By Frances O’Roark Dowell
When I started teaching story-writing workshops for upper elementary and middle school kids, I discovered that most of my students had ideas by the dozen and lots of enthusiasm, but they often got bogged down mid-draft and gave up. Over time, I developed a workshop called “How to Build a Story,” in which my students and I walked through the writing process together, from coming up with story ideas that worked, to finishing a first draft. (The book based on my workshop, How to Build a Story, or The Big What If.)
As I developed the “How Build a Story” workshop, 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 as a writing teacher.
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Writer’s First Words | John Claude Bemis
I first met John Claude Bemis at a Battle of the Books competition where he was a star attraction–a celebrity on the battlefield, as it were. His popular middle grade novels, which include The Nine Pound Hammer and The Wooden Prince, weave magic, folk tales and fantasy into compulsively readable narratives. As Tom Angleberger put it, “John Claude Bemis hides new magic in old stories.” John is also a teacher and a musician, and recently he’s been posting a series of wonderful YouTube videos about writing and creativity, which I highly recommend!
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?
My imagination was my playground as a child. I spent so much time dressed up as characters like Zorro or elaborately setting up situations for my Star Wars figures that I would then act out. Even as a teen, I found myself often daydreaming deeply about characters and playing out scenarios in my head, especially while drawing pictures of the characters. All that helped me become the professional daydreamer I am today.
Do you remember your earliest desire to write something—a letter, a list, your name?
When I was a toddler, we had those magnetic letters on the fridge. I’d turn those into words and tell my parents what I thought they spelled or ask how to spell things. That’s why it’s so important that parents put those magnetic letters on their refrigerators. It’s often the first opportunity a little kid has to manipulate letters into words and to connect language with how we can express ourselves.
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?
I’m of that generation that grew up obsessed with Star Wars. I saw the first movie in the theater as a kindergartner and it consumed the rest of my childhood. I was also a voracious reader of fantasy novels. Tolkien and Lewis, of course. But also Susan Cooper, John Christopher, and Piers Anthony. So many of the stories I wrote as a kid were essentially rehashes of plotlines from those stories. But imitating is incredibly instructive. That’s how I learned to draw, by copying pictures from comics and books.
What had the biggest impact on my desire to dream up stories came from playing Dungeons & Dragons. The game is mostly played in your imagination with characters you invent. And when I led D&D campaigns, I rarely used the ones you could buy in stores. My friends and I liked to make up our own adventures for our characters. The fact that the game was played by making up stories—often just improvising—was enormously helpful to my path to becoming a writer. In fact, I remember when I got my first book contract, my dad joked, “Well, I guess all those hours you spent playing Dungeons & Dragons as a kid wasn’t wasted.”
Was there an oral storytelling tradition in your family? Did you yourself like to tell stories?
My grandfather was an extraordinarily captivating storyteller. He ran away from home as a teen during the Depression. He because an honest-to-goodness hobo, riding trains all over the country. He’d tell these wild stories about getting chased by railroad cops and falling between boxcars on moving trains. I don’t know how true his stories were, but I didn’t care. They were amazing! It made me want to be a good storyteller. You can be a talented writer, but that’s not the same as being a talented storyteller.
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.)?
Sharing my writing was never particularly important. I wasn’t shy about it, and I did like to have friends read my stories. But really, I was more focused on the imaginative process. However, when I was maybe 5th grade, I wanted to go to summer camp. My parents said if helped contribute some money, they’d send me. So I wrote and illustrated a story about a skateboarding cat, which I printed and sold around town to raise money. My first professional gig!
There’s another experience around sharing writing that stands out from my childhood. My best friend Mike Dixon and I wrote a story together where we’d each write a chapter and pass the notebook back and forth. It was a story about some kids surviving in the woods and leading a resistance when the Soviet Union invaded the US. Basically, we stole the plot from the movie Red Dawn. I loved that experience of getting the notebook, reading Mike’s chapter, and then having to decide what happened next.
Did you know you wanted to be a writer when you grew up? Did you think of yourself a writer as a child?
No, I never once imagined I’d become a writer as an adult. I loved writing, but it was just one of many creative pursuits I enjoyed. I’ve also always loved visual art and music. I grew up in rural eastern North Carolina. I never met any authors. I had no sense that people who weren’t from New York City could actually have a career based on their artistic passions. That’s why I love getting to visit schools around North Carolina to show kids that we have extraordinary writers and creatives right here in our state. I want kids to see they can chase those dreams, too, if they want.
What or who helped you become a better writer over the years? Did you spend time studying the craft of writing, say, by reading books about it or taking classes?
I never studied the craft of writing until I was an adult. As a kid and teen, I got better as a writer simply by writing. Play is so important for how kids learn. And writing can be play, too, when you do it just for fun. I wound up dedicating hours and hours to writing, not because I wanted to get better, but because it brought me so much joy. Of course, all that practice pays off.
I never formally studied creative writing in college. So as an adult, when I became a schoolteacher, and wanted to improve my writing skills, I read lots of books on craft. Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. Robert McKee’s Story. Stephen King’s On Writing. Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. These are just a few of the books that helped me get better as a writer.
Did you have a teacher or some other adult in your life who encouraged you to write?
Not for writing specifically. But I had a wonderful teacher in middle school named Mrs. Peacock who turned me onto so many great books, stories, and authors. She first introduced me to Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson. She first introduced me to Greek Mythology, and then Norse Myth and Southern folklore like The Jack Tales. Nurturing that love for great stories helped me tremendously as a young writer. Writers are first-and-foremost readers.
What’s the best way, in your opinion, to teach creative writing to kids?
Make it fun! We become life-long readers because we discover that one book that brings us so much joy. The same is true for writing. When a young writer hatches that one story idea that ignites their imagination so that they can’t help but write, then they’re hooked. They just need opportunities to play and explore ideas to get that inciting idea.
When I work with young writers, I’m never critical. I give constructive feedback, but mostly I just encourage. I try to get them excited for their story ideas. The process of dreaming up stories and putting them to paper is fun. It should be full of joy and wonder. Awakening that is the heart of good teaching.
An inspiring speaker and entertaining performer, John Claude Bemis is the author of The Wooden Prince, Lord of Monsters, the Clockwork Dark trilogy, The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, and Flora and the Runaway Rooster. He received the Excellence in Teaching Award from UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Education for his work in the schools as an author-educator and served as North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate. John lives with his wife and daughter in Hillsborough, NC.
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.