By Frances O’Roark Dowell
In the process of writing How to Build a Story … Or the Big What If, I thought a lot about my own experiences as a young writer – I tried to remember about what was easy for me and what I struggled with. What inspired me to sit down and write in the first place? Recently, I’ve reached out to some writing friends to ask them about their own lives as young writers. Their answers have proved wonderful and illuminating, and they’ve giving me a lot to think about both as a writer and a writing teacher.
Alison McGhee is one of those writers rare writers who’s comfortable writing for a variety of audiences–young children, middle graders, teens and adults–in a wide range of formats and styles. She’s a poet, a novelist, an all-around storyteller, and now she’s a podcaster as well–In “Words by Winter,” Alison reflects on the passages of life, because, as she puts it, “it’s rough out there, and we have to help each other through.” A writer of great empathy, she’s also simply a delightful human being, and I was thrilled when our mutual editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, put us in touch.
Writer’s First Words | Alison McGhee
What was your interior life—the life of your imagination—like when you were a kid? Were you a daydreamer? Did you tell yourself stories, make up movies in your head?
Growing up as I did, in far upstate New York in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains on 150 acres of fields and woods and streams, meant that I spent a ton of time alone and absorbed in books. My imagination was always wild. Every night I put myself to sleep by making up new episodes of an offshoot of Batman (my favorite comic) in which I was Batgirl, facing danger and saving the world from evil.
Do you remember your earliest desire to write something—a letter, a list, your name?
As soon as I learned how to read and print, I was off and running. My first books were a series called The Rickety Kittens. In each, one of the rickety kittens –a litter of orphaned cats—was in danger for their life. Falling down a well, trapped in a tree, locked out of the barn, etcetera. It was up to the other kittens to save their sibling. Apparently, I was very into danger and rescue scenarios at the time. J
What was a book, movie or comic book that incited your imagination? Were there particular kinds of stories that inspired you? Did other forms of art and entertainment—songs, illustrations, TV shows, etc.—spark the desire to write?
My imagination as a child was perilously strong, a competitor for “real life” at any given moment. It still is. Stories make themselves up inside me all the time, in dreams, on the screen, as I’m running or hiking or kayaking. My favorite comic and TV show was Batman. Everything I read or saw on screen would affect me almost too much. Like many others of my generation, I was scarred forever by seeing the movie Bambi in the theater. Bambi’s mother died! In the first twenty minutes of the movie!
My God. I’ve never recovered.
Books were, then and now, a lifeline. Books written by strangers, filled with imaginary people whose lives fed my dreams and showed me worlds I didn’t live in but maybe could someday. My favorites were about children on their own, either literally or emotionally, children who had to figure out a way to live in this enormous and confusing world. Heidi, by Johanna Spyri. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George.
Was there an oral storytelling tradition in your family? Did you yourself like to tell stories?
We’re big on stories in my family. My earliest memories of gathering with relatives are all focused on the enormous dining table, sitting there for hours while everyone caught up with the latest gossip and told, and re-told, legendary family stories. My dad and I go to the diner every time I’m visiting my parents, and we’ll sit there forever while he and his buddies trade stories. My own annual gift to my family, nuclear and extended, is a spoof newspaper about our annual doings – an Onionlike gazette that I’ve written every year since my early twenties.
Live storytelling is something I also adore, both telling and listening. I’ve won a Moth slam or two and try never to miss a live show (pre-pandemic, of course). And this spring I started my own storytelling and poetry podcast, Words by Winter.
How important was it for you to share your writing with others? Who did you share it with? Did sharing it become more important as you got older? Did you ever publish your writing when you were young (in a student magazine, a school or local newspaper, your family’s holiday newsletter, a zine, etc.)?
It was always important for me to share my writing, aside from poems and journals that I keep only for myself. Before I was published, I used to copy my stories and give them to my friends, copy them and leave them lying around coffee shops and laundromats. I always wanted that connection with others, even if I didn’t know who they were or who, if anyone, was picking up my stories and reading them.
In college I wrote for my school’s newspaper. Every year I write a holiday newsletter (it’s a spoof) for myself and my kids, and I write a yearly spoof newspaper for my entire extended family. For the past twenty years I’ve sent out a Poem of the Week on my blog and to a large email list. And now I have a podcast, which feels like writing, only in a different form. So yes! Connection with the wider world, through words, is profoundly important to me.
What were your biggest challenges as a young writer? What parts (and what kinds) of writing were easy for you?
My imagination has always been my biggest challenge. Corralling my stories into a coherent whole was and is incredibly hard for me. As I write, new little stories spiral out from the central one and then grow and grow and grow, and I just keep following them, until there comes a point where I sit back and think, Sweet baby Jesus, Alison, what the hell is this mess even about?
Did you know that you wanted to be a writer when you grew up?
In my earliest memories, I wanted to be an actor. Then I wanted to be a ballerina. Then a singer/songwriter. When I turned six, and went to first grade, and learned how to read and write, I instantly wanted to be a writer. In retrospect, I think I just wanted to be an artist. I’d probably have been just as happy in any other art form, but luckily (because that’s where my talent lies) I chose writing.
What or who helped you become a better writer? Did you have a teacher or some other adult in your life who encouraged you to write? Did you spend time studying the craft of writing, say, by reading books about it or taking workshops?
Books helped me be the writer I am today. Books, books, books. If you have a natural talent and inclination for words, then reading is the best and easiest way to absorb the craft of writing. It happens by osmosis, like learning a second language from a parent who speaks it to you from birth.
I didn’t study English in college because the analysis of literature feels entirely different to me from the act of creating literature. Creative writing classes were few and far between when I was in school, but I took what I could and loved them. Later, I went on to get my master’s in English with an emphasis on creative writing.
In that program, I had a singular teacher who intuitively “got” my writing. He alone understood what I was doing with my constant use of repetition, elliptical structures, and language, language, language. Other teachers did not get my writing, so I avoided taking classes with them. I took every class possible with that one teacher, to the extent that I would get the administration to sign off on “independent studies” that translated to me taking his classes over and over. (Yeah, I’m a cheater. But a cheater in the name of art.)
What’s the best way, in your opinion, to teach creative writing to kids?
Make it fun. Make it fierce. Make it responsive and organic and full of energy. Make it real. Take those children to heart, and treat them seriously, with the enormous respect and full attention they deserve.
Alison McGhee writes for all ages in all forms, from novels to poems to books for children, and she’s also the creator and host of the podcast Words by Winter. Her Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel Shadow Baby was a Today Show Book Club pick, and her picture book for adults, “Someday,” was a #1 New York Times bestseller. Her writing has won many awards and been translated into more than twenty languages. She grew up in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, where most of her novels are set, and now lives in Minneapolis and California. The Opposite of Fate is her most recent novel for adults. Where We Are, a young adult novel, hit bookshelves shelves in September 2020.
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Frances loves to write and she loves teaching creative writing to kids! An experienced workshop and writing group leader, Frances demystifies the writing process and helps young writers build their stories from beginning to end. She is the author of over twenty books for young readers, including Dovey Coe, The Class and the Phineas L. MacGuire series.