Lessons from Characters Who Are Writers: Discovering the Writer’s Life
If you spend any time at all trying to be a writer, then you learn pretty quickly that living the writerly life isn’t always easy. Often kids (and grown ups) feel isolated when faced challenges as writers.
Kids often feel as though that they are the only ones who have ever been stuck for ideas, or been laughed at, or had a story rejected (by a teacher, or a friend).
No matter where you live, no matter what you write, there is no need to discover every writing problem all on your own. That’s where characters in books come in. Why not learn from them?
Lesson from Harriet the Spy:
TELL THE TRUTH. APOLOGIZE IF NECESSARY.
Harriet is a truth teller. As she should be. But her truth-telling gets her in trouble when her classmates read her notebook filled with stinging observations and comments about each and every one of them. Thank goodness her nanny Ole Golly sends her a letter just at the right moment in the story, part of which reads:
I have been thinking about you and I have decided that if you are ever going to be a writer it is time you got cracking. You are eleven years old and haven’t written a thing but notes. Make a story out of some of those notes and send it to me.
“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
John Keats. And don’t you ever forget it.
Ole Golly also writes:
Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself, you must tell the truth.
Ole Golly’s advice to Harriet is good advice for all of us. Write the truth.
Ulysses is a squirrel with superpowers. Not only can he fly–he can type! Not only can he type–he can type POETRY.
At a critical moment in the story, Ulysses thinks to himself:
There was nothing he could do except to be himself, to try to make the letters on the keyboard speak the truth of his heart, to work to make them reveal the essence of the squirrel he was.
But what was the truth?
And what kind of squirrel was he?
Ulysses’s persona embodies love and sweetness. There is so much to learn from Ulysses as a writer. He risks life and limb to write his poetry. He just has to write.
And he write things like this:
Words for Flora
all of it–
sprinkles, quarks, giant
donuts, eggs sunny-side up–
are the ever-expanding
Lesson from Ulysses:
WRITE FROM THE HEART.
Ralph, like many writers, is stuck for ideas. He struggles to come up with a story to tell. He procrastinates and hides, and even asks others to simply come up with an idea for him. Fortunately for Ralph, his classmates and teacher know that with patience and time, an idea will come.
My teacher always said, “Stories are everywhere!”
His teacher and classmates don’t resort to telling him what to write. Instead they offer supportive words, and express their confidence that he will, eventually, find a story to tell.
Lessons from Ralph:
EVERYBODY GETS STUCK SOMETIMES. START WITH SOMETHING SMALL AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS. EVERYBODY HAS STORIES TO TELL.
In Eileen Spinelli’s book, The Best Story, a young writer goes from from family member to family member, searching for advice on how to make her story the best it can be. Her father suggests she make it funny, her brother suggests it needs lots of action. After she’s revised and revised, trying to make her story the way each family member says it should sound, it still doesn’t seem quite right. She finally goes to one last person for advice–her mom. Can you guess what her mom suggests?
When I read this book aloud, I always stop at this part and ask the kids to turn and talk. Then I turn the page and read:
She gave me a hug. “I think the best story is one that comes from the heart. Your own heart.”
Lesson from The Best Story:
MOMS KNOW BEST. (Just kidding).
THE BEST STORY IS ONE THAT IS YOUR OWN–NOT SOMEBODY ELSE’S.
Last but not least, Ramon.
The first time I heard the book Ish, Lucy Calkins was reading it to a small group of staff developers, sitting around a table in our old Reading & Writing Project office in Horace Mann Hall. I was new to the staff and was having, frankly, a terrible year. I was juggling graduate school, a new job, life in New York, and having a hard time of it.
Ish was a brand new book at the time, and none of us had ever heard it. You could practically hear a pin drop in the room.
In Ish, Ramon thinks he can’t draw, and decides to give it up for good. His sister, Marisol, gathers up each of his crumpled drafts and hangs them in her bedroom.
“This is one of my favorites,” Marisol said, pointing.
“That was supposed to be a vase of flowers,” Ramon said, “but it doesn’t look like one.”
“Well, it looks vase-ISH!” she exclaimed.
This book became my instant favorite. For several months, I carried it with me, everywhere I went, reading it aloud at every school to every group of kids, to every group of teachers I worked with. This book became my security blanket.
Reading Ish over and over, and talking about the importance of approximation again and again helped me survive those early years at a new job, and gave me courage to write professionally, present in front of big crowds, and conquer some of the biggest challenges of my life at the time.
Lesson from Ramon:
THINK ISHLY. WRITE WHAT YOU CAN–“LOOSE LINES, QUICKLY SPRINGING OUT. WITHOUT WORRY.”
Lesson for writers from Marisol:
GIVE COMPLIMENTS. BE KIND. SEE THE BEAUTY IN EVERYTHING.
There are so many characters who are writers in books that I had to narrow down my list. (It’s not really a surprise that many authors create characters who are writers, is it?). If you’ve got a favorite character who writes, share with us in the comments section or join us Monday st 8:30 EST for a chat!