Mismatching shoelaces and a piano
One of the best things, to me, about visiting middle schools to talk about my work is feeling part of a larger creative process. Here’s one example that's fun to share.
A few weeks ago I visited the Hamburg (NJ) School, where the sixth grade reads The Revealers every year and I come in every three years, to spend the day talking to grades 6-8. I began, as I often do, by taking out my pocket notebook and telling the first group that I get most of my ideas from them. If I’m going to write realistic young-adult fiction, I told them, I’d better pay attention to the ones I meet — and if I notice something about them, or learn something from them that I want to remember, I’ll write it down. If I record it in this way, that observation might become something: a detail, an idea for a character, or maybe even (you never know) the beginning of a book.
Sometimes I’ll read a note I made at some recent school, then start to invent on top of that, just to open up the creative process and share that with them. But this time I noticed that two girls, sitting side by side in the front row, each had one black and one pink shoelace. That got me going.
What if, I said to the class, you had a story about a girl who’s got something really hard in her life right now — I mean really hard? What if she doesn’t know how to deal with it, but luckily she has a best friend. And one night the best friend says to her, “Every day you and I are going to wear the same shoelaces. They’ll be mismatched — we’ll trade laces, so that we’re each wearing exactly the same kind. That way you’ll always know I’m on your side.”
The two girls in front, wriggling with a pleased-seeming embarrassment, said well that was nice but it wasn’t true of them. They were, they told me, actually non-identical twins. I said, "Do you always wear matching mismatched laces?" They shrugged. Not really, they said. But I found a blank page in my notebook and, with everyone watching, wrote this:
2 girls —
1 black, 1 pink shoelace
I few minutes later I wrote something else I learned in that class. A boy told me he plays the piano. I asked, “Do you take lessons?” He said no. I said, “Well ... do you know the scales, and the keys?” No, he said. Puzzled, I asked: “So how do you play?” He said, I just listen for the melody.
Isn’t that wonderful? I wrote: boy who plays piano — no lessons, no scales, just finds the melody. At lunch, the boy told me that his neighbors have a grand piano, and he goes over there a lot, saying he wants to visit the twin girls who live there. But really, mainly, he wants to play the piano.
His neighbors were, of course, the same twin girls. I asked one of them, “Do you mind it when he plays?” Oh no, she said. We like it a lot.
I haven’t figured out yet how the boy might figure into my idea about the girl with a big problem and her friend who engineers matching mismatched shoelaces ... but someday, something might pop into my head. You never know. Ideas can burst into form in an instant; they can percolate slowly, then emerge all formed up at some random moment; or they can seem fantastic at first, but then never come to anything. You just never know.
I’ve shared my notes from Hamburg several times since that morning. Last Wednesday, in Churchville-Chili Middle School outside Rochester, New York, I mentioned the girls and their shoelaces. A couple of days later I got an email. It was titled, “Book.”
“Hello Mr.Wilhelm,” the boy wrote. “i go to ccms churchville chili middle school in n.y. state. i was at an assembly and you were speaking. what really caught my attention was the story about the twins with the shoe laces. I was wondering if i could make a book about that. please write back. p.s. i’m in fifth grade.”
Of course, I wrote back. I said, “You absolutely can!”
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