We were visited by a friends with kids today. The oldest child in the family is a precocious 12-year-old boy who is tall for his age and very bright for any human standard. I enjoy smart kids; they give me hope that the world of my retiring years won’t be a complete disaster. This kid happens to be a voracious reader, lover of mathematics, and spontaneously capable of reciting 16 digits of pi whether you like it or not. He’s truly a delight.
I gave him a copy of each of my novels. I keep one set on the shelf, in case I need to refer to the published version. I felt obliged to warn him that my books are the product of an amateur level of expertise. The poor boy just finished reading Hunger Games again. I don’t kid myself about whether my writing stacks up to that series.
These are not the keystrokes of a millionaire.
Still, he politely dug into Infernal Stock I: Dixon Breaks Loose while the adults milled around in the sun. He was 30 pages into the story before he stopped to ask me some questions about my methods and the inspiration behind the characters.
I don’t offer advice to other writers because my methods are not disciplined or orderly. I’m not an outline person. I never have been. When I was in school, if an outline had to be included in an assignment, you could bet that I created it after the draft of the paper. My brain does not work that way. Ideas grow out my mind like a climbing vine, twisting and looping into whatever shape it finds comfortable or best for soaking up sunlight. My characters choose a path and I follow the characters. It’s all I know how to do, for now.
I told him about the basis for a couple of the minor characters. One of the characters, inspired by a memorable girl from my third grade class, led into a sidebar about bullies. The girl had been a misfit for as long as I had known her. One of my last interactions with her ended with me hitting her in the face with a soccer ball. I was provoked, but my response was not reciprocal. I knew, and still feel, that I was the jerk in that situation.
He asked if I was a bully. I swore that I was not. I was picked on by other kids and the adults. I was low on the hierarchy of elementary school politics. But, that girl was lower, so I wasn’t afraid to return her aggression.
“You were like me,” he said, “but I don’t pick on anyone else. Everybody picks on me.”
I nodded, thinking that a boy of 12 who is taller than me and stands his ground in a size-14 shoe could probably crack a few skulls. He wouldn’t, though.
“I was a wild animal when I was a kid. I didn’t have parents to teach me how to behave. You’re lucky to have your mom to keep you straight,” I said.
I told him that all of the really smart kids knew to be respectful of everyone, and they were more successful as adults. I hope that helps him get through the hard years of middle- and high school. If he’s lucky, he’ll make it through without inspiring guilt in anyone who remembers him.