Sunday, April 08, 2007

One Writer's Process: Louise Hawes

"I have never met a fine writer who wasn't an avid reader," observes Louise Hawes, the author of more than fifteen books for children, teenagers, and adults. "Never encountered a promising student who wasn't eager to find out how other authors people their fictional worlds, who didn't seek out the music and magic of words."

Hawes, who teaches both Fiction and Writing for Children in Spalding University's MFA in Writing Program and was one of the founding faculty members of Vermont College's MFA in Writing for Children program, doesn't believe that writing has to hurt. But she does believe it has to matter. "It has to matter so much that it scares you," she tells her students.

"Once you write your hurt or your fear," Hawes has discovered, "you find out who's feeling it, what your voice really sounds like. That doesn't mean you're stuck in the mire. It means you write through it, come out the other side, and live to tell the tale. Or write the book. And it can be a funny story, a wondrous, optimistic book. All because you redeemed life by facing it, feeling it, loving it. Every bit."

Hawes's reputation as a caring, sympathetic teacher is exceeded only by her reputation as an outstanding writer. Her most recent novel,
The Vanishing Point (2004 Houghton Mifflin), was a New York Public Library Best Books for the Teen Age and a Bank Street College pick. Waiting for Christopher (Candlewick Press, 2002) was listed in the Top Ten Books by Girl's Life magazine and selected as a 2003 New York Public Library Best Book for the Teen Age. And Rosey in the Present Tense (Walker and Company Books, 1999), which was nominated for the South Carolina YA Book of the Year 2002, appeared on the Children's Book Council's post-September 11 Booklist on Trauma, Tragedy, and Loss and was named a Young Adult Library Services Association Popular Paperback of 2002.

Her short fiction is included in Love and Sex: Ten Stories of Truth (Michael Cart, Editor, 2001), and will appear in the spring 2007 release, Such a Pretty Face, an anthology published by Abrams, as well as in Be Careful What You Wish, a Scholastic Book Club anthology due out this Fall. A new collection of her short fiction for adults, Anteaters Don't Dream, was published this Spring by the University of Mississippi Press.

Muti's Necklace: the Oldest Story in the World (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), her first picture book, was recently released, and will be followed shortly by a collection of dark fairy tales, The Cinderella Files: Tales Your Mother Never Told You (Houghton Mifflin, 2008).

In her spare time, she reads blogs like Wordswimmer, and was kind enough to take a moment to share her thoughts on the links between writing and reading:

Each summer, I work with a group of writers in Maine. This year, one of them told us a story about her son, who won his school's reading contest by reading over a hundred books. When he had received his award and climbed down from the stage, a less literary, more sports-minded friend reprimanded him, "Lucas, get a life."

I think this anecdote makes a perfect introduction to a discussion of reading, since, in point of fact, Lucas did get a life -- one hundred of them!

As far as hungry readers are concerned, you see, that old saw, "You only live once..." is simply not true. Most of us bibliophiles crawl into other people's skins thousands of times before we die.

How does that transform us?

For one thing, it clearly creates a shortcut to compassion and wisdom, to understanding what's essential, what endures in human experience.

The alchemy by which a particular individual's story becomes universal has always compelled me. It's a miracle, and, like most miracles, is tough to break down and analyze. But I think it has to do with our natural, in-born tendency to metaphor, to making the empathetic leap from someone else's perspective to our own.

This leap, of course, is essential to writing as well as reading. These two processes mirror and feed each other, much like breathing out and in. The writer dives into her own experience and brings back resonance and universality; the reader surfaces from her book with her own unique meanings and message.

Not all readers write -- or we word swimmers would be out of a livelihood! But all writers need to read: writing without reading is like trying to grow without food. (Or to return to my breathing analogy, like exhaling without taking a fresh breath.)

Listening only to your own voice, hearing only your own words is a small and unproductive way to inhabit the planet. Reaching out is an inner imperative -- do it, or shrivel!

So, ask yourself who are the authors who feed you? Who sets beauty or rage or wonder against the certainty of death? Who makes you glad to be alive and writing?

We each have our own list of favorites, a list that swells and changes with our condition, but constants with me have been George Eliot (for more nineteenth-century authors I love, see the Shop Talk link on my site and click "Thou Shalt Not Tell") and her non-kin namesake, T.S. (I read and need poetry as well as prose); modern favorites include Michael Cunningham and a wonderful, little-known poet who teaches at the University of Mississippi, Beth Ann Fennelly. In YA lit, I adore and crave Jackie Woodson, M.T. Anderson, and Jerry Spinelli.

And yes, I enjoy reading about writing: in addition to blogs like this one, I read craft essays by folks like Robertson Davies and Annie Dillard. (Does that woman ever write a word that fails to ooze truth and beauty?)

Do I read while I write? You bet. There are always teetering towers of books by my bed, though I usually avoid reading selections similar to the one I'm working on at the time.

And I write while I read, too. I admit to being a bold and unapologetic book-spoiler -- I write rebuttals and questions, as well as obscure word definitions, in the margins of my treasures; I deface and dog-ear, underline and stain with tears, food, and the beverage of my choice. I've shocked several of my favorite authors by bringing them much-loved, badly bruised, and densely marked-up copies to sign. And I'm always on the lookout for this sort of destructive adoration when signing my own books. It merits an extra long inscription!

In sum, the one most valuable and incontrovertible piece of advice I would give new writers, then, is to adopt young Lucas' habit of playing God; of burrowing inside other people's heads and hearts via books.

If you love it, live it.

If you write, read.

For more information about Louise Hawes and her work, as well as the two workshops that she teaches every summer, visit her website at: (Or check out her MySpace site:

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