Writing values: Clarity is mine, what’s yours?

As recently as a few weeks ago, I thought I might be on the verge of becoming what I’d always wanted, always planned to be– a full-time writer.

I never intended to be a librarian. I needed a job during college, when my husband and I were living together in a tiny studio apartment, and applied to work as a children’s library assistant– essentially, a part-time children’s librarian, someone to do nights and weekends so that the professional librarian could work a 9-5 schedule in my university town. I love children’s literature, and my knowledge of child and teen development and my love of popular literature helped me land the job.

But I wasn’t studying librarianship, or even considering library work for my future, at the age of twenty. I was studying creative writing, because I knew that one day I was going to be a novelist. Librarian, though it might be what I did as a job, was never my intended career.

The longer I worked as a librarian, though, the more I began to understand about readers: their needs, their wants, what they sought in the books they asked me for. Even as I began my journey from general courses into advanced literary criticism, from the creative writing workshops for non-majors into those reserved just for writing majors, my experience with readers broadened just as my education narrowed and focused.

During the day, I read books I had to read three or four times to comprehend. I read critical theory that hurt my brain. At night, I helped my patrons search for GED study guides and recommended cozy mysteries for fans of the Cat Who. . .series. (Note: children’s librarians? We do everything. The title just means that we can do children’s services in addition to adult services. And we usually get paid less than adult services librarians. My theory is because we’re usually women, but I’ll save that rant for another time and a different blog.)

My identity as a writer was developing at the same time that I was learning about reading and writing, from every direction and every end of the spectrum. I studied infants and early literacy and language acquisition; I learned about adult learners and second language learners and reading disabilities. I read about inequalities in urban education, and then I went back to my own university and tried to understand feminist theory. I read my fellow students’ experimental science-fiction novels and tried to write critical notes that would help them develop their characters, plot, structure.

In many ways, my education was incredibly unique, and it continued through graduate school, since I worked in public libraries all over the South Side of Chicago while I completed an MA in creative writing and worked on my first literary novel. I led book discussion groups with teens, some of whom were incredibly smart, and some of whom were sixteen and in the eighth grade (which didn’t mean they weren’t also incredibly smart, but did sometimes indicate a serious reading disability). My perspective on books and reading was not the same as my classmates’ perspectives on books and reading. My professors noticed, and some appreciated the difference, while others did not.

Somewhere along the way, while I’d been developing my writing voice, I had also begun to develop what I consider a set of writing values. I think all writers have a set of values, shaped over our writing lives, and probably set initially around the same time my writing values were set– although I also think they probably get re-set as we grow and change and our general values redevelop.

Some writers value the beauty of language. Others value the ability to convey the complexity of their thoughts or emotions. The more I think about my own writing, and the more I look back at the comments I have consistently heard, from professors, from CPs, from my own internal system that tells me what I find irritating in others’ work and important in my own, the more I realize that above all, I value clarity.

I like to understand what I read. That doesn’t mean it has to be simple, or that I can’t comprehend a complex novel, but I appreciate clarity. And in my own writing, my main goal, other than telling a damn good story, is to be clear. To keep from creating unnecessary work for my reader. And I can point out exactly why I value that so deeply, and exactly how I developed that value.

My chance to quit working in libraries full-time passed me by for now, so I’m still working the day job. In a way, I’m glad. I don’t know how my writing, and my values, might change if I weren’t a librarian, doing this job that has shaped so much of how I think about books and writing and readers.

I have to wonder if other writers can identify their core writing values– what do you find most important in your own work, or in others’? And if you can identify that value, do you know what shaped it? I’d love to hear.

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8 Responses to Writing values: Clarity is mine, what’s yours?

  1. Sarah Wynde says:

    I started a new project last week and it’s a lot edgier than I’ve written before. It sort of scares me. One early reader said that it was dark urban fantasy, and I was sort of um, yes, no, that can’t be my genre. But I amused myself with this paragraph today (first draft, so rough, of course):

    “Fen didn’t know what to do. She also didn’t know why she wasn’t having a full-blown panic attack, the kind where death seemed inevitable and imminent. Seriously, her brain would dump crazy-sauce all over her psyche when someone got too close to her on the El and it was going to let aliens slide?”

    Fun. Fun is my value. My heroine may be going through far worse than I usually put my heroines through, but if it’s not entertaining to read about then I’m writing it wrong (for me.)

    Thanks for asking the question! It was fun to think about and actually helpful as I get all wishy-washy about my WIP.

  2. sofia says:

    I am not a writer but a reader and as such I’ve developed reading values. I like books which make sense. Books that do not require me to leave my brain behind in order to enjoy them. I also like books not to take themselves so seriously. A sense of humour allows us to live a richer life so why not in books. Here I am not referring to humorous books but normal books which include the funny side of life as well as all the serious stuff. Imagine living a story as told in a book were nobody laughed at a joke, or nobody saw anything funny etc, how boring, dull and melodramatic.


