A Writer’s Roots: Part 1

“Who am I? Why am I here?”
James Stockdale

In an attempt to introduce himself to the nation, James Stockdale, the vice-presidential running mate of Ross Perot, spoke the above words at the beginning of his first 1992 vice-presidential debate. I have thought of them frequently over the past six weeks. They came at me from what would seem to be opposite directions: D’Vorah Lansky’s Book Marketing Challenge and the Tallgrass Writing Workshop.

The Book Marketing Challenge took place during the month of May and the first week of June. As might be expected, many articles and teleseminars focused on an author’s brand. I struggled with idea of brand throughout the month. Branding for a nonfiction author seemed easy: they had expertise in a particular field, whether it be politics, relationships, advertising, or any of the other thousands of possible areas of knowledge. When we think of Jack Canfield, the Chicken Soup series comes to mind. His brand has to do with inspiration and success.

For some fiction authors, branding is not a problem. Some write young adult fantasy. Some write end-of-the-world catastrophes. Some write romance and narrow their brand by setting their novels in a particular historical period. Mystery writers can brand themselves with a series character, a private detective, police chief, or amateur sleuth.

But what about me? All through the month of May, I tried to figure out what my brand could be. My stories are set in Kansas, but that is an accident of birth and a desire to avoid research. The time periods of my novels run from the 1970s to the current time. Again, I write in the decade I live to reduce time spent looking things up. There is some suspense in each novel, but I can’t do what was asked and imagine what category shelf a bookstore owner would put them on. The only book that has a clear genre is my fourth novel, The Survivalist’s Daughter. I happily categorize it as young adult, which gives it shelf space, but one novel does not make a brand.

Then I attended the Tallgrass Writing Workshop the first weekend in June and gained a new perspective on the question from two speakers: children’s author Myron Uhlberg and poet William Sheldon.

Myron Uhlberg told of how being the hearing child of deaf parents was the beginning of his storytelling experience. He had to sign his interpretation of what others said to his parents and what they wanted to say in response. Sometimes, he adjusted those messages to favor him. For example, he was the interpreter at his first parent-teacher conference and what he told his parents wasn’t exactly what the teacher said. As he spoke, I started reflecting on my childhood and what part of it prepared me to be a writer.

Poet William Sheldon talked about the influence of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens on his early poems and the path to finding his own voice. He ended with an appeal to writers to find our own voices–a way of expressing our view of the world in our own unique manner.

The message I took away from Uhlberg and Sheldon was that our voices grow out of who we are and our reasons for writing. If we can just get back to our roots, we might discover who we are, why we are writers, and what our particular brand should be.

Come back next week for Part 2 of A Writer’s Roots. I’ll be examining my own roots and searching for that elusive brand. In the meantime, what are your roots? Why do you write? Please leave a comment.

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