Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sara Zarr and the Writer Within

Sara Zarr - isn't that just the coolest author name? And it's NOT even a pen name! Anyway, Sara, the Utah ZARRina of realistic young adult fiction (and yes, I am fawning) spent over an hour sharing reflections about her writing life with the largest group of secondary educators to attend a JCIRA meeting in YEARS. (Okay, there were only 13, but that's an average improvement of 900% - seriously!) AND, I very much appreciate Sara's comment when I told her NOT to expect huge numbers. She wrote,
Since it sounds like it's likely to be a small group, we can keep it conversational, which is always nice. I just couldn't remember if this was a very formal in-service-y type of presentation or not. Conversational is my favorite.
Rather than summarize all her interesting observations, I'd like to paraphrase several of Sara's thoughts that were meaningful to me. Sound good?

Her genre-of-choice:
  • Sara is drawn to the family drama - "things happening in kitchens and cars."
  • When males write "domestic fiction," it's referred to as "literary fiction." (Go figure.)
Her inspiration:
  • Sara's teen years were influenced by her own family drama - moving around, an alcoholic father, and divorce. She added that children in these kinds of situations often fill their minds with "what if" scenarios - "What if he doesn't come home; what if he DOES and he's drunk, etc." Imagining the "what ifs" can fuel creativity.
  • Her teen reading was enriched by 80's YA authors, including Robert Cromier, M.E. Kerr, and others. She enjoyed reading about characters who were like her. And while her life did not include the fighting and death found in Cromier's The Chocolate War, for example, she did relate to the dysfunction that realistically penetrates every life. 
Her respect for teens:
  • Sara empathizes with the angst that often fills teen lives. Unlike some adults, she sees their challenges as "high stakes" issues that they "don't have practice in dealing with ... ."
  • She observes that sometimes it's "easy to look at teens and say 'you don't know how good you have it,'" but their problems "are as real and rough and new" as those experienced by adults. 
  • Adolescence is "a transitional time," and a teen's job is to break away from parents. When going through that, many see their parents as clueless. Sara shared the example of Ann Frank's issues with her own mother - a woman who possessed none of the attributes Ann honored during that season in her life. Had she been allowed to grow up, however, "she would have worked that out. Instead, the moment is frozen in time."
  • Writers mustn't see teen problems as melodramatic - the "gossip will ruin my life." Authors cannot "dismiss their pain" because if that occurs, they "dismisses what readers are feeling."
Her story goals:
  • Sara sees adults as "ambassadors of adulthood," saying "come on," and so she wants her books to "model the possibilities."  She hopes to demonstrate to her adolescent readers that they can "navigate through" their experiences.
  • Her desired message is that the way "may not be perfect, but it will be okay." 
  • She wants her books to "offer some kind of hope as long as the definition of family is wide ranging."
  • Realistically, she knows that her character won't have the "big triumphs" - win the popularity contest, the game, or the piano competition - but will be able to "look Dad in the eye" or have more patience with a well-meaning mom. 
  • Sara also likes to end her stories with "forward momentum" versus the "big wrap-up." Sometimes teens are disappointed in that. Sara mentioned that her 12 to 15-year-old fans "want a happier ending." They also think that the author is writing about her own life. One group of girls Sara met with in California took one look at the visiting writer and then checked out the cover of Story of a Girl . "This ISN'T you!" they exclaimed in surprise. (Yet another disappointment!)
Her inner voice:
  • Once Sara realized she could be a writer, she knew that she would author young adult books because that is the voice within her. She can see through a teen's eyes. Not as an adult looking back on adolescent experiences but rather as a 15-year-old living in the moment. (I think that is remarkable. I've tried to do it, and the 62-year-old me keeps interrupting the teen me! Darn her!)
  • One of Sara's author-friends listens to her 6-year-old self, and so I think Ms. Zarr's advice to prospective authors is to discover who resides in their hearts and minds. Next listen and then record who is talking and what is being said. (I was listening more than writing notes at this point, and so I hope I've captured her thoughts about this subject.)
My reflection - I love to write, and I've even written a couple of chapters of a NOVEL - but I have to laugh. My main character is from England - a country I have NEVER visited, but I loudly hear her accent. I think, however, it's more Irish than British. So I started this adventure by writing in a dialect. Can you believe that?

Now I've stopped writing because the accent is growing thicker, and I'm afraid it's losing any authenticity it MAY have had. Awhile ago, I decided to rewrite the chapters and drop the dialect - but that accent is still lodged in my brain.

Dear Sara Zarr, what do you advise? HELP ME!!!

I hope that you enjoy catching a glimpse of our evening with the lovely Ms. Sara. And I plan to bring more such experiences to our JCIRA meetings in the future. I hope you readers of this blog will drop in sometime and mingle with us.

Take care,


Donna Tagliaferri said...

I love your blog, I am intrigued by this paragraph....
One of Sara's author-friends listens to her 6-year-old self, and so I think Ms. Zarr's advice to prospective authors is to discover who resides in their hearts and minds. Next listen and then record who is talking and what is being said.
I understand that, I have a 6 year old voice too, thank you for bringing that to my attention,
I will read all of your blogs, they are very instructive. I have a lot to learn,,, and I love what you are saying,,,thank you

Renae (aka Rebecca's Daughter) said...

Hi Donna, Thanks for visiting Link2Literacy. This is the blog I write for teachers in the school district (and elsewhere, I guess) for whom I work.

My personal blog is "good times AND seasons" at . The posts there reflect my 62-year-old voice! I'm still trying to identify the several other "writing" voices within. (That sounds a little scary. Maybe I am just a little schizoprenic!)

I will visit you via your fun blogs, too! Have a great day, Renae

Ann said...

I love Sara Zarr the writer and Sara Zarr the human being. Both are fabulous. And wise. Thank you for putting this up. Such useful information.

You mentioned on my blog a vampire retelling of LITTLE WOMEN. I'm gonna be all over that. Yes I am.