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How to Build a Career by Writing Books for All Ages
Written by
She Writes
December 2019
Written by
She Writes
December 2019

Today's guest post was written by Alison McGhee, the author of The Opposite of Fate (February 18, 2020).

As the author of books for all ages – from novels to picture books to poems – I’m sometimes asked how it’s possible. "Isn’t it hard to go from writing a novel for adults to writing a picture book for little kids?" Strangely, it’s not hard. Picture a bank of telephone operators in an old movie, all those beautifully dressed women in their high heels, plugging cords into one circuit after another, saying something like, “Welcome to the Acme Corporation, how may I direct your call?” and then letting the caller take it from there.

That’s what it feels like to be a writer of books for all ages. I’m a one-woman bank of old-time telephone operators, plugging into all the ages and times I’ve ever lived through. When you think about it, isn’t this the way we live our lives? Time looks linear on the outside – we’re born, we’re children, young adults, middle-aged, elderly – but on the inside, it’s anything but.

If I asked you, "Tell me about a powerful person from your childhood," you’d instantly picture someone in your mind. You’d be able to tell me all about that person and their effect on you.

If I asked you, "Tell me about a time when you, as a child, witnessed the vulnerability of an adult," you’d be right back in that moment. Maybe you were at your grandfather’s funeral, standing next to your father as he wept, the only time you’d ever seen your dad cry.

You’re not a child anymore, but those memories, those experiences, still live inside you. They wove themselves into the fabric of your being and helped shape the adult you became. One of the magic acts of adulthood is that you can look back on your childhood – on the sometimes mysterious and puzzling acts of the grownups in your life – and see those moments through a different lens. Instead of being the child standing next to your dad as he wept for his lost father, you can put yourself in your father’s place. You can feel your own once-small hand in his, sense how he struggled to be strong, to contain his oceanic grief in the face of you, his child, so as not to terrify you.

That push-me-pull-you of the child you were and the adult you grew into is the foundation of how to write books that both children and adults love. The holy grail of picture books is one that children want to hear over and over and that adults don’t mind reading over and over. So I try to write from a moment that both a child and an adult will always remember, a moment that deepens and burnishes as life goes on. Take my picture book Tell Me a Tattoo Story, for example, about a child who asks his father, night after night, to tell him the story behind each of his many tattoos. Both child and adult readers will take different, but equally meaningful, impressions from the stories.

Many of my novels for adults do the same thing, but in reverse. I often dip back into an adult narrator’s childhood in a novel, flashbacks that illuminate why a present moment in their adult life is so significant. To do this, I sometimes close my eyes and concentrate, feeling my way into the adult narrator’s mind and heart as a young person. Doing so is another sort of magic act, one in which the past informs the present, and an adult character can be seen as vulnerable, or hilarious, or filled with wonder, just like the child they once were.

I’ve been described as a poet who writes novels, and that’s probably true. Words are like musical notes to me, and many picture books are written with rhythmic, swingy language, words and phrases that pop and crackle or repeat and rearrange. Children love language that intoxicates, but guess what? So do adults. In every book I write, no matter who it’s for, I strive for poetic, precise language because that is the kind of writing I most love.

What kind of writing do you most love? When you figure it out, make the most of what you love in every book you write. I love being that mental telephone operator, plugging into all the ages I ever was, drawing from all life’s experiences of wonder and confusion and love and sorrow and amazement. I wish you the same joy.

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