Tuned in to Talk Radio

When I was a lit­tle girl and my Min­neso­ta grand­par­ents came to vis­it, we shared them around for sleep­ing pur­pos­es. One night I would share my dou­ble bed with Grand­ma, and the next night my broth­er and I would switch places, and I’d sleep on his top bunk while Grand­pa set­tled into the bot­tom bunk.

Grand­ma was a bit of a night owl like I am, so it was nev­er hard to keep her talk­ing. Grand­pa was raised a farm boy, and in his mind night­time was for sleep­ing. But I devised a clever sys­tem: if he paid the ran­som of telling me one sto­ry from his boy­hood, after that I’d stay qui­et and let him drift off.

http://bit.ly/wrttalkHis sto­ries — about bot­tle-feed­ing the lit­tle black lamb, or the fight with his broth­er Hen­ry that end­ed with Grand­pa dump­ing an entire buck­et of cow-fresh milk over Henry’s head — are the ear­li­est tales in what has now become my exten­sive per­son­al col­lec­tion: I’ve been stock­pil­ing sto­ries from my “peeps” ever since.

One of the “ask the author” ques­tions kids present me with over and over again is, “Where do you get ideas for your sto­ries?” For me, a big part of the answer is, “through oth­er peo­ple.” I love hear­ing oth­er people’s sto­ries — and what I find is that the more I’m will­ing to lis­ten, the more peo­ple will tell me. I’ve appar­ent­ly cul­ti­vat­ed my lis­ten­ing skills to such a degree that even strangers share deeply per­son­al accounts. In the inter­ests of pre­serv­ing friend­ships, I’ve tak­en to insert­ing a warn­ing label into my con­ver­sa­tions: “I’m a writer, you know. This is real­ly good stuff. Unless you swear me to secre­cy, I will use this.” Sur­pris­ing­ly few peo­ple take me up on that offer; the truth, I think, is that most peo­ple want their sto­ries to find a life out­side them­selves. If they don’t plan to write them out on their own, they’re delight­ed at the idea of some­one else writ­ing them down.

So I use their sto­ries, but I do main­tain some sense of dis­cre­tion: They are often heav­i­ly dis­guised, and the names have been changed to pro­tect the innocent.

Encour­age your young writ­ers to imag­ine they’re rid­ing though life while tuned into talk radio. For younger writ­ers, help­ing them to devel­op strong lis­ten­ing skills may be the key. For slight­ly old­er writ­ers, you might want to also dis­cuss issues around respect­ing pri­va­cy. And encour­age them to explore how real-life sto­ries work great as seed mate­r­i­al, but don’t always trans­late direct­ly into good fiction: Some­times the writer’s art is not in find­ing good mate­r­i­al, but in know­ing how much of it, and how best, to use it to tell a sto­ry that the world wants to hear.

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