Twilight makes me cringe. Any of my students, family, friends, strangers stuck in an elevator with me, all know how much I detest it. Not because vampires shouldn't glitter. Or sparkle. Or shimmer. Not because the same seven words are repeated so often that my mastery of the English language begins to fail me. (I say this knowing that Stephanie Meyer likely sell more copies of the dreaded text in a year than I might in my entire lifetime. I do give credit where credit is due.) I can't stand Twilight because of the message. It advises young women to obsess, to change themselves, sacrifice anything they have for the man they love. It promotes digging ourselves a lovely hole in the leafy ground and staying there until love returns or else there is nothingness. A cliff and an abyss begging us to throw ourselves in.
I study my current project and ask myself, what message am I sending forth? What do I know about life that is worth spreading and infusing my characters with who might otherwise run around the book knocking into each other like meaningless bumper cars? Love is a sticky subject to approach. Experience enhances and taints our perspectives. Career and education goals are often utterly subjective and individualized. I could talk about shoes. I've got some good ideas about shoes, but I doubt the Newbery Medal will be knocking down my door to commend me on educating today's youth about blowing out their Achilles tendons in favor of jaunty little wedges. So what's left? What can I teach?
Forget it, I tell myself. I don't need a message. I've got strong characters. They do things. Interesting things. And there are pretty or desolate landscapes thrown into the mix. My readers will stay with me for the sheer joy of reading. They don't need a message. Except some of them will ferret around and find one regardless. They'll point to the character who smokes on the pier. The girl who sleeps with someone and regrets it, except they may not see the regret. They see the girl who is liked by a boy for a brilliant shining moment. And before I can race around and FIND that girl, hit her over the head with my book and say it is fiction and don't you dare use it as a role model for your life, the damage is done. A message has scuttled its way out there. And I am responsible.
I believe that writers (successful or no) carry with them an unbelievable responsibility. It is their jobs to study what they write, find the kernels of truth that occupy even the silliest pieces, and make sure they are intended or at least palatable. I often write and make the message so obvious it is bigger than the characters surrounding it. Or I forget altogether that the messages are lurking and create lascivious characters who ought to watch themselves more carefully. What a responsibility but what a thrill to decide what in our lives is worthwhile, valuable to share, and toss it into the wind, reaching maybe a few. Maybe many.
What a privilege it is to be a writer.