Wednesday, November 30, 2011
The students naturally gravitate to the book on the counter, picking it up and marveling at the recipes (Green with Envy Pesto Pasta, Fightin' Fried Squirrel, Butter Cookies from Peeta's Father). But then their eyes widen as we tell them that the author is sitting at the librarian's desk, that she went to school at Prep and yes, she really did write the book. This week in the library, we've had the pleasure of working with Emily Ansara Baines, a former Flintridge Prep student (class of 2003) and author. We've enjoyed showing off her new book, The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook. And while she was here, she agreed to write a guest blog for the Very Unusual Librarians.
When I embarked upon my middle school Prep education in the fall of 1997, I had two measures for success: having a million friends, and publishing The Great American Novel. As Prep had less than a million students, and I had yet to learn the difference between effect and affect, these were lofty if not impossible goals.
Still, they were mine, and the publishing goal especially I kept close to the chest, like a warm blanket I could snuggle on those cold Californian nights when I was crying over the chromosome chapter in my AP Bio textbook or the fact that I had not been cast in my dream roll in the all-school musical. This too will pass, I told myself with each passing year, and one day I will be published.
The creative writing teacher at the time, Mrs. Leidenthal, wisely told me that if my only reason for writing was to be published I’d never become a good writer. This was sound advice, so of course I ignored it. Every short story I wrote for every class, I set aside to send off to a literary magazine. I was so cool I signed my name at the end of each submission with a purple sparkle gel pen. Of course, if I heard back at all, it was your standard rejection.
College came, and while I never found my college English classes as difficult as, say, Mr. Vaughn's Honors American Literature class, my writing improved with age. Beloved writer and mentor Aimee Bender (check out her work!) spent many hours helping me improve my craft, and while T.C. Boyle called one story of mine a great disappointment, he praised my second effort. I learned to manage rejection with much more elegance and much less bitterness than I had at Prep. As I spent hours considering the harsh reality that most of my stories would never see the light of day, I remembered how to enjoy writing for writing's sake. And then I started to get published.
This is no fairy-tale. The best things I've ever written have been rejected hundreds of times, while stories I would vomit out in the span of seconds enjoy some moderate success in often unknown online publications. The story I am still most proud of I wrote in elementary school (it was about seven cats that go shopping). Taste is fickle. People, no matter how proficient the prose, will reject you for reasons you might never understand. This fact is not just part of being a writer, it's part of life.
Indeed, while I have a cookbook out, and I am beyond thrilled and grateful for such luck, I am still far from my goal of writing and publishing the next Great American novel. I may attempt to write it, I may become distracted by other projects. Yet, I know Mrs. Leidenthal-- and all the teachers at Flintridge Prep who echoed her message-- were right. Captivating writing, perhaps even great writing, the writing you read in the books we play watch guard over here at the library, is not accomplished by some child with the singular goal of publication. It is accomplished when the author has something to say, without regard to whether one person or a million reads their words. I struggle with this constantly, I think all writers do, but this is the best piece of advice I can offer any and all the writers at Flintridge Prep. If you sit down and write that essay, that poem, that short story simply because Mr. Bachmann or Mr. Myers requires it, you're not going to write anything worth reading. But if you write even a paragraph because you have knowledge or an opinion to impart, you're on your way to a good -- if not downright interesting-- piece of prose.
Now if only that helped me on my goal of making a million friends. Current Facebook Friend Count: 674.
Emily Ansara Baines