From Reader to Writer by Rebecca Behrens
I’ve always been a reader. Book was one of my first words; I’m crawling toward one in the home movies taken of me as a baby. My book love surprised no one, considering the four generations of English and language-arts teachers in my family. I was the kid who turned her closet into a blanket-filled reading nest; who always had a paperback in hand while riding in the backseat (sometimes to the dismay of my parents, such as when we drove along Highway 1 on a California road trip—the only vistas I was interested in were the ones on the page); who happily worked as a one-girl reading-textbook focus group, plowing through sample copies to help my mom and her colleagues pick new ones for their classrooms; who, if told to put the book down at the dinner table, found herself scanning the ingredients list on the can of Parmesan cheese because she simply had to keep reading. If one thing was certain in my young life, it’s that I was destined to be a reader, forever.
But a writer? I never thought that could be for me. Sure, I liked to write stories and I loved the idea of someday publishing one, but I didn’t believe I had what it takes to be a true, capital-A author. The names on jacket flaps and paperback covers loomed large in my head. Judy Blume and Elizabeth George Spear and Ann Rinaldi and Avi were mythical figures—how they held those whole other worlds inside their heads and managed to make them seem so real on paper was unfathomable to me. Either they were geniuses, or it was magic; I was eternally grateful at what they created but I had no clue how I could ever do the same thing myself. I couldn’t see beyond “write what you know,” and what I knew was an ordinary childhood in Madison, Wisconsin. With a lot of time spent in my closet reading nest. Hardly the stuff of a great book.
So obviously something changed, because today my first book ventures out into the world.
In October 1995, my mother took me to a CCBC event at the University of Wisconsin: Sharon Creech was there to deliver a speech and sign copies of her latest book Walk Two Moons. I’d read it over the summer and I was obsessed. I also was convinced that Sharon Creech had traveled Salamanca’s winding cross-country path herself while writing—how else could she have written it so vividly? In one memorable scene, Salamanca and her grandparents stop in Madison, Wisconsin, and the description of my fair city was so spot-on that there was absolutely no way that Sharon Creech hadn’t walked the downtown streets herself. She mentioned how hard parking in Madison was! She perfectly described the deli and ice-cream parlor I’d been eating at since I learned to chew! She knew the State Street café my parents loved! In her words, in Madison, “ it seemed as if the whole city was on vacation, with people riding around on their bikes and walking along the lakes and feeding the ducks and eating and canoeing and windsurfing.” I’d never read a truer description of my city. (In fact, this was the first time I’d ever read fiction that mentioned my hometown.) Salamanca might never have seen anything like Madison before, but I had—and to write it so well, the author must have, too.
Sharon Creech’s speech “Fishing in the Air: A Writer’s Journeys” was wonderful, and many of the ideas she shared about the journeys we take, as readers and writers, stick with me today. As far as I can remember, that was the first time I’d met a real, live author. But for me, the most affecting part happened during the Q&A. I squirmed around in my seat, hoping that someone would ask Sharon when she had visited Madison previously. I wanted to hear all about the time she’d spent here and how it inspired that perfect scene. Of course someone in the audience of Madisonians did ask about her experiences with the city prior to writing the book.
Imagine my surprise when Sharon told the crowd that, actually, this was her first time in Madison. Ever.
But . . . she knew all about the ice cream! The parking woes! The windsurfers! The fact that everybody biked, and we had that whole vacation vibe going! I was shocked.
Sharon explained how she’d done her research before writing that scene—such as browsing books and travel brochures. She’d used that information, along with her experiences elsewhere, to write this place—and she’d nailed it.
If I felt disappointed that my favorite author didn’t have ties to my city, that was quickly displaced by admiration for her skill at, well, making things up. Perhaps, I thought, writing “what you know” doesn’t have to be so literal. Maybe blending your own life experiences with some good, solid research and a lot of imagination was how you created rich and believable stories. Maybe that meant that I could someday be an author, too—and I didn’t just have to write about what little I knew.
I’d love to say that I went home and started scribbling down an epic about pioneers, now that Sharon Creech’s speech had given me permission to redefine how I viewed authorship. In truth, I stayed solely a reader for many more years. But when the time came that I decided I wanted to sit down and write, I thought about that October day at the Memorial Union. I thought about sitting in a room that looked out on the lake that Sharon Creech had so perfectly described. I thought about that event being the first time she’d actually seen it. And then I took a deep breath and started to type.
Rebecca Behrens is the author of WHEN AUDREY MET ALICE, a middle-grade novel about what happens when a modern-day First Daughter finds Alice Roosevelt’s secret diary. (Spoiler alert: Lots of hijinks!) It releases today from Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. You can find out more about Rebecca (and Audrey and Alice) at her website: http://www.rebeccabehrens.com