Author of the 2.5 Million-Copy Bestseller FRINDLE
NCTE 2004, Indianapolis
The Irresistible Appeal of Everyday Life
What seems like a long, long time ago the planners for this convention asked me to supply a title for this session that we’re having here in Indianapolis this morning. So I sat and I thought a bit, and came up with this:
The Irresistible Appeal of Everyday Life .
And I was happy with that title. It had a nice ring to it. But honestly, I had absolutely no clear idea what that meant. But it sounded great: The Irresistible Appeal of Everyday Life. And I felt that the title was wide enough and deep enough and round enough that I’d really be able to say almost anything, and no matter what I said, it would probably sound like I meant to say it.
About the same time that I got the invitation to speak at NCTE and came up with that title, I also went out to a public school for a day as a visiting author.
And during a rare quiet moment that day, a reading teacher---who may also have gotten a minor in psychology---spoke to me. And she said to me, “I read five of your middle grade novels last week. Such good books…but there’s definitely a pattern to them, don’t you think? Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And I’ve also noticed something else very interesting --- I noticed that there’s a strong woman in most of your books. So I’m guessing that you’ve had strong women in your life—your mom, or someone close to you?—am I right?”
So in very few sentences, this well-meaning soul had made two semi-distressing observations: One, that she thought my novels were tranparently formulaic; and two, that I was obviously expressing deep psychological life-issues in my fiction, especially with regard to women.
I know I smiled and nodded and spoke politely to this person on that day, and then moved on to the next part of the busy afternoon.
But on my drive home, I recalled the reading teacher’s comments, and, as so often happens, I also thought of the perfect response to that bit about strong women—Of course I was thinking of this too late. But it went something like this. “Strong women, you say? Well, perhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve been writing a lot about schools? Because this is not some mysteriously reappearing lietmotif welling up from deep within. I’m writing about schools, and if I’m not mistaken, those strong women you refer to?— in some of my books those would be called teachers. And principals. And school board members. And moms. And to complete a grand psychological self-profile, have all these strong, talented, caring people been a part of my life? Gratefully, yes they have. So, mystery solved!”
And then I mentally dropped the whole thing, drove home, and went on with my life.
And as part of that life, I began writing a new novel in January of 2003. I put in a few month’s work, and then I got sidetracked and wrote The Last Holiday Concert, which was just published a month ago.
And early this past summer of 2004, once the Holiday Concert book was done, I looped back, and resumed work on the previous book.
And without thinking about it, without even noticing it, in this new book I found myself trying to avoid having certain kinds of scenes appear: scenes like a confrontation with the principal; or a public meeting; or a scene in the cafeteria; or kids putting down other kids.
I was trying so hard to avoid these common plot elements that when the story line seemed headed in one of these familiar directions, I would struggle, and change the course of the action. And why? Because I did not want to fall into patterns, didn’t want to be formulaic, didn’t want to settle into the same old ruts and gullies.
So I struggled on to an end of the story, and in August 2004 I sent the first draft of this new novel to my editor. And in very short order she wrote me back a great letter, which began by telling me some of the things she loved about the story. But then she told me that the first half of the book seemed disconnected from the second half. As if I was trying to force the story to go a certain way, instead of following it to see where it leads.
And about this same time that my editor was telling me what was wrong with this newest novel, the emails about NCTE started to come in, and I looked back into correspondence almost a year old to try to find what I’d said I was going to talk about. And lo and behold, there was the title I’ve already mentioned: The Irresistible Appeal of Everyday Life.
And I realized what the title means. In my case, it means that if you’re going to write a story that happens at school, then let it happen there. Don’t try to resist it. In the hundreds of letters I get from kids, what do they seem to like best? That my stories reflect true-to-life, recognizeable bits of their everyday lives at school.
