

Part of my job is to play matchmaker between my students and the books I think will help them become better writers.  If I can’t reach the reader in my student, I can’t teach, something I learned the hard way. 

Some six years ago, a posh private high school hired me to tutor struggling students.  My focus changed from novels (whose redeeming power I honor) to analytical essays (whose efforts to suck the joy out of reading I do not).  My efforts increased tenfold, as did my failure to do what I do best; share my faith in books.  

 During my years of working at this school, I wrote my first middle grade novel, which totally changed the kind of writing I did.  I went from being preoccupied with how characters thought to how they felt.  As frustrating as it was to change writing style, it was also exhilarating to try something new.

My unhappy teen students, who were struggling through outlines into clearly argued essays, had plenty of frustration with their writing, but no exhilaration. I could get them to the finish line, but until they fell in love with writing, they’d never enjoy the process.  My best students knew they were being forced to write about things they’d never love (for example, motifs in The Great Gatsby), and my worst ones didn’t care.  

In the end, I quit, packed my bags, and moved to California.  My middle-grade novel was published, and I wrote and sold my first chapter book.  I officially became a woman of a certain age.  I stopped tutoring everything but the college essay because even if students don’t love the process, I make sure they love the story they write about themselves.   

With all the new things I’d done (including aging!), I started to wonder if I could do what I’d advised my unhappy DC students. Could I write what I loved?  And what did that mean if what I loved were romance novels?  

Would I, to steal from T.S. Eliot, dare disturb my universe?  In 2008, well before my DC life, I’d written an historical romance for my then agent, who also represented the great Linda Howard.  Two editors almost bought it and then didn’t.  Everyone else turned it down.  I put it away, unsure of where it fit in my career.  

Now, with 10+ extra years of teaching and writing behind me, I’ve pulled it out, ready to see what life looks like disturbed.  If your Cathedral, like mine, is full of books (maybe even one you’ve written without quite finishing), I hope you’ll join me as I learn – yet again – a new way to write.  Next time, I’ll be posting on why readers, specifically romance readers, write.  

{Photos by Susan Yin, Joanna Kosinka, and me.}

As I write children’s books, yet read widely outside the genre, and, by passionate choice don’t have children, Why do you do this comes up a lot.   How I respond depends on who is asking (and how).  

My students always merit answers about voice, point of view and the young protagonist as the ultimate outsider in a world created by adults.   

To social acquaintances, who are expressing polite interest, I say that Mary Poppins Comes Back and The Secret Garden are two of my favorite books and that we tend to write what we most love.

 Then there are the people who ask variations of, “Why don’t you write a real book?”  This took some trial and error, but I’m now saved a lot of trouble if I just shrug and smile.   

All of these answers (including the shrug-smile) share an aspect of what is true without actually being true.

However, as a romance reader, in the awkward position of writing her first romance novel without it being anywhere near her first book, my answer never varies when people ask either: Why do you read romance novels? or Why on earth would you want to write one of those?

“You know how in a movie, TV show, or serious novel, there is a man at the heart of it, and in the background there is also a woman?” I will ask, my voice deepening at the word Man and dropping to a whisper over Woman.  “Well, in romance novels, there is a woman at the center and there is also a man.”   Here, of course, my voice does the opposite; sounding important with Woman and dropping in significance at Man.

Certainly, a good romance novel has a hero who is worthy of our attention and he goes on his own emotional journey. But, in the end, it is the woman who has claimed her power:  true love, an orgasm the first time she has sex (usually), and a deeply satisfying and pleasurable life with her soulmate. 

Along the way, money troubles are solved, the clothes are nice, and the food is delicious.   

The experience of daily life – meals, work, clothes, friends, children, family – oh, and taxes, is given full celebration from the female point of view.  And one more thing:  The happily-ever- after that is demanded by an entire genre, that is known by the reader to be waiting at the end before the book is even purchased.   

An HEA is a revolutionary act and a battle cry.  That statement will inevitably get me the quizzical look I need to proceed. 

Using the criteria created by men, a novel about female passion, power, sex, and love is only Art if the heroine, one of literature’s most famous and brilliantly drawn, is killed by a train.  

In a romance novel, the heroine ends up owning the railroad along with her beloved’s heart.   

But among those of us who know all this already, I will simply say:  I read romance novels (and am writing one) because they are fun.    

If, like many of my students, you are struggling to get to your desk, it helps to remember that what awaits you is not simply a love story and a revolutionary act that views women and their needs as worthy; it helps to remember that it’s fun.  And if your are a romance reader (any kind of passionate reader, actually), you know you are writing the novel that you most want to read.

If your answers to Why do you do this are different, use whatever they are to get you to the desk.  

{Photos by Michel Stockman (top) and Aliis Sinisalu.}