Subscribe to The Horn Book

Making Stories Happen

By Rachel Vail

A fourth grader recently asked me: What mood are you in when you’re writing?

Most people who hear I’m a writer ask if it takes a lot of discipline or if I can make a living at it, to which I respond without needing to think that no, it doesn’t take much discipline because I love doing it, and yes, I’ve been very lucky. But the nine-year-old had me stumped. What mood am I in? At first all I could come up with was, What an interesting question.

The main characters of my three novels are a little older than the boy, and might not have asked me that question if they were real and had the opportunity. Because it’s so important to Jessica midway through Wonder to re-catch the rhythm of the girls who have rejected her, she forces herself to shut up and try to fit in. Whitman, the narrator of Do-Over, eats five meringue cookies instead of asking questions when his parents tell him they’re separating. Although Molly recognizes in Ever After(all Orchard) that she’s destroying herself, she ravages her voice and never says her weird thoughts aloud. Any of them might have wondered about a visiting writer’s mood at work, but all three are adolescents. I doubt they’d have the confidence to raise their hands and ask.

At the beginning of seventh grade I met a girl who told me her father was dead. I asked her what he was like when he was alive. No, she corrected, you’re supposed to say you’re sorry. Neither of us could figure out why. She had been longing to talk about times he’d hidden little presents in her closet and the fact that he liked black licorice. She cried, and so did I, and we became best friends for a while. My grandmother died last week, and everybody told me they were sorry.

When were they taught to say that? At some point we learn to say only the appropriate words, to conform to expectations, to walk instead of run. By the middle of seventh grade I ran only in gym, when forced to, and worried whether my new antiperspirant would work and if I should get a training bra so nobody would see. I stopped thinking of myself as a good artist and, instead of doodles, decorated my book covers with quotes from Richard Bach books and Jackson Browne songs. I didn’t stop singing, but my friend Laura did; Janet concentrated on sports but wouldn’t dance, since obviously Aina was the ballerina of our group. By the age of twelve we were specializing. I had no talents discernible to myself; I kept lists cataloguing what I couldn’t do.

Although I loved stories and collected them as my friend Steffi collected autographs, I didn’t plan to become a writer. Maybe a spy, because I was into eavesdropping. Yes, of course I enjoyed writing, but writers, I thought, were much deeper than I, dressed all in black with a cigarette in one hand and a Scotch in the other. The writer I dated when I was fifteen wrote poems I didn’t understand in which I appeared as either smoke or a gray cat. He spent most of our month together clutching his hair and listening to Mahler. I just liked to make up stories.

My eighth-grade English teacher loved similes, so my homework was flooded with ases and likes. I did very well in that class. I had a teacher who liked irony, so all my endings twisted; and one later who was into surrealism, so my characters may or may not have disappeared. I learned to be a good student instead of a good writer.

I wanted to create characters, to live inside different people. What I wrote was evaluated by how many vocabulary words I’d managed to squeeze in, then later in terms of how postmodern feminist critics would interpret it. I was bored. So I auditioned for plays, and got to be an old woman when I was ten, a middle-aged man at eleven, a murderer at twenty-one. It was important to figure out how each character walked and breathed, whether she slept on her back, if he believed in God, what she carried in her pockets — because I needed to know everything in order to become the character. It was fun, although I must admit I learned everybody’s lines. I wanted to play all the parts, and direct, maybe write the betrayal scene that took place off-stage. So I signed up for more English classes. We discussed symbolism and style but never smiled. I didn’t want to be a writer, I insisted — writers take themselves too seriously; there’s no joy in it.

But then I found Doc Murphy, a cross-eyed play-writing professor who demanded, “Astonish me.” Don’t tell me the character takes a drink, he said, even if it is symbolic of baptism and rebirth. What does she drink, and how? Would she sip a martini? Boring. Chug a beer? Chug a martini? Yes, in a chipped New York Knicks mug. Now, he would say, now she is becoming somebody. Who would go to the trouble of making a martini for herself — no, mixing Tanqueray and dry vermouth in a metal shaker — if she was going to pour it (through a strange-looking strainer with a coil around it) into a chipped Knicks mug? Or did somebody else make it for her? Who? Now we’re getting a story. It was thrilling, athletic, joyous.

Dick Jackson, my editor at Orchard Books, pushes me that way. When we were collaborating onWonder, he asked me what Jessica’s father did for a living. I made lists — lawyer, appliance salesman, astronaut — searching for the right job, something that wasn’t boring or a cliché. Jessica’s father makes pantyhose for fat women. It works because it would terribly embarrass an almost-thirteen-year-old to be expected to wear the “Big and Pretty” sweatshirt her father would have proudly given her, which echoes the humiliations poor Jessica suffers throughout the plot. It had the added bonus of making the father a more real person. Also, it tickled us. DJ and I both liked saying, “pantyhose for fat women.”

Can writing be taught to children this way? How lucky students would be to have a teacher who challenged them to discover the most interesting occupation for a character, what the character craves when she’s thirsty, what mood she is in while she works. I loved Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (Bradbury) from the first page, when Margaret knew it was hot because she caught her mother sniffing under her arms. The reason the symbolism in A Separate Peace (Macmillan) by John Knowles affected me is that, like Gene, I fell in love with Finny — a palpably real person who flowed when he walked, had ears set close against his head, and believed stubbornly in goodness. The books that made me a reader, and then a writer, were the ones whose characters I came to know, through their singularity, better than myself or my friends. I think writing would be so much more exciting and less daunting for children if the emphasis were put on the details, the questions that propel the writer to create astonishing, unique characters who, by their juxtaposition with other astonishing, unique characters, make stories happen.

I hope I am again becoming a person who would ask what a friend’s father was like when he was alive instead of offering pat condolences. My grandmother kept her jewelry in satin pouches that she allowed me to handle and always changed her clothes in the closet. I try to concentrate on things like that, because the same things that make my characters real for me keep Grammy alive in my memory. I want to know how a character smells, what he hates to eat, which part of herself she’d change if she could. While I sit typing at my computer I might cry, or tense my muscles, or pout or laugh or smile, and when things are going well that’s how I discover what the character does. On horrible days I realize that I am headed nowhere, that I will have to throw away thirty pages of manuscript and two months’work having gained only the knowledge that the narrator has a dog and that it’s summer. I sometimes spend six hours on one sentence. But what is my mood while I write? I feel exhilarated. I have fun. I don’t worry much about similes now, or about not liking Scotch or cigarettes. I spend my days in red sweats and pink socks, making stuff up until it is true.

No, it doesn’t require overwhelming discipline, and yes, I am very lucky.

From the May/June 1994 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind