The Truth About Being a Writer

Last fall I was invited to visit an area private school to get folks into the spirit of Thanksgiving. It was a full-day affair and my schedule was so packed that I was given a “handler,” someone whose job was to run me from one classroom to the next. My handler was a lovely young librarian named Amanda who had the patience of a saint.

It was a great day, and I’m pleased to report that I was well received. (I have a gift for being goofy around children. Kids like goofy.)

I kept my dog and pony show pretty consistent from one class to the next. First I told the kids about how I woke my parents up on Sundays at 5 am by banging on my dad’s typewriter. Then I talked about my wonderful, influential (if perpetually frowny-faced) sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Snelback. Then I talked about my days as a reporter.

“As a reporter I wrote about everything!” I would announce, oozing with faux smugness. “Everything! Try me! Name anything at all, and I bet I’ve written about it! I’ve written about EVERYTHING!”

I then called on a kid who, without fail, would spout something ludicrous. (“Robot mummies that are really apes!”)

To which I would reply, “Everything except that.”

This gag brought down the house every time.

Then I dialed it back and segued into a little talk about Thanksgiving followed by a reading of my book, Sarah Gives Thanks. This was followed by the Q&A thing, which would continue until Amanda, who was watching the clock with growing alarm, was forced to grab me by the elbow and drag me to the next class.

In the afternoon, as Amanda and I hustled to my final appearance, for which I was already late, I asked, “What grade is this next group?”

I had noticed as the day progressed that the age of my audience was increasing. I started with third graders. Then I was led to fourth graders. I had just finished the fifth. Sixth grade was pushing it age-wise for a picture book author, I thought, but the fifth graders were my best audience of the day so I figured I’d be fine.

“What…grade?” Amanda repeated, panting as she ran.

“Sixth grade?” I asked, also panting.

Amanda shook her head. “Seniors,” she replied.

High school seniors? Hm. Perhaps it was time to rethink my dog and pony show.

But it wasn’t a class, really, more like a half-dozen seniors who weaseled their way out of another class to sit around a table with me in the school’s library.

These were the creative writing students who wrote creatively outside of the classroom. They had dreams of pursuing writing as a career. Because of the group’s size, the chat was relaxed and informal and driven by the questions they asked – which were intelligent, earnest, and plentiful.

At one point in our talk I heard myself say this:

“I want you to know that you can have a career as a writer. You can support a family as a writer. It’s not easy. You might need to write about a lot things you don’t care all that much about. But if you work hard and never give up, you can do it.”

I wasn’t planning for a halftime locker room speech, but there it was.

My statement was greeted with complete silence. I looked around the table and was met with wide eyes. In that moment I got the idea that no one had ever told them those words before.

And that’s a shame because what I said was completely true.

I know it doesn’t always feel true. I’ve earned my living as a writer for the past 15 years, and it doesn’t always feel true to me. Sometimes, when I’m feeling lousy and the words aren’t coming, I wonder how much longer this writing life will last.

I do pull myself out of this funk, thank goodness. Eventually I realize that what’s true is true. It’s true not only for me, but for everyone.

Never forget that, OK? And if you do forget, read this post again. When I forget, I’ll meet you here. I’ll even bring donuts.

But right now I gotta go. I have a job to do. I’m off to write a story about robot mummies that are really apes. No punk kid is gonna to pull that stunt on me twice.

Tales of a Sixth Grade Writer

The sixth grade me. I kept my writing talent in my hair.
The sixth grade me. I kept my writing talent in my hair.

I mentioned in a previous post how Sunday morning TV programming helped kickstart my writing career.

Mrs. Snelback, however, was the one who kept me on the writing path for life.

Mrs. Snelback was my sixth grade teacher. She didn’t seem to like children all that much. The children didn’t seem to like her all that much, either. They did, however, fear and respect her.

I liked Mrs. Snelback. I understood her personality type; my Great Uncle Bill was very much like her, grumpy on the outside but a great person underneath. Uncle Bill got happy just like everyone else, but it was a subtle, non-demonstrative kind of happiness. Blink and you’d miss any outward signs of it. I made a point not to blink much around Uncle Bill. He fascinated me.

Snelback fascinated me, too. She was my hero because she, like me, hated the clique of obnoxious popular girls who abused people for sport. And, unlike every other teacher at Lincoln Elementary, Snelback refused to ignore these girls’ inner ugliness. She punished them with relish and reveled in their subsequent waves of whining.

“Oh, that isn’t fair?” Snelback would ask after the whiniest among them ran out of steam. “Well, life isn’t fair, honey.”

And because Snelback always enjoyed giving the knife just one more twist, she’d close with a mock frowny-faced, “Oh you poor thing!”

Snelback didn’t believe in sending people to the principal. Any misbehaving that took place in her room would be handled in her room, thank you very much.

One of Snelback’s favorite punishments was “The Infamous 100 Words.” If, for example, Tommy T. called out in class without raising his hand, Snelback would bellow, “THOMAS! 100 words on raising hands!”

And, that night, Tommy T. would have to write a 100-word essay on why it was important to raise your hand before speaking.

The Infamous 100 Words was like KP. Everyone had to deal with it sooner or later. I was no exception.

“MICHAEL!” Snelback bellowed. “100 words on talking in class!”

So be it.

When one of my classmates penned an Infamous 100 Words on talking in class, he would write that talking in class was rude to the children and the teacher.

He would then write that talking inhibited the learning process.

He would then write that he was sorry.

He would then write that when a kid talks in class…um…the Communists win.