And when I realized this, I went back into that newest novel, tossed out almost the entire second half, went back to the main characters, and followed them faithfully through their everyday lives at school. And on Tuesday of this week—just four days ago, I sent the fully revised second draft to my editor. And I’m happy with it. Whether or not she’ll be happy—I won’t know that until sometime next week. But no matter what, I know I’ve learned something.
And here’s what I’ve learned:
If you’re going to write a heist movie, then there is going to be car chase. Or maybe a boat chase. Or a helicopter chase. Because that’s just part of that kind of show. Heist movie? Chase scene. And if you’re the director of the movie, or if you’re writing the script, you don’t say to yourself, “Now, how can I avoid having a chase scene?” Because if you do that, then you might as well stop and make some other kind of movie. Because when we buy a ticket for a heist movie, that chase scene is part of what we’re paying for. We want the chase scene. We’re looking forward to it. That’s part of the deal.
And if you’re writing a detective novel, there’s going to be a scene where the smart private eye runs up against the bumbling or overworked or careless police. Guaranteed. At some point during the private eye novel, Sherlock Holmes, or Miss Marple, or Mickey Spillane, or Sam Spade, or Perry Mason, or Kinsey Milhone, or one of the Hardy Boys is going to have a nose-to-nose talk with someone from the local constabulary, and somebody is going to prove somebody else wrong. That scene is just part of the deal. Or to be more literarily precise, it’s just part of the genre.
And what kind of books am I writing a lot of right now? What’s my genre? I’m writing school stories. Stories about kids and teachers that happen mostly or partly at school. And if I’m writing a school story, and in that story something goes wrong for the main character, then the principal is going to part of the story.
I really am interested in schools, the way schools work, and the way children spend time there and the way grownups spend time there, and so many people, so many amazingly talented, wonderful, unselfish people spend so much of their lives trying to make the school as good as it can be. And it’s an amazing challenge—it’s a political challenge, it’s a financial challenge, it’s an organizational challenge, and it’s certainly an intellectual and a pedagogical challenge, and then, of course, there are the children—who are the whole reason that the schools exist in the first place—we have the children there trying to grow up, trying to become more of who they are. It’s an amazing and complex mix of so many things happening all at once, right there in the heart of every community, every society, every nation on earth. And I’m having a great time exploring all this in some of my books.
So I’m accepting the idea that I’ve got a genre here, School stories, and within this genre, there are certain elements that I’m going to have. And if I’m writing a school story, following a certain set of characters, and if I’m trying not to have the principal in the story, then I’m in trouble. Because in every school I’ve taught in or visited, the principal is THERE, in the thick of things, fully involved—which is as it should be—that’s the job. And there’s the school board. If a situation rises to a district-wide level, or a policy level, then the school board is going to be involved, and there is going to be a meeting, and it has to be a public meeting, because that’s the way it works. And if I try to avoid that, then I’m going to miss out on the very texture of everyday life that is so fascinating to most people as we read our novels, as we read our stories.
So I’ve decided that it’s all right to embrace these elements, to show them as they are. If you’re going to have a chase scene in your heist movie, make it a great one. If I’m going to have a trip to the principal’s office, make it as true to life, as true to the characters’s lives as possible. And have some fun with these elements.
As students of literature, we know about literary forms and literary conventions. We know that if you’re writing a haiku, the challenge is to accept that rigid syllable count, and try to be creative within it. If you’re writing a sonnet, there’s a rigid meter and rhyming structure, and the challenge is to be creative within that form. John Donne and Shakespeare and Wordworth and so many others have shown that you can rise above the form, make the form serve your purposes, and have a wonderful sense of freedom.
All writers spend a lot of time and energy interacting with the literary form they’ve chosen, overcoming its limitations, understanding the elements well enough that they can focus their creative efforts on making the form serve the story. Not trying to avoid the form, not trying to avoid elements—take the principal’s office. A trip to the principal’s office or any conversation with the principal is quite a thing.
