Last week a teacher (originally from Ronkonkoma but now living on the west coast) asked me for some words of encouragement she could relay to her class of ten year old writers. She clearly doesn't remember me from Sachem High School :)
Here's my response, trying not to scar them forever.
You are so gracious to ask me for writing advice for your ambitious and talented students. I must admit, I am blushing, as I used to when I was ten (and nine, and okay but don’t tell anybody… eleven)!
Blushing reminds me of a story:
Once, when the “new girl” at Nokomis Elementary unexpectedly sat next to me in fifth grade lunch, all I could do was blush… well that and stare into the shiny polished plum my mom packed for me. It was plump and purple, and promised to be so juicy and delicious and quenching after my thick peanut butter sandwich.
But I was afraid to bite the plum, not because of the pit and how much that would hurt if my teeth cracked against it, but because I was afraid that the plum might burst, sending juice out like a lawn sprinkler to splash the new girl with purple stains… which would, you understand, make her sit somewhere else.
And so I didn’t bite the plum. Instead, trying to stay silent and mostly invisible, I just stared into its reflections. ‘Shhh,’ I whispered to my own, ‘Shhh.”
But my stomach wanted that plum too, and it wanted everyone to know! So it started to make noises like my father’s old car made when it was broken. Rattling noises! Puffing noises! Smoking noises! Gasping noises! Rumbling, tumbling, mumbling give-me-the-plum noises! I began to sweat and worry that new girl could hear those noises too, just as surly as l could feel them.
So I said, “No!” to my stomach, except I said it aloud, and new girl heard, and she looked at me like I had a cabbage for a head. And maybe I did, but she didn’t leave. Instead, she looked at my delicious plum and asked, “Are you going to eat that?”
“No,” I squeaked. And I gave it to her.
And when she bit it, the plum burst and squirted just like I feared and I got the purple stain, a mark shaped like a diamond on the back of my hand that I licked with my tongue and swiped with a napkin, but that would not come out! A spot that would not come out! Out, purple spot! Out!
The whole rest of the day I scrubbed at it beneath my desk, scraping it back and forth against the old bubblegum stuck there, as if the gum was a giant pink eraser, like the one I got for the start of school! But the diamond would not erase! The mark she left on me would not come out, even with gum! Why? WHY??
But now I get it.
Now I understand.
Fifty years later people ask me, “Fred, what’s that tattoo of a diamond on the back of your hand?” And I tell them, it’s from a plum, but mostly from a friend a long time ago who didn’t know it but, by sitting next to me at lunch one day, changed my life.
And I’m very glad she did, because I’m a writer, and I tell stories. And the best stories are those about the people who leave marks on you. Yes, even if they squirt from a plum!
So that’s my advice: To be a writer, sit at another table, share your plum, and let someone mark you for the rest of your life. And then one day, you will write a story about them and it will be good, and the world will be better because of it.
And oh yes, there is one more thing: to be a writer, pick up a pen and write. You cannot plan to be a writer, you must write to be a writer.
Be a writer. Change the world.
Your Sachem friend,