Last week, I visited Minden Elementary School near Reno, Nevada as part of the sixth grade lecture series. The series is organized and run by a hard-working student committee that assembled a list of questions ahead of time, prepared an introduction, set up the tables and chairs in the library, and best of all, provided the treats for the occasion. Last year the series featured scientists. This year it’s writers, and I was the first. So I decided to go with the basics: How do you become a writer? What do you have to do?
I made a list for the whiteboard (which was, by the way, electronic – yikes! – luckily the committee trained me up in no time):
What inspires you to write? the students asked. The answer: What I read. From Laura Ingalls Wilder when I was a kid to Zadie Smith last week.
2. Sit in a chair
As anyone who writes seriously can attest, this is a lot harder than it sounds. How long does it take to write a book? the students asked. Well, my first book, the novel I wrote sitting in a bean bag in second grade, The English Girl from Canada, took 10 days. Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus took five years. That’s a lot of sitting.
3. Find something you love to write about
For me, the lifelong urge to write turned to desperate compulsion when I landed in Canyonlands National Park in Utah just out of college, then later when I stumbled into Stehekin. I loved being outdoors, immersed in such beauty, loved the people I met and the adventures I had, and I wanted to write about all of it. So I did. Over and over and over again.
4. Work with other writers
After I left Minden, I headed up to Lake Tahoe to teach a private workshop on the bridge between essay and memoir writing. Six devoted writers offered each other support, encouragement, and much needed direction. All of them – all of us, I should say – marveled at how much gets accomplished when we’re around other writers rather than in our own little cubby holes.
5. Accept rejection
Back at the elementary school, this offered a great chance for guessing game. I told the students that I have, as of now, about seventy published short pieces. To get to that point, I asked, how many rejections did they think I’ve received? Hands shot up. Ten? Nope. Twenty? Nope. A hundred? Up and up and up the numbers went. (When I described this to my mother on the telephone, she said: just like The Price is Right.)
Five hundred, I said at last. I keep track. Five hundred rejections. And counting.
Of course the one obvious thing a writer must do a lot of that does not appear on the list is – duh! – write, so we spent some time on three short writing prompts that maybe the students can work into something in the days and weeks to come.
Then it was over. Time for refreshments. The only caveat was that, in order to partake of the cookies and Rice Krispie treats, the students would have to be talking about the presentation either with me or with each other. (Not, their teacher Ms. Bertolone-Smith noted, merely hanging out with their “stalemates.”) So they gathered around and asked some great questions: how to write a climax scene, whether you can work on more than one book at once, what’s different about writing fiction vs. nonfiction.
Looking back, I realize I did skip over one thing writers have to do a lot of: give readings and presentations and visit with readers. I’ve been doing plenty of that in the past year, and I have to say, the morning at Minden Elementary was one of the most enjoyable.