ALAN v23n3 - Finding a Voice

Volume 23, Number 3
Spring 1996

Finding a Voice

Rodman Philbrick

A story works best when it starts at the beginning. The story of how I became a writer and how I accidently-on-purpose started writing for young adults begins with my secret life. Because for a long time I thought writing was a secret life.

It started in the sixth grade. Now before I go further I'm going to have to violate my own rule and jump ahead by thirty years or so. Because when middle school readers write to tell me they've read Freak the Mighty , almost all of them mention that they write stories in class, or "make books," or are encouraged to keep writer's notebooks. So for this generation, the idea of writing stories and poetry is as natural as learning their ABC's. Writing is normal classroom activity.

I mention this because my experience was so different. When I started writing stories in the sixth grade, it was not only something I did outside of school, completely on my own, it was something I felt I should do secretly. Writing wasn't cool, like being good at sports, or being part of the in crowd, or winning fights on the playground. Writing stories wasn't a "normal" activity, and like most kids that age, I desperately wanted to be "normal." Writing wasn't discouraged or encouraged, it simply wasn't considered at all.

I attended a perfectly good public school, by the way, filled with many teachers considered enlightened for their day. We were definitely encouraged to read and to think critically and to compose grammatical sentences and paragraphs, but no one seemed to think that ten- or twelve-year-old kids were capable of writing fiction. The only school publication was one I eventually started on the mimeograph machine, and that died after a couple of issues from an excess of sheer embarrassment -- to this day the scent of mimeograph fluid makes me blush.

I repeat, the writing of stories was never part of any assignment in my world. This was true for elementary school, middle school, and high school. I had some good English teachers and some bad English teachers, but none of them ever challenged us to write fiction, or to write at all, outside of the usual reports or a few essay questions.

So I wrote in secret. Three-page short-stories with trick endings, in emulation of O. Henry. A lot of sci-fi inspired by Ray Bradbury. I'd write a story in long hand and send it out to be typed by the services advertised in the back of Writer's Marketplace at 25 cents a page. It would take weeks and weeks to get a story back from a typing service -- sometimes months. Weeks and months went by before the manuscripts were inevitably and invariably returned by magazines like Amazing Stories or The Saturday Evening Post or The New Yorker .

I told no one, but my parents figured out what I was up to. They certainly didn't discourage me. My parents were avid readers, both had ambitions to write that had been abandoned early in life, in order to get on with life. But when at sixteen I finally worked up the courage to show my father the novel I'd written, and which I assumed would very soon be published and celebrated and make me the envy of the cool kids in school, my Dad couldn't hide his concern that I was about to be terribly disappointed.

He was, of course, absolutely right. I should mention that my first novel wasn't so much a novel as a book-length series of anecdotal stories about two characters. The narrator is a boy who admires his best friend, who is a kind of genius, and the gifted friend eventually dies a tragic death. The two buddies hang out in the basement and share a series of adventures.

It never found a publisher. No surprise, because I wasn't like the genius kid I was writing about and the book simply wasn't good enough to be published. In any case I eventually went on to other novels and pretty much forgot what that first book was about until I started making notes for this talk. At which point I was startled to realize that by writing Freak the Mighty I was going back to old territory. Back to the beginning. Back to the down under basement where I set up my first typewriter and began to think of myself as a writer.

Alas, I'm not a quick learner. Eleven years after I'd finished that first novel I was still unpublished. I'd written eight or nine more novels, all of which had started out as ambitious attempts to astound the world by creating the great American novel but ended up as failed experiments. Looking back, it was pretty good writing, sentence by sentence, but lacking a solid, coherent sense of narrative. Writing, not story telling.

Twenty-seven sounds young to me now, but back then it felt like time was running out. I'd worked a variety of laboring jobs -- longshoreman, carpenter, boatbuilder -- started a couple of businesses that went nowhere, had no connections to publishing, didn't even know a published author. There came a point where I simply had to find a way to make a living as a writer or die. That's how desperate it felt at the time. So I decided to try writing a straightforward genre novel. No experimental flourishes, no illusions about great literature. And after a couple of false starts, it worked. The agents and publishers who hadn't wanted to hear about my ambitious but flawed literary efforts were willing to read a genre novel.

