At 75, I almost (almost) don’t care what people think about me or my work. The work is out there and readers have every right to like it or not. They can think it is life-changing or a load of codswallop. Once the piece is out there, it no longer belongs to me but to them. (I am quick to add: in the deeper sense, not the copyright sense.)
But here’s the warning part: My job is not to write what the reader wants, but what I want. What the story (or poem) wants. I have to tell the truth on the slant (as Emily Dickinson said) as I see it, as the story comes to and through me. That’s all I owe anyone, all I owe myself–to tell Truth on the slant.
What I have problems with more and more are people who–because they love my work–think they somehow own me. That they truly know me.
They don’t. They only know the work.
And when they meet me online or at a conference and if they get to talk to me without my Jane Yolen headdress on, they always say things like,
“Oh–I didn’t know you were so funny/silly/anarchic/endearing/profane/ boring” whatever. Because they don’t know me, you see, only the work.
The thing readers like that forget is that I can revise the work over and over. I listen to the characters. So—yes, the story pulls through me and some of me (sometimes a lot of me) scrapes off. But then I revise it to make it fit the story.
So that’s not really me. It’s the work. Don’t confuse the two.
Years ago, I received a piece of fan mail from an adult, (it was clearly not a child) who loved my picture book Rainbow Rider. This was in the ‘70s, so put this into context. The letter spoke of how we were soul mates and how he wanted to meet me to share lives. To tell the truth, it was a very scary little piece of mail. I wrote back that Rainbow Rider was a made-up story, ,that I wrote a lot of stories—some as mythic as that one and others as profane as a piece of soap. He wrote back and said I was an awful person, a liar, and he would never read anything I wrote again.
He missed the point. All storytellers are liars. We make up things to get at the truth. The truth of the story and—if we are lucky and have revised well—the truth of the world as well.
On the slant.