In high school, I usually got B+’s in English. I was an excellent grammarian and did quite well on reading comprehension tests, but I struggled with the creative writing assignments. Years later, I realized why. It wasn’t that I lacked imagination (which my teachers sometimes scribbled on the bottom of my efforts); it was that I was being asked to spin two different plates at the same time. Assignments like “Write an essay about something in your home” required that I 1) think up something worthy of expression and 2) work out how to articulate that thought. It was just too much for me at the time, and my plates kept crashing to the ground.
Then, in eleventh grade, I joined the staff of my school newspaper, a weekly. For the most part, I covered sports, and the experience was revelatory. (My most infamous article, about the girls’ basketball team, included the sentence, “Certain coaching fundamentals appear to be lacking”—but that’s a story for another blog post.) Writing about sporting events, I no longer had to invent the content. The players did that for me. All I had to do was take good notes, ask a few questions, and figure out how to turn my notes into clear, engaging prose. In other words, I could focus on Task 2 without having to worry about Task 1.
What a relief that was! Unburdened of the blank page, I began to have fun with words, which I had always loved. Writing sports afforded me a great deal of linguistic license, and I took full advantage. I was never able to work duniwassal (a minor Scottish nobleman) or fubsy (meaning “chubby and somewhat squat”) into a lead, but I did once describe a basketball player landing forcefully with an important rebound as looking “like Pete Townshend doing a power leap onto the bridge of the USS Enterprise.” Pardon the mixed metaphor, but I really liked both The Who and Star Trek at that age (still do, actually).
Writing one or two stories a week gave me the practice I needed to organize my thoughts effectively and become fluent with sentence structure. It also gave me the opportunity to experiment with the many bells and whistles of writing, from metaphor and simile to alliteration and assonance. As a well-trained grammarian, I already knew what these were, but knowing something and taking it out for a drive isn’t always the same thing. In fact, it isn’t ever the same thing.
As the mechanics of my writing improved, so did the creative content of my classroom work. As Task 2 (the articulation) became easier for me, I could think more expansively about Task 1 (deciding what I wanted to write). By the time I left high school, the transformation was complete, and I was beginning to think of myself as a writer.
I was also, as you’ve probably guessed, a voracious reader. My favorite genre was science fiction, and I pored over the classics—Asimov, Heinlein, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick. But I also read all of Philip Roth (my favorite short story remains “The Conversion of the Jews” at the end of Goodbye, Columbus) and a lot of narrative history (in eleventh grade I weighed down by backpack with Robert Caro’s The Powerbroker).
For reasons that had more to do with serendipitous circumstances than anything else, I began making a living after college first as a journalist and then as an author of nonfiction books (mostly history). The Carpenter’s Gift is actually my first published work of fiction. But it didn’t feel like much of a transition to me because of the way that I think about writing.
Having already authored a middle-grade nonfiction book about Habitat for Humanity (called If I Had a Hammer)and subsequently having become a volunteer myself, I realized that I had something else I wanted to say that couldn’t quite be expressed in another work of nonfiction because it was more a feeling than an idea. Once I knew what I wanted to write (Task 1), the best way to execute the idea (Task 2) became pretty obvious to me. When words become your friends, as they have become mine, it doesn’t really matter whether the content is factual or fictional. All that matters is that it’s true.
David Rubel is an author, speaker, and historian who has written enduring books of American history. His most recent work is THE CARPENTER’S GIFT: A Christmas Tale About the Rockefeller Center Tree. For more information about the book and the connection between the Rockefeller Center Tree and Habitat for Humanity, please check out http://www.habitat.org/lc/stories_multimedia/thecarpentersgift/multimedia.aspx. His website can be found at www.davidrubel.net.
Tonight’s tree lighting marks the 80th Anniversary of the Rockefeller Center Tree!
In celebration of this, Random House Kids is offering a chance to win a copy of THE CARPENTER’S GIFT. To enter the drawing, fill out the form below.