Miracle of miracles, the long drought ended, and in a relatively short time I was busily writing and publishing a variety of suspense novels. Mysteries, thrillers, detective stories, whatever I could sell. In a couple of years I was able to give up the part-time jobs and earn my living strictly by my wits. And I discovered that I enjoyed writing these so called commercial books. They taught me valuable lessons about telling a story, about using character and setting to advance the narrative. I learned how to keep a reader turning the page. I got pretty good at it.

Much to my surprise, the genres I had so despised as a young literary novelist were places where writing was celebrated. So long as you tell a story that falls within the fairly generous boundaries of the suspense novel, you're free to make the novel as good as you can. You're allowed to challenge the reader. You can experiment with voice and style. Good writing is recognized and praised. And there's always the hope that one of these days one of your books will break-through, and you'll have the kind of success that brings real publishing freedom, or at least enough time for another go at the great American Novel.

So after a long apprenticeship and the usual struggles, I was more or less content. Okay, you get those dark nights of the soul now and then, everybody does. But most of the time the writing-life is fine, the writing-life is great; hey, you're earning a living doing something you enjoy. It really doesn't get any better than that.

Oh, but it does get better. It gets much, much better, and that's where chance comes into the story. Because writing for young adults had never crossed my mind. Or that's what I thought. But the idea must have been there somewhere, waiting for a little encouragement.

It happened like this. An editor I knew moved from adult mysteries to juvenile mysteries, and one day she said, in an off hand way, "Would you be interested in writing a mystery for kids?"

My immediate reaction was, no way. Didn't have a clue, wasn't interested in learning how to write in a new genre.

But something clicked. Not a mystery idea, but something quite different. Something that would be, ultimately, of no interest to that editor of juvenile mysteries.

A few hours later I was driving home from New York, five hours with not a lot to do except keep the car on the road. So I'm driving along, minding my own business, and this young voice suddenly comes into my head and the first thing he says is: I never had a brain until Freak came along and let me borrow his for a while, and that's the truth, the whole truth. And even before he told me about it, I knew why the two kids called themselves Freak the Mighty . I knew the story would have certain suspenseful elements, but it would not be a genre mystery at all.

I was, after many years of toiling in the vineyards of genre fiction, inspired to write a story that I believed had no commercial possibilities.

I need to back up just a bit and tell you that a friend of mine, a really remarkable woman, had a child born with morquio syndrome, which means the growth is stunted in a way that can cause severe medical problems. They never thought the boy would live more than a few years, but he did. And with his mother's help and love he became a brilliant kid with a very vivid personality: defiant, daring, unwilling to accept the limitations imposed on him by a fatally flawed body.

I really admired his courage, and the way he faced life straight on. And when he died suddenly, and tragically, the death hit me harder than I would have thought. But not, it seemed, in a way I could write about. His life wasn't the stuff of suspense or mystery; he was just one of many, many people whose lives are briefer than they should be.

But now, all of a sudden this big, awkward kid named Max came along, and he wanted to tell the story about his little genius buddy, and I just couldn't say no. It was the easiest thing I ever wrote because I could hear Max in my head. Hear him, heck, he wouldn't shut up. I could feel his emotion, his loneliness, his anger, his sadness, his joy. The boy he wanted to tell me about wasn't the boy I knew, the one who had died, but there was some kind of connection there that needed exploring.

At the time I was overdue on a suspense novel that had been giving me trouble. But it was summertime in New England, and I decided to play hooky for a six weeks. That would give me time to write five or six pages of Freak the Mighty in the morning and still go fishing in the afternoon, where I could think about what I wanted to write the next day. Or that was my excuse.

The writing was almost effortless. It wasn't work -- it was playing; it was fun. When at the end of six weeks my narrator finally came up out of his cellar and said "the end," I figured I had indulged myself long enough and had better get back to work.

I assumed Freak the Mighty was probably too weird and melodramatic to find a publisher. I certainly never expected the book to have a profound influence on my career as a writer, but indeed it has. Because that voice in my head is still talking, demanding that I write down his story. He's no longer Maxwell Kane, who I think must be off somewhere writing a book on his own. For a while the voice belonged to a boy who wanted to tell me all about his big brother Joe Dilly and "The Fire Pony." Lately he's another kid who won't tell me his name yet, but he's got a story about his father and a boat and a storm at sea that sounds pretty exciting.

