LAL Keynote Speaker and Author Erin Hagar on How Readers’ Letters Change Authors’ Lives

December 16, 2015
by Maryland Humanities

Thinking about entering this year’s Letters About Literature (LAL) contest but still not sure? Or is your letter in the mail and you’re on pins and needles until we announce Maryland finalists?

Remember, contest aside, your writing can change an author’s life. That’s right – your letter could be the push a writer needs to finish that next story! Local author Erin Hagar shares her 2015 LAL Ceremony speech and encourages YOU to write:

In lots of ways, the life of a writer is pretty great. We get to play every time we sit down to work. We flex our imaginations the way athletes flex their muscles. Fiction writers create people and places and conflicts out of thin air. Nonfiction writers sift through history to bring someone’s life to the page. And some days, we get to do all these fun things while sitting at home in our pajamas, eating nothing but Nutter Butters. It’s not a bad gig.

But there’s a flip side to all of this, too. A darker side. Writing can be lonely and scary and filled with doubt. Author John Green (you may have heard of him) has compared the process of writing a book to playing the swimming pool game “Marco Polo” by yourself for a year, or two, or ten.

“Marco?” (silence)

“Marco?” (silence)

Into that silence creeps the doubt. That same imagination that serves us so well in our stories works against us, too. It feeds thoughts like this:

“This stinks. No one will ever want to publish this.”

“If by some miracle this does get published, no one will ever buy it.”

“Any copies that actually get printed will probably just line the bottom of the cages at the animal shelter. At least the paper will go to good use.”

You might think that once you’re published, these doubts just evaporate. Nope. No matter how many books a writer has under her belt, no matter what the reviews said about the last book, no matter how many copies sold, every time you sit down to a new project, the doubts come back:

“That last book was just luck.”

“This is the book where people will figure out that I’m not any good at all.”

“There’s no way I can write a book better than that last one.”

I want you to imagine a writer–we’ll call her Karen– thinking those anxious thoughts, biting her fingernails or fiddling with her hair because she’s worried that all her hard work is just going to lay a big fat rotten egg. But then Karen walks to the mail box, or opens her email. And in that mailbox or inbox is a letter much like the ones you all have written. That connection is made, and suddenly Karen is reminded that there are REAL LIVE READERS out in the world, readers who care about her stories.

And that reminder can change everything. This may sound hokey, but I have real examples to back it up.

My friend Nina Nelson wrote a children’s novel called Bringing the Boy Home. Right now, she’s having a hard time writing her second book. She calls herself a “tortoise writer”–it takes her a long time. But when I asked her about the importance of letters, she told me this: “I just received letters from a group of 4th graders after speaking at their school. Overwhelmingly, the letters motivated me to finish my current book. So many of the students said, ‘We can’t wait to read your next book’ that I felt this desire to finish as soon as possible so they COULD read it. Their excitement just reached through the thank you letters, grabbed me by the shirt and said, “Get to it! You have people—real life, fun, tapping-their-toes people waiting for your next book. Come on! Write!’”

That is pretty motivating.

Another wonderful writer, Jo Knowles, posted this on Twitter: “Whenever I have doubts about what I write, like magic I get a letter from a teen thanking me for doing it. For making her feel less alone…”

Did you hear that? “Like magic.”  Because that’s what your letters are. Magic. A piece of paper, some ink, your thoughts and “poof”–a connection is made, bridging that world between lonely writer and real, live reader.

Click here to read the rest of Erin Hagar’s 2015 LAL Ceremony speech!

Erin Hagar writes fiction and nonfiction for children and teens. She earned her M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and now lives in Baltimore with her husband, two children, and a few too many pets. She has written three books: “Julia Child: An Extraordinary Life in Words and Pictures,” “Doing Her Bit: a Story of the Woman’s Land Army,” and “Awesome Minds: the Inventors of LEGO® Toys.”

Letters About Literature (LAL) is a national writing contest for students in grades 4 to 12 sponsored by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. LAL encourages young readers to write to the author of a book expressing how that book changed their view of themselves or the world.

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