What Makes a Successful Writer? One Author’s Approach to Instilling a Love of Writing by Carmen Oliver
When I was in the 2nd grade, my teacher Mrs. Graham wanted us to write a story. She told us we could write about anything we wanted. Anything that interested us. Anything we liked. Anything we wanted to make up. I found bears fascinating. Growing up in Canada, my family and I camped and hiked and saw bears in their natural habitat. They were mesmerizing to a shy girl who was a quarter of their size. I decided to write my story about two unlikely friends, “The Camel and the Bear.”
I thought about how they might meet? Two very different animals and what would they have in common? OR not? And I sat down and wrote my story. Mrs. Graham rewarded me with a gold star (after a few – ahem – revisions) and told me to keep writing stories. Little did Mrs. Graham know that her encouragement and invitation to write about what interested me would stay with me my entire life. Which brings me to my first tip about what makes a successful writer…
Invite Students to Write About What Interests Them
Just like we encourage students to read whatever they want to read whether it be comic books or non-fiction or fairy tales or joke books, we need to invite children to write about what they want to write about. Write about what they are interested in. Or something important that happened to them. Or maybe it’s something they care about like family, or a cause, or an injustice. Giving students the freedom to use their voices to tell the story they want to tell is, well, life changing. It develops confidence. It unleashes their imaginations. It gives them some control. It makes them more invested in the storytelling.
When I’m visiting schools, students often ask me where I get my book ideas. This is always one of my favorite questions because the answer taps into one of my passions in life and leads me to my second tip about being a successful writer.
Read, Read, then Read Some More!
My grandmother instilled a love of reading in me. She was my favorite reading buddy. She would read to me for hours. She would answer my questions about what we were reading. She would read the same book to me over and over again until I felt confident that I could ahem, “read” it on my own. She and my mother were both avid lovers of wild animals and they opened my eyes to animals from all corners of the world with their magazine subscription to National Geographic. I loved looking at the pictures and they would tell me fun facts about each animal. They purchased subscriptions for me to book clubs and magazines like Highlights for Children (often found in school and public libraries too).
Reading is the cornerstone to becoming a successful writer. Honestly to becoming successful in whatever you want to do. Books have so much to teach us. We learn about pacing, word choice, the five senses, emotion, tension, voice, setting, and problem solving. Sparks fly when we read. Imaginations burst open. We empathize and understand more. And we get ideas for our own stories from what we read.
When I was doing research about spirit bears for the book A Voice for the Spirit Bears: How One Boy Inspired Millions to Save a Rare Animal), my daughter was a fifth grader and was going to be a reading buddy at her school. I thought to myself what if the kindergartner she was assigned to didn’t want to be her buddy? Because she already had her own reading buddy. And what if that reading buddy was a bear? A real bear. What could happen? That was the spark for the idea for Bears Make the Best Reading Buddies. Imagine what would have happened if I’d been reading about camels!
There’s an old saying we writers like to use called “Butt-in-Chair.” It means you have to sit there and do the work. Period. Show up. Stay late. No running to the kitchen for a snack every 5 minutes. Or texting. Or surfing the web. No one is going to do the work for you. I tell kids all the time that every one has their own unique stories to tell. Each of them has experiences I’ve never experienced before. They all have something important to say but if they don’t sit in a proverbial “chair” and drop or type the words onto the paper/screen – we’ll never hear it. It’s hard work to ignore a chocolate fudge brownie craving or a morning matinee, but sitting in your chair, writing sentence after sentence gets it done. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it!
What makes a successful writer? It’s ordinary people who write extraordinary stories. They show up every day and do the work. They don’t talk about being a writer, they write about it. And they don’t give up until they get it right. It’s really that simple; interest+reading+Butt-in-Chair = Writer.
Carmen Oliver is an award-winning author of picture books including the series Bears Make the Best Buddies (Reading, Math, Writing, and Science) as well as the nonfiction picture book biography A Voice for the Spirit Bears: How One Boy Inspired Millions to Save a Rare Animal. In 2014, she founded the Booking Biz, a boutique style agency that brings award-winning children’s authors and illustrators to schools, libraries, and special events. She and her family call the wide-open spaces of Texas home. To connect with Carmen online visit www.carmenoliver.com or Twitter or Facebook.