On Writing

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.

On Writing

Sweet Little Lies

Years ago, while making the rounds with my very first children’s book manuscript, Easter Tortoise’s Big Idea, I was lucky enough to attract the enthusiastic attention of an editor at Albert Whitman and Company. Though this manuscript was ultimately not accepted, Easter Tortoise did give me a great connection with a wonderful person. From that point forward, whenever I had a story, I would first send it to her – someone who I knew liked my stuff.

At some point this professional relationship moved to the next level. By that I mean the editor would occasionally call or email me with leads. “We’re on the lookout for a new Mother’s Day book,” she’d tell me. Or “We want to publish a book about how a family copes after a parent loses a job.”

Receiving such information gladdened my heart. I wasn’t yet published, but I was in the loop – and it was awesome. I always did my best to take advantage of every tiny kernel of inside knowledge.

On one occasion she called to say that Albert Whitman was now looking for a new Thanksgiving title. “Do you have any Thanksgiving stories?” she asked.

In response to that question two things happened:

1. My mouth said, “Yes I do!”

2. My brain said, “YOU DO NOT!”

My brain was the honest one, but, fortunately, it was also the one that couldn’t be heard outside of my head. So you can imagine my brain’s dismay when my mouth took the fib and ran with it.

“Actually I have two Thanksgiving stories,” I told her. “They both need a little work. One is a silly turkey story and the other is more serious. Which one should I work on?”

“I think the serious one,” the editor said.

And that was that.

Okay, typewriter. Time to make an honest man outta me!

Now let me pause here to emphasize that I really hate lying. I really, really hate it. Lying makes me feel uncomfortable and guilty and immoral. I make a conscious effort to avoid doing it under almost any circumstance.

But there are exceptions, of course. In my case, it’s when someone asks me one of two questions about my writing.

1. Can you write _____?

2. Do you have _____?

Sometimes the honest answer to the first question is “I don’t know.”  Frequently the honest answer to the second question is “No.”

My answer for both, however, is always “Yes!”

I say “yes” without hesitation or discomfort. I say “yes” without guilt. I say “yes” with a smile. I can even say “yes” so convincingly and sincerely that, if it wasn’t for that wet blanket of a brain, I’d even believe it.

Then, after all that yessing, I hang up the phone and, with a new sense of purpose, work like mad to turn my lie into a belated truth. I suspect this is how a lot of books get written. At least it’s how my book was written ­– and I regret nothing. In fact, I would advise every writer to do the same thing.

Experience has shown me that with a bit of effort, I can almost always turn the answer to question number one from an “I don’t know” into a “Yes.” And, if given enough time, I can turn the answer to question number two from a “No” into an “I do now!”

And here’s the best part: not only do these little fibs open up business opportunities, they also allow me to stretch my creative muscles in ways I never would have done otherwise. Saying “Yes” helps me to grow and evolve as a writer.

I recently told an actor friend of mine the above story. In response, he nodded and said in his deep baritone, “Mm. Like improv.”

I had never thought of it that way before, but he’s absolutely right. As any graduate of The Groundlings or Second City can assert, the one Cardinal rule of improvisation is to never ever dismiss anything another improviser tells you – no matter how absurd or ludicrous. Your job is to build on it.

It is called the rule of “Yes, and…”

That was pretty much what I was doing on that phone call. The editor threw something out there and I built upon it, asserting that YES, I had a Thanksgiving book. AND I really have two Thanksgiving books!

See? I wasn’t lying at all, I was acting!

Ahem.

So let me open up the comments section: What are a few of the more memorable whoppers you have told in your day?