And I did a little digging, and I’ve got four different takes on this from four different books on a recurring school story element: a run in with the principal:
And here’s the principal scene from my newest novel—Lunch Money:
And now the whole language arts class was having a big argument about which was better—Holes, the book, or Holes, the movie. Life was back to normal.
Then the intercom speaker on the wall next to the clock crackled to life. It was Mrs. Ogden, the school secretary. “Mrs. Lindahl?”
The teacher held up her hand for quiet. “Yes?” All eyes swung to the speaker, as if there was something to see.
“Pardon the interruption. Will you please send Gregory Kenton to the office?”
Mrs. Lindahl nodded at the speaker, and said, “He’ll be right there.” Then she nodded at Greg.
When the secretary said his name, Greg had felt his stomach tighten, felt a tingle in his mouth and across the top of his scalp. But he pushed back the fear, stood up, and walked out the door into the hallway.
The hall was empty, quiet. His cross trainers squeaked on the tile as he walked. Greg told himself, Could be a message from my mom. Like maybe a dentist appointment after school. So I don’t take the bus home.
But Greg knew he was kidding himself. This had to be about something else. And when he turned the last corner and looked through office windows, he knew. Maura was sitting on the little wooden bench on one side of the principal’s door. And Mr. Z sat in the chair on the other side. So this was going to be about what happened yesterday, about arguing and yelling in math class, about getting whacked in the nose. Because fighting of any kind was absolutely forbidden at Ashworth Intermediate, a huge no-no, right up there with vandalism and stealing. And Mrs. Davenport came down hard on fighting. Always.
When Greg entered the office, Mrs. Ogden looked up and then pointed to the bench. Greg sat down.
Without turning her head, Maura whispered, “This is your fault. I have never been called to the principal’s office before.”
Greg snorted and whispered back. “Well, boo-hoo. We didn’t even fight. It was an accident. We can prove it. So relax. We’re just gonna get yelled at a little.”
“Or suspended,” Maura said.
The principal’s door opened. “Mr. Zenotopoulous, Maura, Greg—please come in. Sit down.”
Everyday life—what characters we care about think and do during their days—it really is interesting. We all have an urge to read on and see what this character says or does next. And there’s a reason for that, I think.
When I visited a school not long ago, a fourth grader asked me, Why do you try to put so many details in your stories? And I said, Well here we all are in your classroom—there were about 25 kids—and I said, everyone be quiet, just sit quietly. And it got quiet in the room. And I let it go on. And then on. And then on. And then I walked a step or two, put my hand not quite touching the top of a girls head, and I whispered, “Right now, I have no idea what’s going on inside this mind, or this mind, or this one. Because unless we are sharing and communicating how this life feels or seems or is to us, unless we get across this distance, then we’re all alone. And we don’t know what’s going on in other people’s lives, in other people’s thinking, in other people’s experiences. Writers—especially fiction writers—are people who sit down and try to imagine what’s going on in another’s life and experience. And we work from our own experiences, and we focus on what we find interesting, and we hope that others will find it interesting too.”
And the reason we love reading novels, is because it gets us inside someone else’s thinking in a way that even being a good friend sometimes won’t do.
I think of Levin in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Or Jane Austen’s Emma. Or any Dickens novel you could name. Such detail. Such richness of expression of everyday experiences. And these open up for you and me—and for our students and young readers—realms of thought and experience that are new. The Irresistible Appeal of Everyday Life is what keeps you and me turning to fiction of every kind.
So to answer that kind, observant reading teacher about the matter of a pattern in my books, I say, Yes, there is a pattern. And here’s what I hope. I hope that the pattern you see there will be an honest representation of the form and outline of everyday life, in all its richness and variety. Because everyday life is what we’re all interested in. That’s where we live. And kids live at school. It’s a huge part of their lives, and our lives, too. So I hope that my readers continue to find these stories as irresistibly appealing as I do, and for roughly the same reasons.
And that’s all I have to say about that.