Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 20, 2012

Ann Turner Speaks about Writing for Teens

On Saturday morning, Ann Turner, the author of more than fifty books, gave a talk sponsored by Straw Dog Writers. Ann suggested that writers might ask ourselves what age person is most alive for us inside, then tap into that person. She said that when she writes for teens she doesn’t so much remember who she was than become that girl, taking on the feelings of vulnerability, of being wrong, not fitting in, and desiring passionately to meet the world with love.

Ann read from her most recent novel, Father of Lies, the story of a bipolar girl in Salem at the time of the witch accusations, which explores expectations of who might be crazy and who evil. She also read poems from Learning to Swim, a slim, moving memoir of childhood sexual abuse she wrote to give readers comfort and courage. The child in the poems faces down fears of the muck of a pond, the uncertain bottom, and trusts her own ability to float, coming at last to move with ease, as learning to swim becomes a metaphor for healing. The poems about the girl are framed by the voice of a teen, the age intended as the book’s main audience, who relays the challenge, necessity, and triumph of telling a trusted someone what happened. This beautiful, brave book should be in every school library.

Ann’s picture books and novels often have historical settings, and when I asked how she decides how much background information to leave in, she said it was mostly a matter of practice and intuition, comparing it to baking bread: the baker keeps adding flour until she recognizes the time to stop by its look, heft, and texture. The writing should also lead the reader through unfamiliar territory by feel, and Ann mentioned that reading your work aloud is a good way to gauge this. She also warned, “if you’re doing research you can pretend that you’re writing. And you are, but…” Yes, I know that fragile pause. She said that a desire to be right can take over the story. “There’s a point to stop and let story take over. Like swimming, you need to let the current take you where it will.”

She answered a question about being in a writing group, and said what she finds most useful is when others don’t stress what doesn’t work, but instead ask questions, exposing areas she realizes might be more explored. Finally, she spoke of letting your material speak to you: “I think there’s something magical hidden in the heart of the story that if we listen, it will tell us where to go.” For her it’s prayer more than technique that shows a way.

 

 

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Responses

  1. I’ve long admired Ann Turner’s work and especially Learning to Swim. Also her picture book about a road (can’t think of the title) and how the landscape has changed but the road’s still there. She absolutely right about listening to your story, trusting that hidden heart. It’s hard for impatient sorts, like me, but I’m finally seeing the benefit in working slower.

    • It’s heartening to hear how many have been touched as I was by Learning to Swim. How a small book can make an impact. And thanks for looking up Heron Street! I haven’t read it in years and now I must.

      Candice, I can’t imagine anyone finding fault with your process, but I guess circumstances change and creativity, like everything else, must shape itself to what comes our way. Best wishes with a new pace.

  2. Heron Street! Had to look it up, but that’s her wonderful picture book.

  3. I also admire Ann Turner’s work. Intelligent and sensitive and true to the heart.

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful, thought-provoking post. *ponders my favorite internal ages – yes, I have more than one*

    • Thanks for reading, Kelly. I’m not one bit surprised you have more than one, and the more the merrier! (though there must be a bit of racket in your busy mind some days)

  5. Sharing your experience of Ann is so helpful, Jeannine. I was particularly taken with her comment about writers groups – asking questions that give the writer room to explore.

    “Learning to Swim” is indeed a fine book.

    • Learning to Swim is one of the best examples of good use of a blend of narrative and verse. I’m also planning to write soon about Ann’s Hard Hit, which beautifully blends baseball and coping with cancer.

      It’s so great when people articulate things. I know from experience those questions matter to me, but in my own critiquing, I want to be more conscious of giving that. I’m glad you found that helpful, too, Sarah.


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