This afternoon I appeared at what I think is absolutely the toughest venue ever, before a crowd that made me more nervous than any I’ve ever spoken to. This was no gathering of mere academics. Nor was it a room full of graduate students or skeptical writing students. No, this group was far more intimidating than either of those.
This was a group of middle schoolers.
My daughter Madison is a sixth grader, and her reading class has been studying biographies this quarter, poring over various books, and learning the ins and outs of research (i.e primary vs. secondary sources, organization) as they put together their own profiles of famous people (while other tweeners were writing about Justin Timberlake, my daughter, ever the overachiever, chose Gandhi). Always my best promoter, Madison mentioned to her teacher that I had written a biography, so her teacher very graciously called and asked if I’d come up to the school and speak to their two sixth grade reading classes. I told her to pound sand, and hung up on her.
Ha! Ha! No, I kid. Actually, I said of course. But let me tell you, those of you out there who write Young Adult fiction, and thus are regularly asked to talk to the tweeners, my hat is off to you — for while I had an absolute blast, I was incredibly nervous. I mean, I didn’t wanna look like a complete dork in front of my own kid’s peers.
The teacher had very helpfully provided me with a few things she thought I should discuss — why I chose my particular topic, authorized vs. unauthorized biographies, primary vs. secondary sources — but I had only thirty minutes for each group, so I had to make certain I covered everything as clearly and as quickly as I could. No small task for a notorious windbag like me.
The kids filed into the media center and sat on the floor in front of my podium, crosslegged, poking, giggling, and chattering. A few who knew me waved to me — and I waved back, calling them by name which, to my surprise, seemed to make them The Cool Kids. At least for a moment.
So there I stood before at least sixty eager sixth graders and their teachers. I had brought some materials to show them, just to keep things interesting — a portrait of Irving, an original autograph (that one elicited audible ooooohs) and tried to engage with the group as much as I could. I asked if anyone could name a story by Irving (hands shot up all over the room, much to my delight — I’ve had times in a room full of adults when no one could name a story by Irving). I talked about all the famous people he knew (the story about Irving’s nanny getting George Washington to bless his namesake was a crowdpleaser). When I talked about Mary Shelley, I asked if anyone could name a book she wrote (this time, only my daughter raised her hand, and I laughingly called on her, the smartypants).
As I started talking about the process of writing, I showed them two of my notebooks where I write my rough notes out in longhand, in fountain pen. They had studied timelines as one way of organizing materials, so I pointed out that I had written the date 1848 at the top of the page, and then written a list of key events under that date — the very model of a timeline (who knew I took notes like a sixth grader?)
Then we talked tools. “What do you think is the most important tool a biographer has at his disposal when he’s working?” I asked.
“Pencils!” came one suggestion. “Internet!” said another. “Word!” said someone else (a reference to the Microsoft program, I think, and not the slang interjection. At least I hope not.)
“All good suggestions,” I said, “But it’s this.” I held up my library card. Every teacher nodded. Good. I had them.
And then I held up various books and asked if they would be considered primary or secondary sources — a good exercise, and I tripped up quite a few of them when I held up a volume of Irving’s stories collected by the Library of America.
“This is a book of Irving’s stories, published in the 1980s. Primary or secondary?”
“Primary?” came several scattered, though uncertain, voices.
“Primary?” I said incredulously. “But this is fiction.” I slapped the cover for emphasis. “Now: primary or secondary?”
“Secondary!” came considerably more voices, this time more certain.
“It’s by Irving, so it’s primary,” I said, and most of them laughed, finally getting it. A good moment.
Finally, I read a few brief passages, mainly of Irving’s own words, so the kids could get a feel for how funny, how frustrating, and how humble Irving could be, and there was applause all around when I finished. Little did I know the fun was just beginning.
“Any questions?” I said, looking around the room, hoping for just a split second that no one had anything. No such luck. Hands shot up all over the room.
And what questions they were — really, really good questions, unlike any an author is likely to get from an adult crowd. How big is Irving’s house? What did he die of? Did he invent Halloween? Was he a millionaire? These were all questions I could answer, but it was so refreshing to find out what they thought was interesting.
But to my surprise and delight, while they were interested in Irving, they were even more interested in the process of writing and selling books. How long did it take to write? Did you get to design the cover? How many did you sell? Did you meet anyone famous? How many pages was the first draft? And my absolute favorite: Is there anything that got cut out that you wish you could get back? (Answer: No, with only one or two exceptions. But more on that at some other time). All incredibly interesting, perceptive questions. And to my annoyance, the bell rang when it seemed we were just getting started.
A tough crowd? Tougher than you would think — but I loved every minute of it, and I’d do it again in a second. Provided I don’t embarrass my sixth grade daughter, that is.