Friday 31 May 2013

Veronica Roth At BEA: Interview + Video/Transcript of Speech

Divergent author Veronica Roth appeared at Book Expo America 2013 this morning, to deliver a speech at the Children's Author Breakfast.

Check out the video or transcript below, plus an interview afterwards. Congratulations to Veronica on an inspiring, insightful, successful speech.

This may seem like a strange thing to say at a book convention, but I'm going to. In the middle of high school, I completely lost my love of reading. I had to read for school, but I gave up entirely on reading for fun. I went through what was probably a six year dry spell.
This was a huge shift from when I was a kid. Back then, I read in the shower. The pages of my favorite books were turned out at the corners and stained with Hawaiian Punch. I read so much that my mom actually lied to me and told me that if I read at the breakfast table, I would give myself stomach problems ... which was a fiction constructed so she could actually have a conversation with her youngest child instead of just staring at the book cover. I mean, when we're talking about my childhood self and reading, we're talking full-on screaming fangirl at an N'SYNC concert obsession...
I thought a lot about how I lost my enthusiasm for it. A few months ago, I realized the answer was clear: I lost my love of reading at the same moment I started to say, 'I already know' instead of 'I'm here to learn.' In other words, at the moment that I lost my reading humility.
The very act of studying books in school leads to humility because we're taught from a very early age that the world is vast an unknown, that we will spend at least kindergarten through high school and hopefully beyond learning about the world and that one of the best places to do that is in books. And then we learned that books in themselves are mysterious. We can search them up, down and sideways for deeper meaning, and even when we read them for the first time, we don't always understand everything that's in them ... which is why we write so many papers about them.
School taught me, whether I knew it or not, to approach books with that attitude. I am here to learn. But when I got older, something changed. In my Advanced English program, surrounded by peers I was sure were much smarter than me, my own insecurity started to creep in, telling me it was risky to be enthusiastic about anything, lest I be deemed not good enough for the people around me. It was comparatively safer to turn my nose up to everything because I felt like only a loser enjoys something wholeheartedly and I didn't want to be a loser.
I remember a moment in which this shift was particularly clear. I had a friend named Brianna who was incredibly excited for the seventh 'Harry Potter' book to come out, like midnight release party, carved a wand from a stick in her backyard excited. And after hearing her talk about it, my boyfriend at the time went on a rant to me about how silly the books were, and he complained about how ridiculous it was that Brianna was so excited and how everyone just needed to cool it with the 'Harry Potter' love because it was childish.
Rather than defend her and all the other Potterheads in the Universe, I didn't say anything. When the book came out, I didn't read it for weeks, and when I did, I didn't tell anyone. After that, I became ashamed of a lot of the books I liked and tried to push myself to read the books I felt you weren't supposed to be ashamed of ... great feats of Classic Literature.
There's nothing wrong with liking great feats of Classic Literature. Or with challenging yourself as a reader. But because I refused to read the books that got me really excited and enthusiastic about reading, I didn't have any motivation left to challenge myself. I stopped reading completely.
My high school boyfriend wasn't there to learn about 'Harry Potter.' He thought he already knew it back and forward, and by allowing his uninformed commentary to impact me so much, I was doing the same thing. I was turning my nose up at things without trying to search them for the value they contained. I could've learned a lot about the way to approach books from my younger self, and from young readers in general.
Young readers are here to learn, and they are eager to be moved and engaged by a story, and when they like something, it's generally not because it's widely respected by academia - though it might be respected anyway - it's because, pure and simple, they have discovered something that has moved and engaged them. And they aren't dissuaded from loving it just because other people don't.
That doesn't mean young readers aren't discerning. People writing for young readers might be tempted to instruct or push some kind of agenda on their readers, but that's a big mistake.
Young readers can tell when an author is trying to force them to have a meaningful experience through preaching or manipulation. They can tell when a character doesn't feel real or when a plot is contrived. Or when writing is clumsy. It's important for everyone to learn how to spot those things, actually, and how to critique books.
When I talk about reading humility, I'm not talking about turning off your critical brain. I'm talking about the way you read. Reading like someone who is there to learn means assuming at the outset that a book is valuable and searching it for that value. If, at the end of that search, you don't come up with anything, it's important to be able to figure out why. But it's that starting place, that willingness to love things, that I most admire about young readers.
My readers have helped me to end my reading drought because I love how they read. I love how they remember every detail and ask me about the characters and what will happen to them and what they meant when they said what they said on Page 45 or what I meant by making them say that horrible thing they said on Page 45.
