Writing 101 (for the Kindergarten Set)

Writing 101 (for the Kindergarten Set) April 12, 2012

It’s been a busy week of speaking engagements for me—one radio interview, one TV interview, and three talks, at the Yale Medical Library, my church women’s group, and my son’s kindergarten. My kids have the privilege of attending a school where the arts, particularly creative writing, are a big focus. This year, each kindergarten student is writing his or her own book, which will be bound and presented at an author signing event at our local Barnes and Noble. (I’d like to point out that I tried, via several months of e-mails bolstered by the networking of a friend who works at B&N, to have my own book signing there. No dice. But my six-year-old is having a book signing there. I’m just sayin’.)

So when I came in to speak with the kindergarten classes as a real live author, I decided to talk about what is required to become a professional writer.

You need to be a good writer. This is not only about learning and following the rules of good writing, of grammar, punctuation, or story structure. It’s about using words to create pictures in your readers’ heads and create memorable characters using tools such as vivid description and authentic dialogue. It’s about discovering and then fine-tuning your unique author’s voice. To explain “voice” to the young ones, I used Dr. Seuss as an example. Lots of writers use rhymes and nonsense words. But his prose is immediately recognizable to anyone, including kindergarteners, because no one else’s writing sounds quite like his does.

You need to write. Lots of people can write fairly well. Lots of people like to write. Lots of people say, “I’d love to write a book some day.” But you can only become a writer if you actually write, almost every day. Writing regularly helps you discover your voice and then figure out how to let it shine. Writing regularly shows you your strengths and weaknesses. As with musical instruments or sports, practicing the skill of writing will make you a better writer. I encouraged the kids to write whenever they can—poems, stories, lists, letters, journal entries. Most of it will not be great, some of it will be terrible, and much of it you will never share with anyone. But you can’t be a writer unless you write.

You need to read. I gave the kids the image of a swimming pool full of words, and told them they should surround themselves with words the way you surround yourself with water when you jump into a pool. Surround yourself with other people’s writing, by reading. You will learn new vocabulary. You’ll begin to notice how different authors have different voices. You will learn new writing techniques. I suggested they try writing a story in the style of a favorite author, like Dr. Seuss. Play around with words and styles.

Be persistent. My book took nearly eight years, from the time I started writing it until I had a published copy in my hand. Along the way, I had a lot of people reject my book and tell me it wasn’t good enough (they were right, by the way). I had to keep reworking it, and even when I found a publisher who was interested, then I had to rework it some more to meet their criteria. There is really no such thing as overnight success. Every successful author has some experience of rejection, frustration, or failure behind him or her. Keep writing.

You have to love writing. In order to do that—to keep writing in the face of failure—you have to love it. If you don’t love it, it’s just too hard.

Now, I didn’t tell the kindergarteners all of this, but there are times when I hate writing. I even wrote that in an e-mail to a writer friend a few weeks ago: “Sometimes I hate this job.” But it’s really not the writing I hate. It’s the business of making a living as a writer—the rejection; the editorial disagreements; the power imbalance of an online publishing world in which writers provide reams of free content without having a whole lot of say over how it is used, titled, presented, or received; the failures of timing; the inevitable envy I feel when content I see as substandard gets lots of attention; the emotional roller coaster of many temporary successes followed by many temporary setbacks—repeat ad nauseum.

My blogging friend Alison Hodgson wrote in an e-mail to me last week: “I told someone, just the other day, that I needed to research mental illness to give an apt metaphor for the range and quick jerk changes of emotion I experience. It’s like jumping back and forth from scenes in ‘Titanic.’ I’m either up on the bow, King of the Worlding it, or sliding down the deck as the ship breaks in two.”

Yes, being a writer is like that. It is.

But the writing itself? That I love. I have to. Because if I didn’t, the ups and downs would not be worth the toll they take. Sometimes I think I should give up writing, go get some mindless job in retail or answering phones in some office, where I don’t have to constantly present my own raw and vulnerable self in the form of my beloved words to a world that often rejects, overlooks, or misinterprets them.

If I stopped writing, then yes, I wouldn’t have to open myself to the world’s wounding ways so regularly. But I would also lose a big ol’ chunk of myself, the part that is nearly always thinking about how to say what I want to say, while I’m in the shower or swimming laps or fixing dinner, and that feels an overwhelming sense of relief, joy, and wholeness when I manage to find the right words, and then share them.

So that’s how I ended my talk to the kindergarteners. If you want to be a writer, I told them, then you have to love it so much that you can’t imagine living without writing. I love it that much.

Did they get the message? My friend Leeann told me her son came home and told her, “Ellen wrote a Dr. Seuss book!” So perhaps not. But I had fun reminding myself as I taught them about what it takes to be a writer. And I have no doubt that a few of them will choose this hard but life-giving work as their own.

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