In this week's Year of the Book post, Ellen Potter talks about her new book Spilling Ink; A Young Writer’s Handbook
A few years ago I was on a Greyhound bus headed for NYC. My seat-mate was a lady in her mid forties. She had a blonde page boy and she smelled like purple Necco wafers. I liked her. She told the girl behind us to not talk so loud on her cell because, “The whole bus doesn’t need to know about your chronic sinus infection.” We started chatting. She said she worked in sales at an auto parts store. When I told her that I was writer, her eyes brightened.
“Oh, I have this great idea for a novel!” she said. It was loosely based on her grandmother’s experience in the French Resistance.
You know what? It was a pretty good story.
“Have you written any of it yet?’ I asked her.
“Me?” Her expression changed to utter disbelief “I’m no writer.”
I had seen that expression many times before, only it was usually on the faces of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds during my school-visit writing workshops. It was the look they gave me when I told them they were going to write a short story. Below is a rough approximation of it, as modeled by my twelve-year-old neighbor.
I have noticed a strange transformation that happens to young writers. Before the age of twelve, many kids write with this gorgeous recklessness. Their stories are a romp. They are non-linear, often nonsensical, but full of the joy of storytelling.
Then something happens. At around twelve, many of these same young writers start turning into the bus lady. They have good ideas, but they insist they can’t write them.
I wrote my upcoming book Spilling Ink, A Young Writer’s Handbook (Flash Point; March 30, 2010) for three reasons:
1. Because it was an opportunity to co-author a book with the brilliant, prolific, and thoroughly delightful Anne Mazer (of The Amazing Days of Abby Hayes fame)
2. Because I had received so many e-mails from kids who really did love writing fiction, and were asking questions about things like plotting, character development, and how to handle writer’s block.
3. To wipe the bus lady’s expression off the faces of the other kids who thought they couldn’t write fiction
Anne and I feel that part of the “bus-lady syndrome” comes from misperceptions about who writers really are. People seem to think that professional writers are more clever than the average person, or that they are born with a special “glib gene.” Not at all. We are, essentially, reckless eleven-year-old storytellers, polished up a bit. In Spilling Ink Anne and I explain just how much writers bumble and stumble as we work our way through a story. We get stuck, get unstuck, and get stuck again. It’s not always pretty, but romps are often clumsy. They’re also one of the best ways to ferret out adventures, bump into interesting characters, and discover just how resourceful we really are. Spilling Ink was our way of reminding kids how to romp on the page.
Will the kids who read Spilling Ink grow up to be professional writers? Well, some might. Most writers I know started writing in earnest when they were yea high. For the most part, though, Anne and I know that our Spilling Ink readers will ultimately go down other paths. They’ll become teachers or vet techs or lawyers. Or maybe they’ll work in auto parts stores. It doesn’t matter. We just hope that when a good story idea comes to them, they’ll write it down, simply for the joy of it.
Or, as Anne says, "Just because Lance Armstrong exists, doesn't mean I can't enjoy a bike ride through the park."