Even S. E. Hinton Gets Writer’s Block

Even though I don’t live in NYC, I recently discovered that a great lineup of authors make a stop in the nearby Princeton area before traveling up to the city. Last Tuesday, I checked out the list of authors events at the Princeton Barnes and Noble just in time to find out that S. E. Hinton, author of The Outsiders and That Was Then . . . This Is Now, among other popular young adult books, was making an appearance that night!

Before you ask, she is not writing a sequel to The Outsiders. A lot of people hinted, asked, and even pleaded that she answer their burning questions by writing a sequel, but she was very clear: no and never. In fact, she said that after her career of young adult books and even a few children’s picture books, she’s thinking about writing her next book for adults. “Adults are the characters I’m most interested in now,” she said, with a shrug.

My favorite thing that S. E. Hinton shared with the crowd was about how she has struggled with writer’s block in the past. “A lot of people say writer’s block doesn’t exist. But it does.” She wrote The Outsiders when she was a junior in high school (I know. Pause, gasp, reread that sentence, feel the flinch of incompetence, move on) and had it published as a freshman in college. It was such a huge success–it won gobs of awards and was a bestseller (it impacted our culture so much. Even if you haven’t read it, you know the names “Ponyboy” and “Sodapop,” right?)–that the idea of writing her second book was incredibly daunting. Annie has touched on the fear of the second book on her own blog recently; S. E. Hinton was not just blocked, she was completely petrified by the idea of writing a second novel that might not live up to everyone’s expectations.

Her boyfriend (now husband), sick of her whining and depression, ordered her to write two pages a day. “Writing two pages a day never killed anybody,” was his reasoning. S. E. Hinton’s response to that? “Spoken like a true non-writer!”

He threatened that unless she filled her daily quota, when he came to pick her up for their date each night, he would refuse to take her out. Thus motivated, she wrote her second book, Rumble Fish, for the sake of preserving her social/dating life!

I’m thinking about asking my boyfriend to blackmail me in a similar manner. It might help me be more productive!

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According to S. E. Hinton, there’s no one way to read a book. Since it’s publication in 1967, numerous graduate students have written their theses on The Outsiders. Some of them interpreted the book from a religious angle and wrote about all the religious symbolism the book contained. “I didn’t put any of those thing in consciously,” S. E. Hinton admitted, “but obviously they’re there. When interpreting a book, writer’s intent should be about the third most important thing; definitely not the first. Writer’s don’t know what they’re doing. We don’t know what our books are about until you tell us!”

My former English major self, who secretly enjoys psychoanalyzing short stories, did a  little happy dance when she gave permission to read anyway I like. Authors can often get really hostile when debating the “meaning” in their writing, and sometimes I feel like the enemy for enjoying the unintentional symbolism in literature.

Another fun fact? The Outsiders is the only movie where, in response to readers’ pleas, the director added all the deleted scenes to offer The Outsiders: The Complete Novel to make it more faithful to the book. It drives me crazy when movies based upon books leave out what are, in my opinion, critical scenes. I wish all directors would go back and do that for us!

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S. E. Hinton reminded me, strikingly, of a Southern history professor I had in college and whom I was extremely fond of. My professor’s were entertaining just because she was standing in the front of the room. This particular moment at the author event was so reminiscent of those classes:

Random English Teacher in the Crowd: Your book meant so much to me. It was the best book I’ve ever read.

S. E. Hinton: Well, bless your eyes!

Random English Teacher in the Crowd: [after some more comments, proceeds to cry] And your book makes me cry every time I read it . . .

S. E. Hinton: I didn’t mean for that to happen. Curse your eyes!

Priceless.

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7 thoughts on “Even S. E. Hinton Gets Writer’s Block

  1. That is an absolutely amazing story (and oh MAN I’d love to hear her talk some day after reading that!). My daughter and I were talking about The Outsiders recently because she read it in school, so it’s been on my mind. I remember loving it, but it has been forever since I read it (or saw the movie). I think I need to do both again soon. And I think I want that version with all the deleted scenes, no matter how long it is. After all, the pause button means I can take a break whenever I want, right?

    I particularly love how she lets readers interpret as they wish. It sounds like she’s a big subscriber to the theory that a novel is only half what the writer wrote, and the other half what the reader sees in it, which is awesome. I know that I’ve had people read my own stories and tell me about these things they saw and I’m usually like… I said what? And when I go back and read it again, I can see what they see. Sometimes it’s something I put in subconsciously, and sometimes I’m not sure if it came from my mind, or just happened to be there, but that doesn’t matter. If it’s in the piece, and the reader can see it, then it is a hugely important part of their experience, whether I meant it to be there or not.

    I think I would have loved analysis in English more when I was a kid if we looked at it that way. We looked at books seeking all the heavy symbolism our teacher insisted was there on purpose. I was already writing then, and I had already recognized that writing wasn’t that conscious a process. I remember saying once, “Maybe she just meant a pickle plate was a pickle plate… and we’re the ones who see it as something else.” My English teacher wasn’t amused, but looking back, I still subscribe to that theory.

    I’m rambling, sorry!

    • Don’t be sorry; I love a good ramble! I liked symbolism and other interpretation in English because it helped make some books that I really disliked–Catcher in the Rye, for example. Ug.–a whole lot more interesting. Even if I didn’t like the book, I liked some of the meanings the book represented. But I had a teacher like yours, too, who really believed someone could be “wrong” when interpreting, and “right,” which was super grating as a high school student.

    • As a follow up–I love when people interpret my own stories and point out details that I didn’t even notice when I wrote them down myself. The only time I really disliked it was when I submitted a short story and I got a rejection with lots of feedback. The editor kept going on and on about how my main character was suicidal and therefore this detail meant that and this detail meant that etc. I was totally shocked. I went back and reread the story twice and could not identify any suicidal tendencies or anything that flagged suicidal thoughts. (Admittedly, this same editor complained later on in their critique that they couldn’t identify the age of the character, which was a drawback for them, while one scene clearly illustrated her sixteenth birthday party…so maybe they weren’t paying attention). I want the reader to have their own experience and agree that half of a story is what the reader sees in it, but from a purely selfish writer standpoint…I also want them to “get the story.” Knowing what the reader saw helped me edit it so that it was more in line with my vision. I’m sure it’s still chock-full of diverse interpretations though!

  2. Pingback: Even S. E. Hinton Gets Writer’s Block « The (Writer’s) Waiting Room « D.E. Atwood

    • She was awesome; so cute and funny. Besides The Outsiders, I remember reading That Was Then . . . This is Now for Reading Olympics (I LOVED Reading Olympics, why don’t they have competitions for adults??) but I never read Babble Fish. I’m going to have to get a hold of a copy!

  3. Pingback: Dear 2012, You’re Not So Shabby: My Year in Review « The (Writer's) Waiting Room

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