02 May 2016

Encouraging young writers… or leading them astray? What one fan letter revealed about the pressures teens face to choose more “realistic” careers.

I received the most heartwarming fan letter recently via email from a 14-year-old Swedish girl. It always makes my day to learn that my book is finding love out there in the world, that it is being read and enjoyed. In this case, however, my book had done more than that. It had inspired a teenager to pursue her dream of writing, a dream that had been squashed by what she described as the pressure to pursue a more “realistic” career. Before I comment further, here’s the letter, reprinted with her permission:

Hi, Sharon.
I don't really know why I started to type this email, I somehow felt the need to.

I am a fourteen year old Swedish girl. Despite my young age, almost everyone around me is stressing me out about my future, telling me what I shouldn't do, what I should do and which jobs I shouldn't pick. In Sweden, you have to apply to 'high schools' when you're sixteen, and if you get bad grades you won't get in to a good high school and choose the major that you want to study, maybe you won't even get in at all. All of this stressing has made me forget what I love the most and what I truly want to do; write. My family and friends tell me that I should choose something more realistic, a goal I can reach. It made me confused about what I wanted to do. It made me stop caring about planning for my future and start feeling down every time someone said the word 'future'. It made me forget my love for books and made me cringe every time I saw them, knowing my future wouldn't consist of making them. Made me feel stupid when saying the sentence:

I want to be a writer.

But when I stumbled across your book, I immediately fell in love with it. I loved everything about it, and I could see so much of me in Ivy, and not to talk about how much Reesa reminded me of my best friend.

Your book reminded me of what I love the most about books, and why I wanted to be a writer in the first place. I finished your book in two days, and when I got to the last page, I cried because I couldn't read your book for the first time again. It might seem silly, but thank you, really. 

The day after I read your book, I picked up my my laptop and started writing on a novel I started last year, my fingers were literally running across the keyboard! That hasn't happened to me in months! I'm writing this email to thank you, thank you for writing my new favourite book. 

– Alexandra N.

The letter came on a day when I was struggling to write a new, final chapter for my upcoming novel, HOW TO DISAPPEAR. A deadline loomed, and I was not sure I could pull it off. Alexandra’s letter inspired ME. I replied to tell her so, and encouraged her to keep writing. I let her know that I hoped she would never again feel stupid saying, “I want to be a writer.” In fact, I told her to say, “I AM a writer,” instead! She is writing, after all. She’s a writer!

Alexandra replied, even more excited and sure of her decision to pursue her writing. 

And then, I started to worry. Who was I to contradict the advice of her parents, family and friends? I know nothing of the education system in Sweden, or what might assure a bright future for her in that country. Was I leading Alexandra astray? As the mother of a 16-year-old son, I know firsthand the worry parents experience when contemplating their children’s future and ability to make a living. We lose sleep over how best to guide them in the right direction or let them find their own way. I also know that earning a livable wage as an author is, well, nearly impossible. Most of us have other jobs, or other sources of income. A small percentage earn enough to quit their day job.

But I didn’t want to discourage a 14-year-old from pursuing her dream of becoming a writer! I hate that kids must narrow their focus to a specific career path at such an early age. Why can't there be more flexibility and exploration in education? More “sure!” and “why not?” instead of only “should” and “should not.” 

In my email exchange with Alexandra, I noted that a career as an author is difficult. I told her that, no matter what field of study she ultimately pursues, she can ALWAYS write. (How many of us started our first novels while working as lawyers, doctors, teachers, librarians… and continue to work those jobs while writing 2nd, 3rd and 4th novels?) I encouraged her to keep writing, to persevere. Because age 14 is way too soon to give up on your dreams. 

Any age is too soon to give up on your dreams!

I am so honored that Alexandra read and enjoyed Between the Notes, that it reminded her of why she loves books, and inspired her to start writing again. Receiving Alexandra's letter was a wonderful reminder to me that a book's success cannot be measured in sales alone. While I'd love to reach more readers, knowing I reached Alexandra is enough to keep me writing. I very much hope that she keeps writing, too!