So it’s finally over, my eighth grader has graduated. And while I sit here between writing projects she’s still sleeping off her after-party and however long she stayed up past midnight looking at the graduation pictures everyone posted on facebook. She had her moments and experiences, and I’m sure she had a great time. She had her bittersweetness over losing some friends who were moving away, but in all I know she’ll have her memories of the experience. The 80s songs they sang during the ceremony. The deal she got on the graduation sun dress she wore (compared to the expensive dinner-dance dress she bought at the same time).
Those are her memories.
But last night the parents of the graduating class had a separate party while our kids were having their own party nearby. We talked about our memories and shared experiences from watching our kids move through the education system, the trials and tribulations of friendships made and tested. Being adults we also talked about things that currently interested us, like World Cup and recent movies we’ve seen and all the other filler we drag out for parties.
Including this idea people have when they hear I’m a children’s writer that I am constantly sopping up the kids experiences to use in my next book.
I think this notion ranks up there with the idea that there is a special muse that visits writers and uses them as channels for stories, and the assumption that publication is a shortcut to the millionaire’s club. Any funny anecdote I deliver about my girls, any observation I make about how they use social media, instantly falls into the category of “I bet you’ll be able to use this in your next book.” I can’t simply be a proud parent, or a supporter of my girls efforts in the classroom or on the soccer field, I am constantly flipping the handicam in my head and recording their every moment to exploit down the road.
What’s odd is that everyone knows the “write what you know” but assumes that without the proximity of kids that I couldn’t write about them. Indeed, where else would my ideas come from, how else could I record the necessary details, emotions, and situations of children’s literature without a back catalog of my girls’ experiences at hand?
Simple: I have my own memories.
Obviously anything from my own past is filtered through the analysis of experience, through years of recounting those stories or simply remembering what they felt like at the time. I don’t just think back to my own graduation from junior high and say “Hmm, which memory can I turn into a middle grade novel?” In fact, it often surprises people that I start with a theme and find a way to marry it to a seed of an idea and build from there. As I flesh out the story, yes, I tap into my younger self for guidance on how my friends and I behaved, how we thought and spoke, but I also am mindful of a contemporary audience and have to overlay my experience with both the modern and the universal while building against the theme.
Just as all my characters are a little bit me, all my stories have small fragments of my personal memories forming and shaping them. And, yes, whenever necessary I will tap into the things I see and hear my kids and their friends do and say. I don’t retell their stories, or lift their dialog, though I will capture those moments that might help me give the story verisimilitude.
More often though what happens is that something happens – the kids get into an argument, or something happens at school – and it triggers a memory in me that get me thinking. Sometimes its a question of trying to understand what I was thinking in the moment of that memory versus what I later learned about the situation, and sometimes it’s the old line Stephen King used to explain how he wrote “The Body,” the short story that became the movie “Stand By Me.” When asked how much of the story was true King explained that there came a point in his memory where he said ‘I know this happened, but what if this happened instead?’ The ‘what if’ became the story.
The ‘what if’ is the thing people don’t get. To them it visits in the night and whispers in the writer’s ear, sprinkled magic dust on their keyboards, and lets the writer take the credit. Really, all that writers – any creative artist – does is never shut the door on their childhood sense of self-amusement. Kids learn how to recount a story, then they learn how to embellish, add timing and character and voices, and finally how to invent them from whole cloth out of the strands they have been collecting and weaving. Some do it better than others, and some have to be taught how to do it, but somewhere along the way this ability is pushed out in favor of more “practical” pursuits. Those who can retain that young storytelling sense into adulthood appear to others as possessing some special ability. Either that or they simply steal stories, dialog, and ideas from their kids.
How else is a grown adult able write for children and young adults?