Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How I Became a Writer

I was very jealous at age three. I didn't understand why my sister got to go to kindergarten every morning and bring all these exotic looking papers and books home, and I couldn't. I took to eavesdropping and spying on her while she did her homework - especially when she'd sit and sound words out with my mom. While they sat at the kitchen table, I sat on the couch imitating them with my mother's Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal magazines. I didn't really get what we were doing, but the frustration my sister demonstrated and the persistence my mom continued showing, made me think there was something worth learning there. So I kept at it, even when they'd stopped.

One day, my mom was mortified to hear me actually reading aloud from one of the 'Can This Marriage Be Saved' articles (luckily I didn't actually understand what I was reading!). She quickly marched me off to the library for something more appropriate - and oh my gosh - when I applied my new skill to these books, I got it. My eyes were opened to a whole new world of intrigue.

Back then, the city library was a tiny restored house in downtown Fairbanks, Alaska. The children's department had once been a parlor or bedroom. It became my favorite place. I loved that room. I begged my mom to go pretty much everyday. By the time I reached kindergarten myself, I had graduated from picture books to chapter books and had a full-blown book addiction.

But that addiction came with consequences. I soon realized that my life was boring. How come I never stumbled upon a jewelry thief, or a secret door, or another planet? Nothing exciting ever happened to me like it did to the characters in the books I read. So, I became a liar. Well, "liar" is a bit strong. Maybe "fabricator" or "embellisher" is more like it.

At first my fabrications were harmless - like telling my sisters I was actually from Venus and the poster on my wall with a big moon on it was really my portal to the mothership; or the scraps of bloody clothing I claimed to have found in the woods (a rag with red food coloring) and was sure someone had been murdered; or the gnomes I claimed to be friends with that I discovered living under some toadstools in the woods ... Yes, they were all fabrications, but harmless.

Then in fourth grade, my teacher told us to write an essay about our summer vacation. Now, I had actually had an awesome vacation with my family, cousins, and grandparents that summer. We'd all rented cabins on Diamond Lake. We took turns getting up  at 5 AM with Grandpa to go fishing. We swam in the lake, explored the woods, bought candy in the general store (I discovered Lemonheads that summer). Even though this still is one of the most memorable vacations I've ever had, I didn't think it was interesting enough at the time for the essay. Where were the mysteries, the thefts, the magical beings?

So....I embellished a tad. I wrote a thrilling essay about how Diamond Lake got its name. These pirates had stolen a ship full of diamonds but then wrecked their boat in Diamond Lake one fateful October night when the gales of November came early (the Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald was a favorite of mine!). Oh the mystery, the intrigue! My essay was gripping and suspenseful.

The day after I turned it in, however, I panicked. Not because I realized Mr. Bennett, my teacher, could ask my mom or look up the history at the library and discover I'd lied. No, I panicked because I realized my story had a critical plot flaw: Diamond Lake was a lake surrounded by land. How could a pirate ship coming from faraway seas wreck in a land-locked lake?

Oh the doom! I made myself sick waiting for the reprimand, for the phone call, for the F. But Mr. Bennett never said anything. He merely wrote, "nice story" at the bottom. Looking back, I have no doubt he knew I made it up. Maybe he thought I had gone nowhere and had to make something up to save face, or perhaps he merely recognized the budding author in me and didn't want to squash that.

No matter, even without being called on it, I learned my lesson:
Always check your facts and make sure each aspect of your plot works.

And I have been doing just that ever since!

________________________________________________________________________________

Laura Ellen is the author of BLIND SPOT
a Fall 2012 debut from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

No comments:

Post a Comment