By Mark Alpert
Why do you write? Because it’s fun? Because it sharpens your mind? Because it helps you organize your thoughts? Because it allows you to remember events and emotions you’d otherwise forget?
Or do you write because you like to share your thoughts? Because you want to impress or provoke or entertain your readers? Because you love to see and hear their reactions to your writing, especially if they’re positive?
The reasons listed in the first paragraph are strictly about the writer. They’re valid even if no one else reads what you write. Those are the reasons why I started writing journal entries in my school notebooks when I was sixteen. I was having so many intense teenage emotions and insights, but I knew they’d fade from my memory in a month or a year, and that really bothered me. What’s the point of living if you’re going to forget 99 percent of everything you’ve experienced? So I decided to start writing things down.
In contrast, the reasons in the second paragraph don’t make any sense unless at least one person reads what you’re writing. And some of those reasons become more compelling when you have a sizable number of readers. That’s not the case if you’re writing a love letter, of course — then you care about only one person’s reaction — but if you’re writing a short story or novel you may start to long for a larger audience. Now, is it really ten times more gratifying to entertain a thousand people than it is to entertain a hundred? I’m not sure that’s true. Nevertheless, the success of writers is generally measured by their BookScan numbers and royalty statements.
I suspect that most writers have both kinds of motivations: reasons for writing and reasons for publishing what they write. I divide them into two categories only to make it clear that our happiness doesn’t have to be dependent on the whims of readers. The effort to attract big audiences can be cheerless and exhausting. Self-published authors yearn for more Kindle downloads, midlist authors dream of seeing their names on the bestseller list, and bestselling authors struggle to stay on top. Better to be satisfied by a job well done, even if it doesn’t bring in boatloads of money. Or, as Rick Nelson famously sang, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.”
What makes writers happy? Last month I discovered a new source of satisfaction when I participated in the Adopt-a-School program organized by the Association of American Publishers. Nearly fifty schools in New York City invited local writers and illustrators to meet students and answer questions and talk about books. I’ve written a couple of Young Adult novels — The Six came out last summer, and The Siege will be published in July — and the subject matter of those books determined which school I would visit. My YA thrillers are about terminally ill teenagers who give up their bodies to become robots, and the main character is a teen named Adam who starts the series as a wheelchair-bound kid with muscular dystrophy. So the organizers of the Adopt-a-School program paired me with a special-education school, the John F. Kennedy Jr. School in Queens. The students there are high-school age and have a broad range of disabilities, including autism and severe cognitive challenges.
I didn’t know what to expect, but I had a feeling that the teens would enjoy watching videos of robots in action. What kid doesn’t like robots? And the Internet has lots of cool videos of two-legged humanoid robots such as Atlas and four-legged animal-like robots such as BigDog and Cheetah. So I put the videos on a flash drive and took the subway out to Queens.
I have to admit, I was a little nervous. It’s an automatic reaction, dating from my kindergarten days — walking into any school for the first time makes me nervous. But once I stepped into the school library on the third floor, the librarian made me feel right at home. She showed me the flyer she’d printed up for the occasion — I was going to speak to three classes in all — as well as a table loaded with cupcakes and other refreshments. She said she’d spent several days preparing the students for the event, getting them to think in advance of questions to ask me, and when they filed into the room I could tell they were super-excited. And I was excited too! (See photo above.) When the videos started playing on the big screen on the wall, I improvised a running patter of enthusiastic commentary: “Now look at what the robot is doing! It’s balancing on one of its footpads! And now the researchers are going to hit it with a twenty-pound weight! Boom! But the robot doesn’t tip over, see? It raises its arm and keeps its balance! It’s programmed to keep its balance the same way a person would do it!”
The students were delightful. I’ve read stories on the Web written by the parents of kids with autism and other disabilities, and when they’re writing about raising their children they often say something like “It’s an incredibly difficult challenge, but it’s also a joy.” But I never really understood the joyful part until I saw those kids in the school library. There was no sarcasm in the room, no mockery. In an ordinary high-school classroom, the teens would’ve rolled their eyes and snickered as I narrated the robot video. But the kids at JFK Jr. beamed and laughed and happily shared my enthusiasm.
And after the videos were over, the kids asked some fantastic questions: “Do robots have feelings?” “Do robots have boyfriends and girlfriends?” (That question got everyone giggling.) “Are you on television?” (“No,” I admitted, “but I have a website,” and I showed them the Web page with my author photo on it. The kids seemed confused as they looked at it — my author photo makes me look a hundred times better than I really do. Then one of the kids said, “That’s you?”)
At the end of the session, the kids formed a line and I signed copies of The Six for them. (See photos below.) I asked each teen to spell his or her name for the dedication, and they proudly did so. (That was something else they’d practiced beforehand.) I worried that some of them wouldn’t be able to enjoy the novel because it was probably beyond their reading level, but I don’t think any of the kids were worried. They were just so happy and proud to meet a real author and get a signed book as a memento.
And I got just as much pleasure from the experience as they did. Writing can make you happy in all sorts of unexpected ways.