I haven't given up on adult novels. I enjoy the craft and complexity of writing suspense stories, and I'll keep doing it as long as publishers will have me. But that insistent kid voice in my head has helped me reinvent myself as a writer. It made me realize that I do, indeed, have stories to tell for the sixth, seventh, and eighth grader. Stories about spirited kids who find a way to triumph over adversity.

I feel very privileged indeed to have that opportunity. In a way that's never been true for me in adult books, I'm aware of a great responsibility. You can't mess around with young readers -- you have to cut straight to the heart of the story. The character can be complex, the plot can have some surprises, but the emotions have to be clear. You have to tell the truth, or they'll hate you. Okay, maybe they won't hate you, but they won't read you, and that's just as bad.

How do you keep the voice coming? A good memory helps. I vividly remember my sixth-grade classroom. I remember what it smelled like, where I sat, what I could see out the window, and how I felt about things. Peel away this decrepit middle-aged exterior, and an important part of me is still twelve years old. Granted, that's nothing to brag about, but it does help me when I sit down to write stories for that age group.

What I remember best is the strength of feeling. Emotions surge like electrical currents. Joy makes you feel capable of flight. Anger puts murder in your heart. Love turns you mute. To be publicly embarrassed makes you want to die . Friendship is the most important thing on earth; you feel you can't live without it. To be ignored is to suffer the torture of a thousand cuts. I don't use these metaphors casually -- everything is life or death to the twelve year old. An insult hurts, it physically hurts. On the other hand, having fun with your friends is a high that we adults can't duplicate with alcohol or drugs.

And here's where the YA author gets the big payoff. If that emotionally electric child enjoys a book, she or he really enjoys it. Not every kid likes to read, of course, but a surprising number do, considering the powerful distractions of 3-D video games and 100 channel television. They read uncritically, in the best sense of the word. They care about how the story makes them feel. Is it happy, is it funny, is it sad, is it exciting.

If a story makes any impression at all, they write to the author, and let me tell you, those letters are wonderful, just wonderful. Okay, some of the kids are just going through the motions because the letter may be part of a classroom assignment. But the vast majority of these young readers speak to you straight from the heart. I liked this part. It made me laugh. I liked that part, it made me cry. My teacher read us your book and I thought it would never end. You'd like to think they mean "hoped it would never end," but chances are the kid is telling it like it is.

That was the wonderful surprise, the something extra I never expected in my secret life as a writer. Letters from kids I've never met, but who speak to me with a clarity and personality that makes them leap from the page.

Understand, in my other world as a writer of adult suspense novels, I do get the occasional letter from a fan. Usually from someone working on a book of his own, or an astute reader who wants to point out the error on page 157, assuming, I suppose, that I'll be able to correct it in future editions.

So I love getting these fresh, wonder-filled messages from kids, and I'm profoundly grateful to the teachers who read my book to their classes, or recommend it. At first I was a little concerned that having the book discussed in a classroom context might spoil the experience for some readers, like Johnny Tremain was spoiled for me. But after hearing from teachers and students, I'm not worried at all. That's one of the things that's changed since I was a kid, and it's changed for the better. I don't know anything about whole language or phonetics, or for that matter teaching . But as a writer I'm convinced that encouraging children to write fiction, to hook into that marvelous machine called the imagination, has to be good for everyone. Good for the teachers who see students bloom into writers under their tutelage. Good for the kids, who learn that they can work the same kind of magic they find in books. Good for all of us, because before you know it these kids are going to emerge as the next generation of authors -- and there won't have to be any "secret" about it.

Thank you. At the moment I feel like I'm making a lot of new friends. I can only hope it continues.

Rodman Philbrick is the author of a number of mysteries and science fiction novels for adults as well as Freak the Mighty and The Fire Pony. He delivered this article as talk at the 1995 ALAN Workshop and commented, "I must say that my whole experience at the NCTE Convention was warm and positive."