They care about the story. The story is real for them because they're able to immerse themselves completely, and they want to tell you about all the things they like, whether it's a comic book or Ernest Hemingway or whatever lies between. The more like them I become, the more I'm able to say I'm here to learn and I want to love this book and see the value in it, the more I'm able to reclaim my love of reading and the more different kinds of books I'm able to appreciate.
This attitude of 'I'm here to learn' isn't just valuable in reading, it's essential to writing. One of my formative experiences as a writer was when I first started the writing program as an undergrad at Northwestern University.
When I read the first round of stories for workshop I realized, with the sort of horror a person always feels when they sense their impending doom, that I was about to get ripped to shreds. You see, my story was a melodramatic disaster involving cancer and infidelity and conveniently timed car crashes, so yeah, my classmates tore my story apart limb from limb. It was a word bloodbath. I went home with a giant stack of notes and burst into tears in my dormroom. I was upset for days, and then when I couldn't put it off any longer, I realized it was time to make a decision. I could stubbornly and arrogantly refuse to listen to the criticism that my talented classmates had given me or I could get over it, see the wisdom in their comments and get to work.
The remarkable thing was, somewhere in the humility of someone who has been shattered by their first round of real criticism, I found my voice. It was not the overwrought prose of a writer trying way too hard to sound poetic ... It was clear and straight forward and it was better, and it was mine. I never got so upset at workshop again, and it was because I learned that people critiquing my work had something to teach me, something I wanted to learn.
Years later, when the book reviews started flooding in, I found myself facing the same choice I had before. I could either arrogantly insist on my own superiority, dismissing my reviewers' comments as jealousy or foolishness. I could be swallowed by bitterness or I could get over it. See the wisdom in their comments and get to work. Critique is the key to improving as a writer, the only thing that will make you better. Critique helps you see your work with new eyes and shape it into what you always wanted it to be, only you weren't able to get it there on your own.
People say that writing is an isolated activity, but good writing requires company. Company that you ultimately love and cherish and value, and this perspective towards criticism, ultimate improvement requires humility. This writing humility is never more essential than when we try to capture an experience outside of our own.
A few months after my first book came out, several book bloggers in the Young Adult blog-o-sphere made me aware of something. There's a trend in Young Adult books in which a sexual assault is used as a plot device, either to illustrate just how bad an antagonist is or to heighten the suspense, which is harmful for many reasons. Chiefly, that it doesn't engage with the issue of sexual assault with care and respect. The aforementioned bloggers indicated to me that a scene in 'Divergent' participated in this trend.
For months, I tried to squirm out of the indictment of my word in my mind, offering defenses and excuses. It didn't work, though, because while we can argue all day about what's actually on the page, I know what was going on in my mind when I wrote that scene, and it was exactly what I said earlier. It was an attempt to illustrate how bad an antagonist was and to heighten suspense. From an author, who had taken ownership over another person's experience without handling it with care.
One day it became clear to me that what I needed to do was exactly what I had to do in workshop: I needed to get over my pride and fear of failure. I needed to recognize the wisdom of what I had heard, and I needed to get to work.
I couldn't change what I had written, but I could change the way I reacted to it. So, I talked about it on my blog, and it was humbling. That act of humility, painful and uninviting though it was, it was a gift. I realized that if I wanted to write a character whose experience was different than mine, humility could drive me to dilligent research, careful depiction, thoughtful revision and openness to critique. It could make me free to say, 'I'm here to learn' instead of 'I already know.' And if and when I failed I could be free to say, 'Maybe you have a point, and I can do better next time' instead of 'your critiques are not valid.'
And the thing is, when you adopt that attitude, 'I'm here to learn,' the world becomes a fascinating, beautiful place. I'm the author of the 'Divergent' series, and that means I am here to learn, specifically about knock-out mice and genetic engineering, gunshot wounds, exposure therapy, Chicago architecture, zip-lining, aquaponics and post-traumatic stress disorder -- all things I researched while writing my series.
Every writer I know is also here to learn -- about spaceships and fall-out shelters and international abduction and horitculture and language and everything. Everything else, everything that makes this world strange and rich and mysterious and ugly and beautiful. Humility in reading and in writing really means freedom, freedom to love things with unbridled enthusiasm. Freedom to critique things thoughtfully, freedom to write about topics you aren't that familiar with, freedom to admit to your mistakes and learn from them. Humility is freedom.


Via DivergentExaminer

1 comment: