It was sort of a mistake. actually. I thought I'd been hired to be an editor. But My first day on the job
at a small publishing company in Boston, someone handed me a pad and a pencil. "Write lyrics for a song
that teaches the sound of the letter c as k," she said, and left.
"Oh no!" I thought. I'm not a writer."
Being eager to please and not being eager to return to my former job as a saleslady in the glass and china department, I wrote the lyrics and made a discovery. I knew how to write a poem and could sing. Many hundreds of hours spent lolling around listening to Broadway show tunes and Beatles records were not wasted. That was the first quirk, the first of many hitherto believed-to-be-useless bits of my background, that helped me become a writer.
I've been writing for almost 20 years now. And in that time I've found many other quirks, foibles, old habits, annoying abilities; personality flaws and peculiarities in my character that have helped me become a writer.
For example, I love to talk. Talking is my favorite sport. I like conversations that jog smoothly around a familiar track and conversations that start, stop and meander with no particular finish line in sight. So when I am asked to write scripts, plays or dialogues, I am in good shape. I take on all the speaking roles. Whenever I am stuck in a tough spot in a story, I get three characters together and let them talk their way out of it. It always works.
Writing dialogue calls upon my talking talent. It's better than talking because on paper I have plenty of warm-up time. I can cut and change, think up clever comebacks and never be interrupted. Being an enthusiastic talker is not anything to boast about, but it's part of how I came to be a writer.
The question I am asked most frequently about my writing is: Where do the ideas for your stories come from? I have concocted this lofty answer: The ideas come from research, memory and imagination. But in fact, those three words are euphemisms.
When I say the ideas for my stories come from research, I am trying to find a nice way of saying that I am nosy and obsessive. I doggedly read everything I can get my hands on about a subject, immerse myself in it and make myself a complete bore about it. I walk right straight into the books I read without reservation or judgement and let them absorb me.
I am a snoop. Other people's lives are endlessly interesting to me. This embarrassing curiosity is not very admirable in real life, but it is a fortunate flaw for a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. Perhaps I became a writer because I had to find a socially acceptable outlet for it.
When I say that the ideas for the stories come from memories of my own childhood, it sounds benign. But the truth is that I am cursed with a miserably accurate memory full of useless detail. Once I get started rattling off the names of everyone in my second-grade class, I can't stop. I even remember what they usually had for lunch. I'm not proud of this.
But the books I wrote are for and about children, so being able to remember my own childhood has helped me stay true to the facts. What has been more helpful is remembering how it feels to be a child. Children are passionate. They get carried away. I remember how intensely I felt grief, delight, anger, yearning, shame and loss. The immediacy of those emotional memories helps me write about them honestly. Young readers appreciate it. One girl wrote me and said she liked my stories because they were "full of courage, love, and hope." So I guess that cursed memory has served me well.
Imagination is the third ingredient on the list, but a more accurate word would be daydreaming. I am a dangerous daydreamer. At the end of the day it would be hard for me to tell you which events occurred and which I daydreamed up. I used to be quite ashamed of this tendency to wander off into the unreal. But now that I have seen how useful it is for thinking up plots and storylines, I'm glad I'm a woolgatherer.
Indeed, I think one reason why I became a writer -- and have lasted as a writer -- is that I trust the fertility of imagination. All writing calls for a lot of rewriting. Writers must always be ready to try it another way. You have to believe that ideas are not like stones in a bucket, finite in number. They are more like branches of a tree. Each idea leads to hundred more. Dedicated daydreamers like me know we can depend on this.
We daydreamers are unsettled personalities. You might say we're too empathetic, if not downright wishy-washy. This is a disadvantage in arguments, because we are able to see the other person's point of view (often better than he can himself) and sympathize with it too well. We're just about always imagining ourselves standing in someone else's shoes-and all of them fit.
But being chameleonic is handy when a writer is creating a character. It's no trouble for me to imagine how someone with no apparent similarity to myself would move, dress, think, talk, act or feel in any situation. I'm glad I'm changeable.
I'm glad I'm persnickety, too. It does not make me a nicer person to live with. But being a picky person helps when you are a writer. In my case, it has made me protective of my tools. I fret about commas. I'm bothered by excessive exclamation points. I worry about words. They work so hard to try to convey meaning, you owe it to them to use just the right one. Words like thud, exasperate, scorn, hilarious, lily, nincompoop-don't you love the way they look and sound and feel to pronounce? You have to appreciate them and care for them and put them together thoughtfully. I am distressed by graceless sentences and paragraphs that are too plump. Fusspot I may be, but I think it improves my writing.
I don't suppose I'll ever rise above my shortcomings, but perhaps I'll make peace with them. They have helped me become a writer. I know it's a mistake to believe in happy endings, but I do, because being a writer is an ongoing happy ending for me.