  3. Julia Broadbooks says:

    I love this idea and I think it’s at the core of why sometimes even really flawed books can resonate with me. I haven’t the vaguest idea how to nail down what I value as a writer, but, as a reader, it’s honesty. The way these pretend people in their made up worlds can show me a moment that is real and honest and true and that makes me see my own life a little more clearly. That’s what sticks in my head long after I’ve finished a book.

  4. Oh Shelley,
    I’m so sorry your opportunity fell through. I remember that twitter moment when it seemed possible for you, and although I have no idea what is actually going down in your real life, I get the sense it’s been a rough winter for you. I hope that spring in just around the corner for you, literally and figuratively.

    As for core values, I’m not sure I’ve identified mine as a writer yet–I’m still babe in that world. But I’ve been thinking about this as a reader and a teacher quite a bit.

    We were having a tangentially related conversation in my lit class the other night. One of my students, who I like very much and find to be smart and interesting, was going off about how romance novels are giving women unrealistic fantasies and how it’s just all soft core porn, etc. Nothing we haven’t all heard before. In response I asked the question about what we’re looking for out of books as readers. What do we want to get out of it. If it’s not fantasy, and it’s not ruining our lives, I asked, what is the alternative.

    If women read books about other women negotiating their own happiness, and stories of things working out, why is that bad and what else should they be reading? Does it benefit us to read slasher murder mysteries where the books begin and often end with death? Does it benefit us more to read stories of dreary tragedy in which our darkest beliefs about the world come true on the page?

    I guess, what I’m saying is that I couched it in terms of benefit, since the student was saying this kind of reading was bad for us, the ancillary of that is what is good for us?

    So, if I think about it that way, what I really want as a reader is to enjoy the experience–that’s what’s good for me. To enjoy something it does not have to have a happy ever after, but it does require language play, humor, introspection, people driven plots. And I certainly can find those things in any number of genres and outcomes and I think students can too.

    I often find weird and wonky and dark and bleak enjoyable. There are dark plots with great language and humor. My dad always said “it takes all kinds.” I don’t think he wanted this to be true anymore than I do, but I think it is. It’s especially true of readers.

  5. Cate Ellink says:

    This is a beautiful, thoughtful post – thanks Shelley Ann.

    I’ve struggled with point of view with my writing (and reading). I’m a staunch believer in first person because I have never ever understood anyone else’s thoughts, beliefs, logic, and this is especially true of romantic partners. In real life, I’ve no idea why we click, why they like me, why we have ‘chemistry’. And because of that, I struggle with writing, and sometimes reading, in third person.

    Sounds nutty, doesn’t it? But it’s been my struggle for some years now, so I think it must be some deeply held belief I have – that I cannot understand anyone else!

    Cate xo

  6. Cara McKenna says:

    Clarity is lovely! I think my core value lands somewhere on the other end of the spectrum, though… Not muddledness, though I do enjoy writing about people who are lost or ambivalent or in the midst of awkward life transitions… More like, messiness. Or griminess. Waving my authorly flashlight around and letting the ugly, honest details of ordinary life shine the same way the prettier parts usually do. I’ve been attracted to imagery of distressed things—peeling paint, rust-eaten metal, weathered wood, cracked glass—since my art school days, probably some rebellion against the slick, crisp Swiss design ethos of the moment. And similarly, I’m now attracted to characters with dysfunctional brains, be they mildly eccentric or straight-up batshit, and to settings that aren’t lavish or even welcoming. I’m sure what to call that value, though… “Realism” is at once too vague and subjective. Maybe plain old “damage.”

  7. Fiona McGier says:

    Interesting question, especially posed as you did it, as part of a personal progression in your own writing and reading. When I read non-fiction, which I’ve been doing a lot of lately, I want to gain insights–I want to have those “light bulb moments” (will youngsters ever be able to understand that idiom now that light bulbs are so totally different?). I want to suddenly understand something that I’ve puzzled over before.

    When I read fiction, and when I write it, I want there to be real, true emotions. I’ve cried when I wrote some scenes of family strife, or of endangered love. I’ve been most gratified to have readers tell me they cried also. That tells me I succeeded in causing them to feel for my imaginary people, as if they were real friends. That’s what I try to achieve. Real people with real emotions, with whom you travel on the roller coaster that is their life for a while, so you’re happy at the end when they are. Share the love!

  8. Meriam says:

    I love this post, thank you for it!
    First off, as someone who also fell into library work as a student, and still finds herself in this world ten years later, your experience resonated with me. I’m actually from the opposite side, Adults, but I always thought (enviously) that all the fun, dynamic and exciting things happen with Young People. And young people’s librarians are always so much cooler. Interesting about the pay difference. I’m actually from the London East End (comparable to Chicago south side?) and I think you might be right about attitudes, but I see a lot of money and funding going to young people.

    Anyway, as a writer and a reader I love simplicity. Spare, stark prose is the best prose! I’ll be taken in by beautiful language now and then, I’ll stop and admire the poetry and lyricism, but I get a bit impatient with it over time.

    I only started to think about writing style after working on comms/ promoting services etc. Clarity of expression is so important in this context, it made me acutely aware of how so much of what I was writing was redundant fluffery.