On and on it went until a 70-word essay became an 80-word essay, and that 80-word became a 90-word, and that 90-word became a 95-word, and that 95-word became…still a 95-word, and…and…and…OH, COME ON! I JUST NEED FIVE MORE FREAKING WORDS! THINK! THINK!

As far as I was concerned, that was a stupid way to write The Infamous 100 Words. I had a different technique. I told a story:

Little Billy Bumpus leaned over to tell his neighbor the latest booger joke. Unfortunately the teacher heard. She stared hard at Billy, and, without a word, reached for the tiny key that hung around her neck. The class gasped. Some of the girls put their heads on their desks. They knew what was about to happen and didn’t want to see it.

The teacher unlocked the bottom drawer of her desk. Out popped the toe monster. It oozed from his home onto the floor and slithered down the aisle to Billy’s chair. Billy, resigned to his fate, gripped the sides of his desk as the toe monster wrenched off his shoe, yanked off his sock, and bit off Billy’s big toe down to the second knuckle.

“You have nine more chances to behave in this class, Mr. Billy Bumpus!” the teacher said. “Because once your toes are gone, so are YOU!”

There! 100 Words on talking in class. More like 150 words, but who’s counting?

My stories attracted Mrs. Snelback’s attention.

When Mom and Dad came to the next parent teacher conference, the first words out of Mrs. Snelback’s mouth was this: “Do you know what your son’s strongest subject is?”

“Reading,” Mom said. “He is always reading.” This was true.

“WRONG!” Snelback bellowed. “It is WRITING! Your son should be a writer. Your son WILL be a writer!”

The inference was that if I didn’t become a writer, it would be my mom’s fault.

I had wanted to be a writer since I was seven. I was now 12 and the desire to write was still strong. When Mom told me what Mrs. Snelback said, I wanted to be a writer more than anything in the world.

I wanted to prove Mrs. Snelback right. And she was right. Thanks to her, I’ll be a writer until the day I die.

So! Was there a teacher in your life who was particularly influential?

Three Things Every Author Should Know about School Visits

This many! (Fun fact: This photo shoot took A LOT longer than it should have.)

Have you ever been on the move for so long that once you finally stop moving, you don’t know what to do with yourself?

I feel that way now. For the past several weeks I had gotten into the habit of running from one place to another, talking about my book, coming home, and then collapsing in a heap. It was exhausting. It was also exciting and new and it made me feel very, very important. I really did love it. I loved it more than I thought I would.

Now that it’s all over, I’m suffering a little from promo withdrawal.

But my schedule, exciting as it was, didn’t allow me to write at all. So I am very eager to reacquaint myself with my first love. I missed writing much more than I liked feeling important.

During the tour I visited lots of schools. That is par for the course for a picture book – especially a nonfiction one. Now that I’ve had a little time to reflect on those visits, I’d like to share three takeaways:

1. Kids love to take you down rabbit holes.  

During one class visit I told a group of 40 third graders that my fondest childhood Thanksgiving memory was watching Big Ape Movies on the local TV station. Every single year the station aired Mighty Joe Young, King Kong, and Son of Kong. “Six straight hours of simian mayhem!” I announced. “I have no idea what giant gorillas have to do with Thanksgiving, but, hey, who cares? It’s wonderful!”

And by opening that door, I invited in a long string of ape-related questions. Clearly I was the King Kong expert these kids had been waiting for their whole lives. “How big was he?” one asked. (I guessed about 50 feet tall.) “Did that big building get damaged bad?” (No, they just needed to patch up some bullet holes.) Would King Kong win a fight with Godzilla? (If Americans made the movie, I replied, then yes.)

It was a blast. And, because I indulged this line of questioning, the kids loved me. Oh, and my “simian mayhem” line made one teacher to do a spit take; this is perhaps my proudest achievement ever.

2. There’s one teacher in every school who assumes you don’t know what you’re doing.

This teacher is the wet blankie who tries to calm down the children after you have invested so much time and energy revving them up. Not. Cool.

This teacher is either very, very young and well-meaning or one of those old law and order types who is one year away from retirement. (Teachers with tenure and more than a few years of full time work left in them are happy to sit back, drink coffee, and let you do your thing.)

I find it important to address the interrupting teacher directly. Doing so is a bit of a tightrope walk, however, for I have to communicate two messages at the same time. My first message is for the kids: “Your teacher is the boss. Your teacher is even MY boss and it is important to always do what she says.” My second message is for the teacher and is rich with subtext: “Why don’t you follow the fine example of your peers and drink some coffee?”

At one of my recent visits, a young teacher, trying to be helpful, inserted herself into my presentation to “calm things down, a bit.”

In front of the crowd I told the teacher she made an excellent point. Then I thanked her. Then, before the teacher could say anything else, I called on an earnest little girl who  could be counted on to ask a question that was “appropriate.” As the girl asked her question, the teacher and I chatted to each other with our eyes.

“I got this,” my eyes told her.

“You sure?” her eyes asked back, concerned.

“Your coffee is getting cold,” my eyes replied. “And that chair waaaay over there looks hella comfortable.”

3. Controlling a Q&A session is a lot easier than you might think. 

Kids wear their personalities on their sleeves. Even if they say nothing, their body language makes it easy to differentiate the silly from the studious. You don’t need talent to figure out who’s who. You just need eyes. Anyone can do this. Really. Anyone.

By using this information, I became a Q&A conductor of sorts; I called on the sillies when I wanted to dial up the energy in the room and the studiers when I wanted to dial it back.

And because I love and respect teachers and don’t wanna make their jobs any more difficult than they already are, I wrapped up all my Q&A sessions by calling on three studious students in a row. You’re welcome, teachers. Here’s hoping I’ll see you again next year!