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When You Reach Me: Rebecca Stead’s 2010 BGHB Fiction Award Speech

by Rebecca Stead

A long time ago, my mother got a job that would have made her father proud. He died before she got it, though, so he never found out about it. These things happen. Not long after, when I was about twenty, she said to me, “I want you to know that I have imagined everything wonderful that you might do in your life. So if something great happens and I’m dead, don’t worry. I have already had the joy of seeing you do it.”

This is a great example of how we can use the principles of time travel to improve our everyday lives. Most people, however, are afraid to try it. So to encourage all of you, I have written this short speech from two temporal points of view: I will address you as both the person I am as I type these words, and as the person I will be when I stand up to say them out loud. It might be confusing, and ultimately not even worth it, but that’s the risk you take when you write anything.

As I write, I’m sitting in my bedroom, which doubles as my office because I live in New York, where few people with children at home have the luxury of a real office, and I’m thinking about the room at Simmons College where I will stand up and say these words out loud. I’m aware that the room will be full of people. I know and admire many of these people — either personally, by reputation, or through their books, and some I don’t know. And some of those I don’t know, who are maybe just beginning to write, are people I will know and admire in the future — in person, by reputation, or through their books. It’s just a matter of time.

I have never seen this room at Simmons College, and I have not been shown any pictures of the room, and so as I write these words for my future self, I’m holding in my mind a picture of the lecture hall where I took art history in college — steep steps, worn theater seats, and desktops that swung up over our laps, with tiny clip-lamps so that we could take notes when the room was darkened for slides. I got a C in the class first semester and had to really step it up to finish the year with a decent grade.

But the point is that this room at Simmons College, whatever it looks like, clearly exists. Maybe some of you didn’t expect to be here. Maybe as I sit here typing, you are making an arugula, cherry tomato, and parmesan cheese salad, and you haven’t even thought about your plans for the first Friday in October. And probably one or two people who did expect to be here are not here, because they got colds, or offers to do something even more glamorous.

So here we are. It’s 12:48 p.m. on a Monday in September. And as I type these words, everyone in this room is somewhere—working, or running, or talking on the phone, or sleeping, or doing something else. I hope you aren’t cleaning, because it is too beautiful a day to be cleaning, in New York City anyway. I am reaching my mind out to each of you, and if it were possible, I would take a picture of every one of you, and we could put all the snapshots together on a bulletin board and look at them, and marvel that we all shared this moment in time without knowing it, and that our separate destinies, before too much longer, will bring us together in a room at Simmons College.

It is 12:56 p.m. on a Monday. I have my eye on the clock because for a week there’s been a notice in my apartment building’s elevator saying that the water tower on our roof is going to be cleaned today. It’s water-tower-cleaning time, and there will be no water from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Except that it’s now 12:59 p.m. and there is still water. I know because I keep checking. I am anxious about the whole situation. When will the water be turned off?

I could draw an analogy between writing and a water tap. It’s a pretty good one—sometimes sitting down with the intention to write is like turning on a faucet and seeing what comes out. A gush of something cold and fierce? A metallic-tasting drizzle? Nothing? I’m sure you will all agree that there is something inherently creepy about turning on a faucet and having nothing come out. Well, it’s the same with writing.

There’s nothing professional about the way I write. I haven’t ever kept a schedule, or known how to plan what might come next. When I’m writing well, I experience writing as something central to the person I am. But when I’m not writing well, I can barely remember what it feels like to write well. When that happens, I read.

I’ve been asked a lot about writing lately. Being asked about it has made me think about what it is I really need before I can get any work done. This is something I never thought about two years ago. And several years ago, I didn’t even admit to most people that I was trying to write. When I did talk about it, I sometimes referred to my own work as “stupid.” I probably thought I was protecting myself from disappointment, calling my work stupid before anybody else could do it. But it turns out not to work that way. There is no protecting yourself.

I’ve heard some writers say that what they need before they can write is a character: an image, a whispering voice. For me, though—so far, anyway—characters don’t show up fully dressed, speaking full sentences and demonstrating their lovable quirks. I have to make them very deliberately from things I have experienced or imagined. A character is like a chair that has to be put together well enough to earn the reader’s trust. If it’s unbalanced or coming apart at the joints, you just can’t get comfortable in it. And it’s the same with setting. Setting is another chair that the reader should be able to relax into without worrying that it might collapse.

It’s 1:20 p.m., and there is still water.

The one thing I need before I start writing is an emotion toward which to reach. Mostly these emotions come from my own life. Sometimes an emotion will come from someone else’s life. And sometimes I use other people’s books to create an emotion within myself that I can use to write. (Saul Bellow said that a writer is a reader moved to emulation, and this is absolutely true of me. We work alone, but we need one another. We’re a pack.)

I want to give you an example of the kind of emotional experience that fuels my writing. It’s a small one, about the size of a rat. Actually, it was a rat—a rat I saw sunning himself on the lawn at Columbia University on a beautiful spring day. This rat broke my heart because he was lying there looking content and pleased with the world, and he was oblivious to the fact that everyone who saw him was repulsed. And that’s all—that one beat of emotion is the kind of inspiration I’m talking about.

It’s a little like looking up at a spot on the ceiling, and thinking, there. That is what I am going to try to reach in this scene. That spot. I’m going to reach it by stacking my chairs until I can climb up there and touch it. Probably I will fall repeatedly while trying to do this. I’ll need help from my editor and from my friends. But first I have to make a bunch of chairs.

This is more or less how I wrote When You Reach Me. Scene by scene, I picked my spots and tried to write my way to them. I put words down and hoped that later I would be able to recognize the things that didn’t belong in the story. And I depended on my editor, Wendy Lamb, to recognize all of those spots on the ceiling that I was trying to touch, and to point out the ones I’d missed, and to help me see which of my chairs were broken, and how to stack them up better.

It is 3:37 p.m., and there is still water, and I have one last story I want to tell when I get to the room at Simmons College where we are all destined to come together, wearing these particular clothes and sitting with these particular friends.

A week ago, I took my nine-year-old son to hear a talk by a writer he admires. After the talk, a boy near the back of the room stood up and asked the writer a question: “Are you going to keep writing until you die?”

There it is again: Death, the time traveler’s ultimate hurdle. I think I will write until I die. I hope I will. It depends on whether the water stays on.

Thank you, Gregory Maguire, Martha Parravano, and Julie Just, for this honor.

Thank you to the writers in the room, for the books you have written and for the books you have yet to write.

Thank you to the readers in the room, for making this job one of life’s possibilities.

Thank you, Wendy Lamb and Random House, for turning that possibility into a reality.

I wish you all every happy kind of future.

From the January/February 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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