Friday, October 7, 2016

Why I Write: An Imaginary School Visit Q & A

    I love school visits. I was a school media specialist for years, and I miss that world every day.

    My favorite part of school visits? Talking to the kids. Specifically, the question and answer part of my presentation. I have learned so much from those questions. 

    For instance, my very first school visit was to my daughter's kindergarten class. This is where I learned not to say, "So does anyone have any questions?"

    A boy waved both hands in my face, bursting with intellectual curiosity (I assumed).

   "Yes?" I gestured toward the boy by waving him out of my personal space.

   "Where do puppies come from?" he shouted.

   That day I learned to begin Q & A with the more specific "Does anyone have a question about writing or writers or books?"

    Over the years, the questions have grown more thoughtful, and have made me think about just why I do this writing-for-children thing.  Here is an imaginary Q & A showing how I arrived at an answer.

    Me: Does anyone have a question about writing or writers or books?

    A hundred hands shoot up.

   Me: I know everyone of you is either writing a book now or wants to be a writer some day, and I'll talk to you when I sign books. Now who has a question?

   Two thirds of the hands drop.

   Boy in a Hogwarts hoodie:  Do you know JK Rowling?

   Me:  Not personally, but she is a terrific writer.  Don't you think so?

   Room agrees enthusiastically.

   Girl with braces:  Do you make a lot of money?

   This answer depends on the age group. Answer for elementary students.

   Me:  Most writers have other jobs like teaching because most of us don't make a lot of money from our books. Not enough money to pay the bills at least.

   Middle school answer.  Me:  Last year my daughter made twice as much money bussing tables at Golden Corral than I did writing and teaching writing.

   Silence. I sense a number of kids deciding against a writing career.

   Child in neon orange from back of room:  Where do you get your ideas?

   I used to tick off the specific story seed for each of my books, until the day a second grader said, "So you just pretty much write about your family?"

The Rodman family 1916---my current WIP
    Me:  My husband and I come from storytelling families. My daughter tells me stories about her friends and teachers. Thanks to them, I never run out of ideas.  I think the best ideas come from stories families remember and tell about each other. You just have to pay attention to find them.

Teacher, leaning against the wall, arms folded: So, Ms Rodman, I think the students would like to know why you write?

   Me: (Cold sweats, racing heart, blank brain) That's a terrific question.

   I stalling for time. Is the next group of kids standing in the hall, waiting to come in?

   No, they are not.

    I mentally run through possible answers.

   I wanted to be rich and famous (too snarky).  I'm not very good at anything else (not entirely true; I was a great librarian). I'm not really a writer; it's just an expensive hobby I pursue to annoy my husband (super snark...and only the teachers might get it..)

    Me:  I have to write. (Well, that was weak.)

   Teacher: Excuse me?

   Me: (regrouping) I can't not write.

   (Double negative. Ouch. Not good. Try again.)

   Me:  As long as I can remember, I've told myself stories. When I learned to write, I had a way to save and share them. The more I wrote,  the more I want to write. There are so many, many stories I want to share, I'll never be able to write them all down.

Same Teacher:  Would you still write if you weren't published?

    Me: I wrote for years without being published. I wrote other stuff, things like diaries and journals that were just for me. When I was your age I wrote letters.  I have dozens of cousins, and a bunch of other relatives who all lived far away from me. I wrote at least two or three letters a week.

    (A brief digression to explain snail mail, and the world before the Internet and cell phones.)

     Me:  I wrote for my school newspapers and a school column for my neighborhood paper.

    (Similar digression on newspapers.  My life starts to feel like it took place in the Bronze Age, for the resemblance it bears to my readers' lives.)

    Same Teacher (who I now suspect has an agenda. Maybe she's a secret writer?): Don't you ever get discouraged and want to quit?

    Me: All the time. Sometimes you spend years writing a story, and then no one wants to buy it.  Sometimes you work and work on a book, and when you go back and read it, it's not as good as you thought.  That's when I say, OK, I quit.  I'm not going to write any more. It's too hard.

    Same Teacher: (prompting. Definitely has an agenda!) Then what happens?

    Me: After a couple of days I'll hear or see something and think "I've got to write this down. This is part of a story." I'll remind myself that I'm not writing any more. ..but I go ahead and write it down anyway.  Before I know it, I'm writing again. I can't help it.

    Girl in black (fourth grade Goth girl?) :  So how do you know if you are a writer?

     Me:  If you knew no one but you would ever read your stuff, and you knew you would never make any money writing, and you still write because you just have to....then you're a writer.

     Boy in LeBron James jersey:  For real?  Even if you didn't make money and nobody read your stories?  You'd write anyway?

     (I can tell he's thinking, but not saying, "well, that's stupid.")

     Me:  You like Le Bron James.  You must play basketball, right?

      Boy: Yeah.

     Me:  Are you any good?

      Boy: (trying to look modest but not succeeding). Yeah. Pretty good.

        Me:  What if somebody told you that you were a good player, but not good enough to play for the NBA?  Would you still want to play ball?

       Boy: Well, yeah. (His body language implies "duh, writer lady.")

       Me:  Why?

       Boy: Because it's fun.  I love it. I play all the time.

       Me: So you're kind o like me.  Writing is fun.  I love it. I write all the time or I'm thinking about writing. I'll keep writing even if no one ever reads another word I write.  And I think we have time for one more question.

      Girl:  Ms Rodman, why hasn't Yankee Girl ever been a movie?

      Me:  Oh, look, the next group is already at the door. Well, this has been fun and I'll see you guys at the book signing. Bye, now!

     Nothing like a school visit to remind me of my priorities.  Writing, writing and writing. And if someone reads it, so much the better.  School visits will always set you straight.

----Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Carmela Martino said...

Love this post, MA, and the pictures are fantastic!

Sridhar Chandrasekaran said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Love your basketball response - brilliant!

Kathy Halsey said...

Congrats on these great school visits an dour answers are instructive for the rest of us on the journey! I was a school librarian, too, now writer. I can't wait to get a book published because I love school visits. And I still volunteer at the library from which I retired.

Anonymous said...

Mary Ann, you can't imagine (maybe you ca) how much I needed this post. Thanks for the diagnosis of my writing angst. Thanks for the prescription for 'content with just writing.'

Mary Ann Rodman said...

I've been on vacation all this time and more than a little slack with keeping up with comments and email and such. Thank you all for your comments. Also a shout out to the writer who personally emailed me that she also found the post just the encouragement she needed on that particular day. I feel the same way about your comments....sometimes I need to know that someone is reading my posts. Love you all.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Oh, Mary Ann ~ that was NOT an imaginary had me in the room with you, listening to every hilarious comment and to every gentle answer to sometimes crazy questions!