Jandy Nelson: The Best Writing (and Life) Advice I Ever Got

Jandy Nelson: The Best Writing (and Life) Advice I Ever Got

The first work I sent to Deb contained some picture books I’d labored over and a short autobiography. She wrote back very excited about “my voice” but not in the picture books I’d sent her. She wrote: “In (the autobiography) you are unselfconscious, present, you are you, and that is the voice that will bring you into the world of children’s literature.”

I was shocked. I’d shot off the autobiography in less than an hour, had hardly thought about it. How could that inconsequential piece of writing contain my voice? I went back and reread it. And then I saw it, saw something that wasn’t so much in the other writing — I saw me. I was all over those pages: what I loved, what made me laugh, what made me despair, what made me tick. The rhythm and diction and syntax and cadences all matched the way I spoke. Writing it had felt as natural to me as talking to a good friend or singing in the shower when no one’s home.

It was a lightning strike moment. The one when I realized I could and would write a novel because what Deb was saying was this: All you have to do is be yourself, but on the page. And can’t we all do that?

The next day I started writing The Sky Is Everywhere.

Now, after writing two novels, I believe this more than ever, believe the only way to unlock the hearts and minds of your characters, to unlock their inner and outer worlds is by unlocking your own. Ray Bradbury describes it beautifully. He says: “I finally figured out that if you are going to step on a live mine, make it your own. Be blown up, as it were, by your own delights and despairs.” And Guillermo in my second novel I’ll Give You the Sun essentially says the same thing to Jude when he tells her that he can’t find her anywhere in her artwork.

I think this is not only sage writing advice, but also some pretty good living advice. As Oscar Wilde says: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”