Imagine yourself in front of a room of more than a hundred eight and nine-year-old kids. Scary thought, I know. They see you as a celebrity of a sort because you have done something they have only dreamed about. You have published a book. Now, imagine that you have been asked to impart some wisdom to these young minds about what it takes to be a writer.
Hold the phone, you say, what do I know about being a writer? Fear courses through your veins as you imagine a shark infested tank with you dangling above it. A thousand snippets of writerly advice flashes in your mind, and just as quick as it appears, it vanishes in a poof. What do you say to these young, impressionable minds? How do you respond to their barrage of questions? Will they go medieval on you and call for the guillotine when you falter?
I recently had the opportunity to speak with my son’s third-grade peers about writers and fairy tales. It was a wonderful experience, and I thought I would share some of the things I learned about kids and writers.
1. Kids want to know the truth.
They don’t want it sugar-coated. Be honest with them and they will be honest with you in return. They are amazed to hear how long and how many words and revisions it takes to make a book. However, in their eyes, that makes you a superhero. You are ranked right up there with Batman.
When I explained that I have a file with over 200,000 words of writing that didn’t make into my final draft, the kids’ eyes got wide, and there was a collective gasp. They could not believe that it took that many tries to get the story right. For them, it was an impossible and magical feat to imagine writing even 500 words.
So take heart. You might be struggling with a 1st draft or a 5th. The fact that you stuck with it as long as it takes to publish a book is amazing to a kid. So when you are feeling a bit down in the mouth as you sit down to write that 5th draft, take a moment to relish the thought that you are in fact, Batman.
2. Kids are endlessly imaginative.
As an exercise, I wrote a collaborative fairy tale with the third graders. In this masterpiece, Darth Vader became the hero while the fairy godmother became the villain and Adam the Magical Ant saved the day. Children retain that connection to their imagination and nothing is outside the realm of possibility. The next time you struggle with finding a plot twist or creating something new, talk with a child. Ask them what they think. You will be amazed at the random and wonderful ideas that flow from their imagination. They might not give the answer you are seeking, but they will send you looking in a direction you did not imagine possible.
3. Kids are full of questions.
They are not afraid to ask them. As adults, we try to think before we speak. We avoid asking taboo questions. Not kids. They ask what pops into their heads. They honestly want to know the answer. Things like: Have I ever written my son into any of my books? Where do I get my ideas? What’s my favorite book that I have written and why? Who is my favorite character? Who is my favorite author? What is my least favorite book? The questions were endless, but they got me thinking about why I love being a writer.
It is my job to create new worlds and explore ideas. To walk in other people’s lives and explore their emotions. To plunge face first into all the different sides of life. Get my hands dirty as I dig through the emotional viscera of my characters. Talking to those kids reminded me that writing is more than just putting words on a page. It is all about exploration.
4. Kids still see the world in black and white.
They have not yet learned that the world is full of grey. Life is simple. There are good guys. There are bad guys. The hero wins. The villain loses. As writers and adults, we know that life is not that simple. People are complex, and their motivations are often a Gordian knot that will never be fully unraveled. Sometimes as writers we get so caught up in making something complex that we miss the power of simplicity. We mistake complexity for depth and simplicity for the cliché. However, when we break a story down, the most cherished tales have simple themes. It is why fairy tales continue to be retold centuries later. The simple themes and ideas speak to us. Kids remind us that stories, at their heart, need to resonate with the reader.
5. Kids love stories.
They really do. They may struggle with reading, but they all want to tell stories. When we worked on our collaborative fairy tale, there were very few hands that weren’t raised to offer ideas. So many of the kids wanted to contribute. The ideas came jolting out of their brains, pushed their hands into the air and their butts out of their seats. They could not contain their ideas in their little bodies.
As a writer, I wish I had that reaction every time an idea came to me. That surge of restless energy that forces my body into motion because I cannot contain the idea. More often than not, an idea comes to me, and I spend extra time analyzing it to make sure it is worth pursuing rather than letting the excitement of the moment jolt me into action. Kids have a hard time containing their enthusiasm. They wiggle and bounce until they get the chance to express themselves. It is beautiful.
I learned a great deal from the kids as I talked about writing and what it takes to be a writer. I learned that ideas are energy. That life is beautiful in its simplicity. Imagination makes anything possible. I learned that writers are superheroes. So put on your cape, take a heroic pose, and write. Remember. You are Batman.