Author of the 2.5 Million-Copy Bestseller FRINDLE
New England Library Association, 2004
The Law of the Conservation of Thought and Experience
Webster’s 3rd Int: an invented prose narrative of considerable length and a certain complexity that deals imaginatively with human experience through a connected sequence of events involving a group of persons in a specific setting.
American Heritage Electronic Dictionary: A fictional prose narrative of considerable length, typically having a plot that is unfolded by the actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters.
Novel is derived from the Italian word, novella: a piece of news, chit-chat, a tale; from novus, Latin, meaning new.
I’m primarily a fiction writer, but as everyone has figured out by now, I mostly write realisitic fiction, novels that feel a lot like real life.
I‘ve realized that the process of writing fiction is a non-fiction activity. And curiuosly, one of the goals of writing fiction is to do it so well that the result feels real to the reader, to do it so well that the novel re-creates reality—and presumably, reality is a non-fiction experience.
So I hope it’s not too presumptuous for me to offer some thinking about writing fiction in non-fiction terms.
I like to think about this interface between the world of fiction and the non-fiction world, even the scientific world, which attempts to create the ulitimate non-fiction.
In the universe imagined by Albert Einstein, matter and energy are in a constant state of balance—nothing is ever lost. Derived from his famous E=MC2, Matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. They just keep changing forms. Physicists call this the law of the conservation of mass and energy.
In the worlds imagined by writers, I think there is a law of the conservation of thought and experience. In the life of a writer all experience has value.
Thoughts are infinitely recycleable, infinitely transformable. And when the power of imagination is applied to experience, energy is released, truths are distilled. And the light and inspiration from one person’s book becomes a new experience in the mind of a reader, the new thought that transforms a rainy Sunday afternoon into a mountaintop experience.
Matter accelerated to the square of the speed of light becomes energy.
Experience intensified by imagination becomes fiction.
Experience accelerated to the speed of pure imagination can also release energy— and on a good day, some light as well.
The British Poet Laureate William Wordsworth enjoyed grappling with the relationship between poetry and experience. And he tried to define romantic poetry in a single sentence. In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, he stated “Poetry is strong emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Doesn’t that sound suspiciously like an equation? Perhaps, Poetry = Emotion times Recollection raised to the power of Tranquillity. P = ERT.
And if were to yeild to the temptation to wax Wordsworthian, could I not say that: Fiction is experience (intense or commonplace or recollected) transformed by accelerated imagination? F=EI2. I think the analogy holds up.
I believe that there is such a thing as thinking like a writer. To a certain degree, thinking like a writer can be taught and learned. Reading with understanding plays a huge part in this education. The best advice I’ve ever given to a young writer is this: Read. Read all the good books you can get your hands on. Learn what good writing sounds like and feels like, pay attention to the way that good writing makes you feel and think. And then take it to the next level and try to discover the elements the writer is using. Remember that everything that happens in a book happens on purpose. The words did not just happen to land on the page that way. You are looking at thousands and thousands of decisions someone made, and if you begin to think like a writer, you can discover why that particular sentence was written in that particular way.
I have discovered that being writer is like being a miner. A miner is in the business of digging around for items of value. I have this constantly growing mound of experience and memory. That is where I dig. My memories change and take on new meaning and new value as I change and grow and think and learn. This may be one of the reasons that writers typically reach their fullest abilities somewhat later in life than other creative people do.
Another “thinking like a writer” moment I discovered while doing some experience mining the other night.
In the fall of 1961, I decided it would be fun to be the 7th grade class president at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in Springfield, Illinois. I strode into the office and with a flourish that would have made John Hancock proud, I wrote my name on the list of candidates.
A day later I learned there would a formal nominating assembly where each candidate would have to give a speech. Terror and dread and sweaty palms. I could easily imagine myself as the benign lord and master of the 7th grade, but giving a speech to the whole class? What would I say? What if I sounded stupid? What if everyone laughed and pointed at me?
I wanted to back out. But I didn’t. Instead, I began writing.
Predating Martin Luther King’s 1963 I have a Dream speech by two years, I used the same metaphorical device—although in a far less effective manner, and for a far less noble cause. All I can remember was the beginning, roughly, “Let me tell you about a dream I had last night. I dreamed that this year’s seventh grade class decided not to be an ordinary group of kids. In my dream I saw us working together to make our school and our town a better place.---ending of course, with the best part of the dream, where I dreamed that each and every seventh grader voted for me, Andrew Clements, to lead the class on to better and brighter things.
I worked on the speech for at least an hour, which in the life of this seventh grader, was quite a long time. I may have even revised it. I know I rehearsed the speech for my mom, who, predictably, thought that this was the most wonderful speech ever known to have flowed from the pen of man.
The day of the assembly loomed, and then dawned, and I. . . I made myself sick. I was much too sick to go to school. So I called my friend Bobby Roland, and asked Bobby to come over and get my written speech and take my speech to school, and stand up and read the speech at the nominating assembly on behalf of the dreadfully ill Andrew Clements. All of which my faithful friend Bobby did.
The balloting took place during lunch period that day, and at 2:45 PM Bobby called me from the pay phone outside the nurse’s office. I had won the election.
More precisely—and with the benefit of the experience of intervening years—I think it is more accurate to say that my writing, my written speech had won the election
Only in retrospect does this stand out as a waymark along my road toward becoming an writer. At the time, it was just part of the flow.
Recently children’s book reviewers have begun to assume that I pick an issue in public education and then write a book about it. Even my publishers have fallen into this mistaken view. And it is a mistake. I have never set out to write a book about an issue. All I ever try to do is tell a good story about an interesting set of characters. If you put those interesting characters into a school setting, the issues come up all by themselves.
For my novel coming out this month, The Last Holiday Concert, I have had to correct my editors and the copywriters again and again. In the catalog copy they wrote for this book, they kept wanting to portray me as tackling the issue of shrinking funding for the arts in the public schools. Not true. I got stuck on this main character who was the most popular kid at school—cool, handsome, popular. And he didn’t like being in the 6th grade chorus because standing up and singing in a white shirt and black pants and black shoes and black socks with your mouth open wide was not cool. The issue came up automatically and inevitably, because if I’m writing realisitic fiction about a young music teacher, funding, and “last hired, first fired” is going to come up.