What My Eight-Year-Old Self Taught Me About Writing

A few nights back I started writing about Halloween costumes, that’s what I had in mind, but almost immediately my hand and the pencil I held wandered away, telling me a story I hadn’t heard in years.

I wrote about being eight and being nine. About my grandmother dying. About attending her funeral on Christmas Eve. I wrote about sitting in my grandfather’s lap a year later, manning the steering wheel as he suffered a massive heart attack while driving me home from Northwest Elementary. I wrote about moving schools and what it felt like for a proud little girl to go from the top reading group to the bottom. I wrote about being used by popular girls I idolized. I wrote about the worst haircut of my life, an ill-executed, middle-aged-woman perm.

As I wrote, blindsided by the pain in my heart, I wept, my mind heavy with the realization that those two years define my life.

***

I remember deciding sometime in the third grade that I was incapable of writing stories about ducks or dogs or space aliens. Every story I wrote was “real.” And every story was at least a little bit sad.

I remember submitting a “book” to my fourth grade teacher, something we’d been encouraged to write for a contest. The winner would attend a book fair with real, live children’s book authors and have their story bound. In my mind I’d already won. I signed copies of my work for Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume in purple pen.

When my teacher read the first line, she looked up at me surprised. “The contest is for stories, Jennifer,” she said. “This isn’t fiction.”

It certainly wasn’t.

I remember my opening scene vividly. I’m standing in front of a dark black hole, watching as my grandmother’s body is pushed deeper and deeper into the mausoleum wall.

My teacher, whose name I cannot remember but whose face I will never forget, called me up to her desk the next day as school let out. She told me I couldn’t be entered in the contest. Said she’d chosen my friend Kelly’s story about a dog. Then, certainly moved by my tear-heavy eyes, she pulled a manilla envelope from her desk. “Perhaps, you could do this,” she said. 

I unwound the red string, pulled back the flap and reached in, pulling out a stack of cream-colored papers, the words “Writer’s Camp” printed in bold at the top. 

"You’re a writer," she said. 

***

I don’t know that I was destined to be a writer. Maybe not. We’ll see. But I do know that very early, God acquainted me with the stuff of stories.

Suffering makes good art. 

Marvin Gaye said, “Great artists suffer for the people.”

The Apostle Peter (and the Spirit) said, “But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”

Good stories are rooted in pain, blooming to the glory of God.