What it’s like to be a young writer

Yesterday I mentioned the young Harvard writer, Kaavya Viswanathan, who apparently stole material for a YA novel she wrote in the summer after high school.  Here’s what she said in an interview on NBC:

All I can say is that I’ve read both of Megan McCafferty’s books, “Sloppy Firsts” and “Second Helpings” when I was in high school.  I think the first one came out when I was about 14, and I read both those books three or four times each.  I completely see the similarities, I’m not denying that those are there, but I can honestly say that any of those similarities were completely unconscious and unintentional, that while I was reading Megan McCafferty’s books, I must have just internalized her words.  I never, ever intended to deliberately take any of her words.

The Wikipedia article about her novel points out other similarities to other books from other writers.  They’re pretty obvious.  I don’t want to litigate this.  It could be that this was all a calculated attempt to craft a novel that would get her into Harvard and make a name for herself.  Her parents had hired some consulting agency to help with the college admissions process, and it sounds like she had a good bit of assistance, from them and others, in writing, packaging, and marketing the novel.  But I’d like to assume it was something entirely different — that this was a girl who was desperate to become a writer, and was just too young to pull it off by herself.

I’d like to think that because it feels awfully familiar to me.  Like a lot of would-be writers, I suspect, I wanted to become a writer from a very early age.  And, again, like a lot of those would-be writers, I had two major problems:

  • I didn’t know how to write.
  • I didn’t have anything to write about.

As a result, I had to live in other people’s imaginations.  And what a wonderful place that was!  I remember when I was about eleven years old reading a science fiction novel that I couldn’t get out of my head.  So I decided to write my own science fiction novel — in pencil, with my own hand-drawn illustrations.  The plot, as I recall it, was pretty much the same as that of the novel I had read, except that I was the hero.  I don’t think I got more than a few pages into the thing before I abandoned it.  It’s much easier to read than to write.

I got better at writing as I got older, but it was always hard to escape other people’s imaginations — they lived more interesting lives, thought more interesting thoughts, and could express themselves in more interesting ways.  I couldn’t compete.  So when I wrote a short story, it would come out sounding like an adolescent imitation of a Graham Greene short story, or an Isaac Asimov short story, or a Ray Bradbury short story.  What I wrote didn’t sound like me, because I didn’t yet have a sound.

So I can imagine an 18-year-old girl from India desperately wanting to write a novel about her life in America, but I can’t imagine her pulling it off.  Not without channeling all the authors she had read who had helped her make sense of her experiences, who had helped form her imagination.  And maybe what she wrote with the help (conscious or unconscious) of those authors was pretty good: it got her parents excited, it got her college admissions consultants excited, it got her an agent and some assistance in fleshing out her ideas, and before long everything spiraled out of control.  She was no longer just a kid dreaming of becoming a writer; she was a professional.  And that’s when her problems started.

That’s what I’d like to think.

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2 thoughts on “What it’s like to be a young writer

  1. All this plagerism talk reminded me, somehow, of Craig Strete, an SF author of native American heritage whose brilliant early career was deep-sixed when he was accused of stealing the work of one Ron Montana, who had actually co-written some fiction with Strete. No mention of this on Wikipedia, but I did find a blog written earlier this year that said nothing was ever proved beyond a certain similarity of theme, and the whole thing degenerated into a shouting match between the two authors. But the damage was done, and Stete’s rising star quickly fell from sight.

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  2. Pingback: “The Words”: What would you do to become a successful novelist? | richard bowker

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