Veronica Wolff on Writing (or: A Pep Talk in List Form)

Veronica Wolff thinks you can be a writer. And she should know—her newest book, Isle of Night (which you can begin on Figment here), hit shelves September 6. It’s about a lonely, depressed girl who gets a shot at a new life as a vampire’s assistant—unless, of course, she dies trying. Here, Wolff offers words of encouragement and inspiration for those of you aspiring writers who despair that you’ll NEVER get out of high school alive.

Forgive me for making assumptions, but if you’re here, I figure it’s because:

  1. You’re a teenager.
  2. You want to be a writer.

If you’re anything like I was, I can further extrapolate these two possibilities:

  1. You wish you’d get past this whole teenager thing already.
  2. You fear that, while everyone else and their weird step-cousin could become a writer, you might be the only person in the world who really couldn’t.

Going further (because we’ve just gotten know each other so well over these past few minutes), I posit that one of the following is also true:

A.  High school is hell.
B. High school is awesome, and it’s just that some of the people around you are hell.
C. (and my apologies if this is the case): Both of the above—it’s all hell.
Or maybe even
D. None of the above (in which case, and I say this without irony, Go you!)

Well, I’m here to tell you three things:

  1. You absolutely can be a writer.
  2. Some of these years are, in fact, hell.
  3. Hell makes good writing.

Let’s start with the You Can Be a Writer part. Learn from me. I never thought I could be a writer. For years, it didn’t cross my mind as even a remote possibility. Granted, I loved writing—I wrote the longest, the most frequent letters. Diary entries. Anguished haiku. You name it. And I loved reading, too. When I wasn’t writing, I was reading. Adolescent me would have loved to think I’d leave home someday to become a writer.

But I didn’t think that at the time. At the time, in my world, writers were Other People. Kind of like how I imagined…sculptors. Or trapeze artists. Or Famous Film Directors. “Authors” were some foreign creature borne of a rare species other than my family. Because people like the people in my family did industrious things. Things involving briefcases and pantyhose. Things like my grandparents did. They did things like cut fabric in a factory. Worked on a computer assembly line. Lived onboard a military ship. Things requiring skill and diligence.

Pursuing dreams of writing was for other people.

Well, I’m telling you that it’s not. Pursuing dreams of writing is for people exactly like you. Unfortunately, it took me years to realize this, and it was only because I despised my job and was desperate to daydream about some other world that I first put pen to paper. And sure, unless you have oodles of money, at first you’ll have to work at something else, too. Maybe for years. Maybe even decades. To, you know, do crazy stuff like house and feed yourself. I worked during the day and wrote at night for ages. Very many of my published author friends still do. I know people who’d written a dozen books before getting their first one published. They kept their heads down, and worked hard, and knew they could be a writer. They were able to do it and continue to do it because they believed in themselves.

Okay. Onto my next point. Remember I had another couple of those? The next one was: some of these years are hell.

Holy crap, was high school hell for me. And it was awesome too. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” to quote that Dickens guy. I had the best friends ever. Followed by the worst betrayals. The nicest boyfriends. Punctuated by the worst, most horrifyingly cringe-worthy dates EVER.

And that slides me immediately into the last point: Hell makes good writing. Every single one of my cringiest moments (and believe me, they are legion), they’re in me, right now, ready in the toolbox in my head, just waiting for their moment in the sun.

If you read my latest book, Isle of Night, you can find them all over the place. They are as benign as the damned fitness tests they made us take in high school. And they’re as hostile as the meanest mean girl. (I can still vividly remember my first encounter with a stereotypical mean girl, which also happened to be the first time I was given the finger: seventh grade, I was the new kid, a mid-year transfer no less, instantly tormented for my unibrow and the dark fuzz on my upper lip—and, to top it off, I was a total innocent, having moved from a tiny parochial school that’d served an old southern Navy base to a much bigger school outside Orlando—when the school’s Popular Girl rendered me socially meaningless by giving me the old pointed-look-while-scratching-herself-with-her-middle-finger-in-front-of-her-giggling-friends thing. (Clever, right? Some things never change.)

Don’t worry, all this rambling is coming to a point, and that is: all of these things are OKAY. Ridicule, loneliness, and the middle fingers of mean girls. Even the unibrow. It all passes. And in the grand scheme of things, these slights aren’t all bad. Embrace them. Think of them as fine wine—savor the insults, remember the taunts. Write it all down. How they made you feel, what you wanted to do with the anger and the angst. What the bravest you would have said. Or the saddest you. Or the sassiest.

Because I’m here, telling you now, that if you want it badly enough and work hard enough, then someday you will be writing your own young-adult novel, and maybe that craptastic thing that happened to you just last week? There’s your chapter one right there.


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