Last week I visited my daughter’s grade one-two class to talk about writing, and ended up talking about snails. It was a great morning — the teacher invited me in to tell the kids a bit about how a book gets from inside an author’s head on to a book shelf, and I did so, bringing along a couple of my notebooks and a copy of Water Wings, my first novel. We talked about getting ideas from pictures in magazines and newspapers, and going outside and seeing how our surroundings are like moving pictures that can inspire us. Good writers know how to look and listen, I said, and they remember little details and transform them on paper. A story can come out of anywhere.
For example, I said, one day my daughter N and her dad went out for a ride on their double bike. He had his big bicycle with her trail-a-bike attached to it, and they were zipping along the bicycle trail near our house when they happened along some snails, a whole line of them crossing the path. So they stopped and squatted down and examined the snails with their “marvelous spirals,” and then they set about saving them. And afterwards I thought that would make a great little story, so I wrote it out and took pictures to go along with it.
“Would you like to hear that story?” I asked, and they said yes, so I read it.
And when I was finished, many hands shot up — with questions about snails! Most of them weren’t questions, actually, but comments. “Once my mom saw a snail and she almost stepped on it but she didn’t and she brought it home for me!” and “I have a bike like that” and “Snails move along on a foot that’s sticky ” and “Did you bring any of the snails home?” and “You have to give them moisture because snails don’t like it dry” and “It’s good not to keep snails but to set them free because that helps the earth” and so on and so on. But what was interesting about all of this, was how simple it was to keep steering the conversation — keep spiraling it back — to writing stories, because of course every anecdote they related was in fact a story, or had the potential to be.
“I bet every one of you has a snail story somewhere inside you,” I said.
The morning ended with me getting to hear some of the stories they’d been working on, and I loved it, because kids have such a refreshing way of putting ideas into words and pictures. It’s something I miss about my own stories sometimes, and don’t quite know how to recapture.