Saturday, May 30, 2015

A Writer's Sandbox (the Joys of Reading and Writing)

by Beth Terrell

Years ago, when I first entered the teaching profession, I asked one of my co-workers if she’d read a particular book. She cocked an eyebrow and said, in a voice that can only be described as supercilious, “I never read anything but professional journals.”

One after another, my fellow teachers made it clear that reading for pleasure was something they rarely, if ever did. I remember thinking, “How will we ever teach our kids to love reading if we don’t love it ourselves?” What were they learning, except that reading was a chore?

True, there are those who think of reading as hard work, and maybe it is—in the beginning. Then after a lot of practice, it becomes both easy and exciting. Novels are like movies we can carry around with us everywhere, but unlike the kind of movies we see in the theater or on T.V., when we’re reading a book, we can decide what the characters look like and how their voices sound. We’re the ones who make the writer’s words come to life.

A good book can take us into another world or help us understand what it would be like to live in another person’s skin. I hope I’m never lost in the woods and forced to survive with only a hatchet and what few things I can scrounge from a crashed airplane, but when I read Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, I can imagine what it would be like from the safety of my own living room. I can explore Oz with Dorothy or save Middle Earth with Frodo and Sam. I have read The Lord of the Rings an average of once a year for the last thirty-three years. I still cry when Boromir dies. That’s powerful stuff.

That ability to touch a reader’s heart is part of what draws many of us to the profession. There are some books that, as a writer, break my heart. I think, “Why couldn’t I have written that?” and, “I’ll never be that good.” To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind. If there’s a more perfect book in the English language, I don’t know what it is. Over the years, the list of books that take my breath away have grown. A Separate Peace, The Outsiders. Mystic River. The Time Traveler’s Wife. We Need to Talk About Kevin. Books that touch something deep in the reader’s soul, make us think, make us feel. What writer doesn’t dream of accomplishing that?

“I can’t write,” my students used to tell me. “I can’t spell. I can’t put the commas in the right place.”

“Spelling and punctuation aren’t writing,” I would tell them. “Spelling and punctuation are editing.” Editing is a courtesy to the reader, to make a story easier to read. Writing is just about putting ideas down on paper in the first place. That first draft is like a block of artist’s clay or stone. Michelangelo didn’t make David from thin air. He started with a block of marble and carved away everything that wasn’t David. By the same token, most writers don’t spin completed novels from nothing. They write a loose first draft—the kind that make you worry that, if you die before it’s finished, people will find this horrid mishmash of a story and think, “What?! And she thought she was a writer?” Then they trim a bit here, polish a bit there, move this to an earlier spot, add some foreshadowing...A draft or so later (or ten or even twenty), there is a sparking, shining novel. Easy, no? Well…no.

But there is another reason to write, one that is valid whether you are a professional author, an aspiring professional, a teacher, a student, a mechanic, or a professional bull rider, and that is that writing is just plain fun. As professionals, sometimes we forget how much fun it is just to play with words and stories. I write and publish suspense novels, but I also write fantasy novels. Maybe they will be published one day. Maybe not. Either way, I love creating the world and the events that happen in it. I love capturing ideas; like monarch butterflies in a field of milkweed, they are everywhere.

You might enjoy writing, too. Mystery, romance, sf/fantasy, or literary, choose what appeals to you, make up a character, decide what he or she wants and why he or she can’t have it, and start writing. If you get stuck, ask yourself, “And then what happened?” You’ll probably get a lot of good ideas about what comes next. You don’t have to be a professional author to have fun writing, and you don’t have to give up the pleasure of writing when you become a professional.

Happy Writing!

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers, where you can read Beth Terrell's interview. The book is also available in a large print edition.)

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