Author of the 2.5 Million-Copy Bestseller FRINDLE
NCTE 2002, Atlanta
Thinking like a writer
When I visit with kids and teachers, I am sometimes asked the question “what is it like to be a writer?” On the most basic level, almost everyone is a writer. Almost everyone already knows what it's like to think and then capture that thinking as written words on paper or on a screen.
But this question I am asked usually means more. It means ‘what is it like to write fiction, to write long sustained narratives with engaging characters and plot development and a compelling story that leads to a satisfying conclusion. And sometimes it means, ‘how do you find ideas to write about? How do you think this stuff up??
And the question I ask myself is this: What does it mean to think like a writer?
Only recently have I begun to realize that I may have been thinking like a writer long before the notion of being a writer ever entered my mind. I can recall a snowy morning in New Jersey when I was in kindergarten. My mother had bought me a new pair of navy blue wool leggings and I hated them. They were puffy and baggy and worst of all they were itchy. It was time for me to walk the three blocks to school with my older brother Jeff and I refused to to put on my leggings. And my mom said fine. If you won’t wear those leggings then you won't go to school. And I made the mistake of calling my mom’s bluff.
I was sent to my room. I remember opening the window that looked out on the Bettlewood Avenue in front of our house. The snow was 6 inches deep on the roof of the front porch. I saw my brother Jeff walk down the block and turn left at Vic's Esso station at the corner of the White Horse Pike. I stayed there at the open window, the cold air raising goose bumps on my arms. And 10 minutes later I heard the big red alarm bell on the side of the school. It rang for fifteen seconds, and the sound carried in the clear cold air, faint but definite, from three blocks away. And in my mind I could see my friends lining up to walk inside. I could see Johnny Roberts and Joyce Davis, and the principal, Mrs. Finney in her long black wool coat. And I wasn’t there. Life at school was going to go on just as it had yesterday, but today it was happening without me. And this feeling of distance, this feeling of life going on without me being in it, this feeling of being three blocks away was so strong. And so was the feeling of trying to understand what it meant—that life could go on without me being there in the middle of it.
And now, all these years later, it occurs to me that that may have been the first time I caught myself thinking like a writer. I had an experience and I tried to understand it and go past it and extract some larger meaning from it. What it was was a story. And I was a character, and so was my mom, and my brother and my friends and the school itself with all its life and variety, all it’s remarkable unlikeness to my life at home where Mom was the absolute ruler.
As I write these very words, I am sitting in a small shed in my back yard. I have posters over the two windows so I won’t be tempted to sit back and watch the birds on the feeders instead of write. But I don’t have the small skylight covered. And I can hear a flock of starlings as they careen around the yard and the neighborhood. I can hear the rush and the flutter of many hundred wings, and leaning back, I tilt my chin to look up at the skylight. A flashing stream of birds wheels suddenly left no more than six inches from the glass, so close that I can see the speckles below the wings , and three feet higher, another river of birds goes wheeling right. And something makes me want to extract some meaning from that. Something makes me want to hold that moment and capture it, complete with the knotty pine ceiling that frames the skylight, and the brilliant cloudless blue background of the distant sky, and the scent of smoke from last night’s fire in the woodstove.
I believe that the impulse to try to extract meaning from experience is the essence of what it means to think like a writer.