Continuing our coverage leading up to the Rosemont Writers’ Retreat, we sat down with Elizabeth Mosier to get a better sense of what shapes her as an author.
These days, ghostwriters pop out fantasy-young-adult-teen-paranormal-romances a dime a dozen—but Elizabeth Mosier’s approach to writing for the young adult is drastically different: she doesn’t follow trends, she writes for her teenage self. Elizabeth has been a teacher to all ages, and has written in magazines, shorts stories, and a novel. Philadelphia Stories wanted to know more about writing for the young adult, which she will instruct at the Rosemont Writer’s Retreat, and the authors and stories that she recommends to aspiring writers.
You have taught from the elementary level to the adult and collegiate levels. Do you still find yourself learning from your students?
A fairy typical teaching week for me this semester included teaching third graders to fracture fairy tales, guiding seventh graders to structure a personal narrative, and teaching college students to write for children. My work with young readers certainly informs my syllabus in college courses like Writing for Children, but the most important lesson I learn from little kids is that making up stories is supposed to be fun. Kids are eager to play and experiment; teenagers (who are newly self-conscious) and college students (concerned about their grades and their futures) and published writers (no longer immune to marketing) understandably less so. I try to import some of that elementary school energy and playfulness into all my classrooms, including the home office where I spent this long, gray winter revising a novel with a complicated plot.
In many bookstores these days, there are shelves upon shelves of the same “young adult” genre stories. How do you keep your writing fresh and different?
I don’t follow trends, but instead write the books I wanted to read back then. What troubled me as a teenager? What did I wish for? What did I know, and what did I still need to figure out? The challenge, when writing for young adults, is to impart your hard-won wisdom without preaching (teens won’t read your work if they smell a lesson coming). To preserve a sense of immediacy, you have to recount what you learned as though you’re going through the experience with them, for the first time.
What authors influenced your writing? What writers do you recommend to aspiring writers or avid readers?
I read constantly—for pleasure, as part of my profession—but the books that influenced my writing for adults and young adults were the books I read before I entered high school. I learned what a simile is from a picture book called I Can Fly by Ruth Krauss (illustrated by Mary Blair); another picture book by Joan Walsh Anglund (Nibble Nibble Mousekin, a version of the Hansel and Gretel tale) taught me what irony is with its revealing illustrations that contradicted the text on the page. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White taught me that the right word can save someone’s life. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain introduced me to characters so real they seemed to live outside the books’ covers. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith taught me about complex characterization—Francie’s lovable father, Johnny Nolan, is also the book’s villain. Lord of the Flies by William Golding, while not considered a YA novel, is the book that reminds me, when I write for young adults, not to condescend to my reader about the difficult passage of adolescence. Though I would recommend any of these books, I encourage my students to develop a personal syllabus of books they loved or hated or wanted to live in or revise. As Richard Peck so wisely said, “We write by the light of every story we ever read.”
What do you do to overcome writer’s block? Do you have any rituals or exercises to help yourself when words will not come?
I’ve been writing for long enough now to distinguish between writer’s block and a delay in processing—which is more like that colored wheel that spins on your Mac than a full-blown hard-drive crash. Often, I’m not able to make progress on the work up on my screen because I’m working something out in my head. On those days, I keep my butt in the chair, but open a new screen and set my mind to another task (like editing) or a project (an essay if I’m working on fiction). Or sometimes I just make chocolate chip cookies, to feel again the satisfaction of finishing something made from scratch!
You’ve published in a variety of publications, ranging from your novel, “My Life as a Girl,” published by Random House, to short stories and essays in magazines like Seventeen. Do you think it is important for a writer to get exposure to all types of writing— not just one specific medium or genre?
Though every writer seeks to develop a distinctive style, and most writers settle into a preferred form, expressing yourself in different ways teaches you what’s possible—and what seemed impossible but actually isn’t. Writing short pieces for The Philadelphia Inquirer teaches me to condense, and writing novels teaches me to be patient. I recently published an essay on memory and archaeology and my mother’s Alzheimer’s (in issue 47 of the journal Creative Nonfiction) that began as a short story. When I’d completed the fictional draft, I realized that only one detail was made up—and that place where I’d departed from the truth informed my revision. What did that detail tell me about what I wanted, and what would stand in my way of getting it? Therein lay the real conflict, which I wrote the nonfiction essay to resolve.
Elizabeth Mosier will be teaching “Writing for the Young Adult Audience” at the weeklong Rosemont Writers Retreat on June 24-28.
Meet Elizabeth Mosier on Monday, June 24, 2013 at the free noontime Writers and Readers Series, which will feature in-depth conversations about craft led by Rosemont MFA program director, Carla Spataro.