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News & Features » February 2014 » “Why We Write” by C.J. Farley

“Why We Write” by C.J. Farley

To celebrate the launch of Black Sheep, our imprint dedicated to young readers, we invited C.J. Farley, author of the middle-grade novel Game World, to tell us about his experience at the African American Children’s Book Fair, and about how one interaction with a young reader inspired him to think about why he writes.

Why We Write
by C.J. Farley

GameWorld_CurrentOn the first day of Black History Month, I attended the 22nd Annual African American Children’s Book Fair in Philadelphia to promote Game World, my new fantasy novel for kids.

Even before the doors opened to the event, which was held in the athletic center of the Community College of Philadelphia, there was a line of people Nile River–long waiting to flood in. It was a bright-cool day, it was Super Bowl weekend, and it was immensely heartening to see that hundreds of grade-school kids, college students, parents, and grandparents had chosen to spend the afternoon in the company of writers, instead of in the company of the companies sponsoring and profiting from the biggest football game of the year.

When the crowds spilled in, I went to work signing books. One boy—eleven-ish years old with a nerdy but athletic air that reminded me of myself at that age—asked me to personalize his copy of Game World. A few hours later, he came back.

“Why do you write?” he asked.

“You mean why did I write this book?” I started to give him my practiced answer—I wrote the book because I loved The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter, but those books drew on the myths of Old Europe, and I wanted to write a book that tapped into the legends of the New World, specifically Jamaica. I told him I had a son around his age who loved basketball and video games but didn’t pick up books as often as he maybe should, and I wrote Game World to give him and other would-be readers something they would enjoy reading. I considered running through statistics that show that only about three percent of the protagonists in children’s books are African American, and I started to talk about the importance of making ourselves the heroes of our own stories . . .

“No, not why you wrote your book,” the boy said. “Why do you write?”

He was asking a deeper question, and I was giving him a series of shallow answers that skimmed the surface like a stone skipping across a pond.

I told him I wrote because there were stories to tell that weren’t being told.

He seemed satisfied with that answer and wandered away.

I signed a few more books for a few more kids. I thought about some of the writers—like sci-fi pioneer Isaac Asimov, and fantasy author Stephen R. Donaldson, and poet Gwendolyn Brooks—who had visited my hometown of Brockport, NY when I was growing up and had spoken at the state university there where my parents worked as professors. I still remember Brooks stopping by my house after a campus reception when I was just a kid, and I ran upstairs and found her entry in our encyclopedia—we still had those back in my pre-Internet childhood—and she signed it right beneath her photo. It meant a lot to me to know that writers could make it into the encyclopedia, and they could also walk into your home, and that they were real—and that meant if you dreamed of being a writer, that dream could be real.

I decided there was more to tell this boy at the book fair in Philadelphia.

I left my booth to look for him, but the fair was winding down, the crowds were thinning, and he was already gone. I shook hands with some of the other authors; Malcolm X’s daughter, who had been signing books a slot down from me, came over to take a photo; and I went to my car and began the trip back to my home in Westchester.

Why do I write?

I thought about what Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet: “This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

But I didn’t want to quote Rilke to this kid, in part because I quote Rilke too much, but also because telling a kid to just follow his inner voice and become a writer when he’ll maybe be facing huge college loans and a tough job market is poetic, but not as practical and possibly inspirational as I wanted to be. Trusting an inner voice isn’t enough. My inner voice tells me virtually every night to go get a carrot cake muffin from Starbucks, but I don’t think even Rilke would advise that I follow it.

I wanted to tell the boy that I write because I have stories to tell that I think people need to read. I write because nobody will tell my story the way I will tell my story. I write because my parents were writers and thinkers and college professors. I write because Thomas Jefferson wrote that Phillis Wheatley couldn’t be a real poet because she was black and that none of us could be real writers and thinkers and human beings—and that’s from the guy that wrote the Declaration of Independence. I wanted to tell the boy that you can make a lot of money from writing, but you’re more likely to earn a lot of heartbreak—but sometimes that can be more valuable. I wanted to tell the boy that I write because women think writers are cool and even whey they don’t that gives you something else to write about.

I wanted to tell the boy that I write because it is fun and because it is painful, because it is something I sometimes do poorly and something I often do well but it is always something I could not do without. You don’t need a reason to write any more than you need a reason to breathe. Writing doesn’t need a why. Writing is why. I wanted to tell the boy that I write because it is right. Writing makes life possible.

But the boy was already gone.

Maybe someday I’ll read something he wrote.

***

ChristopherJohnFarley

C.J. FARLEY was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and grew up in Brockport, NY, with stops in Middle-earth, Xanth, Earthsea, and Narnia. Farley’s biography Aaliyah: More Than a Woman was a national best seller. A former editor of the Harvard Lampoon and a former music critic for Time, Farley is a blogger, columnist and senior editor at the Wall Street Journal. Game World is Farley’s first novel for young readers.

Posted: Feb 4, 2014

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