We all want someone to talk to, who understands us, and maybe that’s why generations of writers, readers and searching souls have responded so strongly to Rainer-Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. We’ve asked some of the brightest stars today to either answer questions drawn from the text or write a letter to their teenage selves. Today, we have Sara Ryan, who has a kind of dream life: she writes award-winning books and comics for teens, such as Empress of the World and Me and Edith Head, and works as a librarian in Portland. Not sure how cool that is? Watch the trailer for Fred Armisen’s new show, Portlandia. It explains so much. Here are Sara’s answers to some eternal questions.
Why must you write? What would you do if you weren’t a writer? (Or, what was the best job you had before becoming an author?)
Even if I’m between projects, I see the world through a writer’s lens, analyzing my experiences for future use. This past summer, traveling alone, late at night, I fell and hurt myself. I was upset and in pain, but I was also thinking Right, when people are tired they’re more prone to injury. And fatigue escalates emotions. So in that scene when X loses it, he should also hurt himself. I iced my sprained finger, then started making notes.
So I can’t imagine not writing. That said, like many writers, I have a day job, and it is a fabulous one: I work as a librarian.
What two books do you find indispensable? Who has given you the greatest experience of the essence of creativity, its depths and eternity?
I go back over and over to the Love and Rockets stories by Jaime Hernandez. There are two massive collections, Locas and Locas II, and he’s still creating them in Love and Rockets: New Stories. Gorgeous, funny, sad, haunting, with characters who will colonize your soul. And if you want to tell stories via sequential art (aka comics), you can learn so much. I admire his brother Gilbert/Beto’s work as well, but Jaime’s stories gut-punch me with greater force.
And this will mark me forever as a massive geek, but I am already thus marked so it’s okay: one of the strongest examples I’ve encountered of what the creative process actually feels like, both the giddy delight when the elements are coming together and the despair when you just can’t make it work, is in The Writer’s Tale: the Final Chapter by Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook. On the surface it’s about how Davies helped rehabilitate the Dr. Who franchise, and that’s interesting in itself, but it’s fundamentally about story. I read it before I’d watched any of the TV shows, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
If you could not send a reader all of your books, which one would you recommend first?
I’d recommend — only slightly out of an essentially contrary streak — my second book, The Rules for Hearts. A messy, complicated summer between high school and college. Figuring out who you are in a new place. Shakespeare. Secrets. Lies. Bohemian group house in Portland, Oregon. It’s a companion to my first book, Empress of the World, but it stands on its own.
Which question did you once have, that you love most in retrospect (and have since answered or not answered)?
I don’t know that I love the questions I’ve answered because they were largely self-pitying, like WILL ANYONE EVER CARE and WILL I EVER BE PUBLISHED, which are sort of versions of the same thing. I think the questions that I haven’t answered are part of why I write — to try to find answers.
Where is the place in which you most love to write?
It’s a tie between my Official Writing Desk, in a tiny corner of the living room, and any number of settings on writing dates with friends.
What is the value of solitude to a writer?
What advice would you give to a young person, or your younger self, about love?
Write about it. Write when you’re in love, write when you’re falling out of it, write when you feel like you’re trying to get gum out of your hair without cutting it off.
What is the value of sadness to a writer?
Also vast. But the trick is to both feel it and feel yourself feeling it — I don’t mean wallow, I mean analyze the sadness and think about how you would convey it in writing. With sadness and other emotions, be your own experimental subject. Note your symptoms and what affects them.
What book, story or poem brought you greatest comfort as a teen?
The complete works of Dorothy Parker. I loved her well-known poems (such as: Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song/A medley of extemporanea/And love is a thing that can never go wrong/And I am Marie of Roumania) but also her short stories and theater reviews, the wit with sadness underneath. My dad collected all the Algonquin Round Table authors, and I loved reading authors who knew each other, so I read not just Parker but James Thurber, Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, E.B. White. I still love communities of authors; now I mostly find them online.
In closing, what single best piece of advice would you give to a hopeful young writer, in a sentence?
Keep on keeping on.
You can find Sara Ryan on her website and on Twitter @ryansara