Monday, February 29, 2016

Girl Reporter Exposes Family Secrets

If you had to name a single book that inspired you to be a writer, what would it be?

-from Susan

For me, it’s not “a single books,” it’s “books,” as in all books.

I just returned from Left Coast Crime, a wonderful convention where writers still unpublished, authors with dozens of books out, and avid readers gather to celebrate crime fiction. It was held in Phoenix, Arizona this year. A few of the panel discussions I attended included a variant of the question, “When did you decide to become a writer.” I was struck by the number of answers that began with “When I was in third grade….”

My own answer is pretty much the same. When I was in the third grade I published a newspaper for my family of 5, one of whom was still a bit shaky on her reading skills. The adults were a bit shaky in their private behaviors related to alcohol but to their credit made no move to censor the hard-hitting, eight-year old editor. When I say “published,” I mean it. Carbon paper instead of a printing press, but a full layout with headlines, banners, decks, and hand-drawn substitutes for photographs. Copies were delivered to everyone who was on the subscription list – father, mother, kid brother, and baby sister.

So, clearly, when I was in the third grade I had made a career decision. (I later did become a grown-up reporter, so I was getting good practice.) So had other writers I know. It seems that by that age or grade, we’d had enough exposure to the magic power of words to know we had to aim in that direction. We had already been inspired, and surely it was books that inspired us. Read to at two and three, memorizing favorite pages at three and four, picking out words at four and five, and then sitting at little tables and wielding pencils to make letters and words and then – glory of glories – stories, ways to share our dreams, fears, and wildest wishes.

So, I say this in all seriousness: The books that inspired me to be a writer were Mother Goose, Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, Madeline, Wind in the Willows, Stuart Little, Mary Poppins, Curious George, Gigi, and a score of others that my parents read to me first and then I read over and over. They filled the bookcase in our playroom, were decorated with my crayoned commentaries, and became my closest companions.

I never stopped wanting to be a writer once I had learned how to make sentences. I think that was what the other LCC panelists, many of them award-winning, justly celebrated authors, were saying too. Other books, deeper reading, more experience with telling stories better by seeing how great authors through the ages have done it were all added fuel for the basic drive.

Advocacy moment: Read to your kids, to your grandkids, to your school’s kids, to the kids at Big Sisters and Big Brothers, to kids in hospitals and at day care. Give them books, as many as you can, like the generous attendees at Left Coast Crime did by generously supporting the auction to raise money for a program that works hard to make sure every child in Phoenix has a book of her or his own in the – you guessed it – third grade!


Paul D. Marks said...

Susan, sometimes I think we forget about our "kid books" when asked this question and go to adult books that have influenced or inspired us. But I love your list! Paul

Unknown said...

Winnie the Pooh, yes. Funny how I went back to those lately, after all these years, and find it's still great literature.
Would love to see your first newspaper - did you keep it?

Cathy Ace said...

Lots of food for thought as I prepare for my own post this Wednesday. Thanks...and it was great fun to meet you at Left Coast Crime :-)

RJ Harlick said...

You're right, Susan, about the influence our childhood books had on our desire to read and ultimately to write. Black Beauty and The Black Stallion were some of my early favourites. I was horse crazy then. I so enjoyed finally meeting the real person behind your blog photo. LCC was a super conference this year, wasn't it?

Susan C Shea said...

Paul, it came to me listening to so many writers reference the period when they put together some basic skills that we really are turned on to the power of words pretty early.

Rachel, I lost a suitcase full of memories some time ago, or maybe I was in a de-cluttering mood and threw it away, can't recall, and a copy of the "Wolff Weekly" was in it. But I remember it vividly!

Cathy, ditto, and RJ, my only regret was I got a sunburn wandering around in the midday sun with you in Phoenix. - And, yes, Robin, Black Beauty.

Think about some of those authors - E.B. White among them. That's learning from the masters.