All Writers Are Accountable To Three Things

If I had to point to one piece of advice upon which my writing philosophy is built, it would be the fervent words children’s author Jane Yolen uttered at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing. She spoke about the importance of addressing faith questions in books for kids: What happens after we die? Is God real? The primary book-buyers for children’s authors are public schools and public libraries, which don’t usually shelve faith stories. Yolen told us to write them anyway. A member of the audience challenged her: Shouldn’t writers be accountable to the book buyers? Yolen got angry. “All writers are accountable to three things, in this order: First, we’re accountable to the story. Second, we’re accountable to ourselves. Only lastly are we accountable to our audience.”

It’s so easy to jumble these priorities! We place the audience first, compromising our needs and curiosity and joy. We confuse and conflate publishers with readers. We rarely consider ourselves worthy of creative investment, or we fear we’re egotistical if we do. Worse yet, we don’t appreciate the story itself as an entity worthy of devotion. The story: a memory, an imaginative ramble, a question pursued with characters and moments in time. “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” writes Muriel Rukeyser. Stories are of us and beyond us. By writing stories we make our world. Stories are a source of life. They have their own energy, their own will. A first draft gives the writer and reader a vague glimpse of this source. Only time and attention—love, that is—lend that life force a body. In the beginning is a story—a mystery—and the writer loves it into being.


from “Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice” by @Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew @Skinner House