For any parent who’s coming to terms with the fact that their kid wants to be a writer…
In 2002, a New York Times survey revealed that 81% of Americans “think they have a book in them.” There’s something in our culture that reveres the ability to complete a novel or even a short story. So, it’s no surprise many kids want to be writers, dreaming of being the next J.K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, or Roald Dahl.
If you’re a parent who never experienced the fantasy of seeing your headshot and bio of the jacket of a best seller, it may be difficult to handle it when your six-year-old tells you he can’t come to dinner because he’s revising his novel or when your 16-year-old is only interested in writing her next blog. To help, I called upon some experts and gathered some tips for navigating life with a budding author.
Emma Breysse is a fellow graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. She is an award-winning journalist, who has worked for The Jackson Hole News & Guide and The Idaho Falls Post Register.
Bekah Bowman is an aspiring novelist who writes personal and fictional stories to promote freedom on her website Until the Earth is Free. Her first book, working title His Magnum Opus, should be available on Amazon in late 2016 or early 2017.
1. Let them read anything
Reading is indispensable for writers, no matter what they read or what they want to write. As a teacher, I encouraged parents to let their kids read just about anything that interested them. Do they like adventures? Will they read articles in a fashion magazine? How about comic books? Anything to get them reading. While this is a fundamental life skill for any child, if your kid wants to be a writer, they’ll find even more benefit from curling up with a good age-appropriate book.
“Reading helped me enormously,” said Breysse. “It gives you an instinct for how words work and fit together and the elements of a strong narrative that it’s hard to learn any other way.” Giving your kid access to a variety of reading material will also help his or her writing become more interesting. Mix up your kid’s reading list and be patient. They’ll start to play with the style they’re seeing in the books they read.
Bowman said that reading changed the mission behind her writing and affirmed her desire to pursue the trade professionally. “A pivotal moment in my journey to being a writer happened when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the first time. I had read in my history book that Harriet Beecher Stowe had written a book that changed the world. It is rumored that when she met Abraham Lincoln he greeted her with, ‘So you’re the woman who started this war?’ I was hooked. That was the kind of writing I wanted to create. I wanted people to revolt and fight for justice because of something I wrote. I still do.”
2. Create opportunities for writing
When I was about nine years old, I decided I wanted to write children’s books for a living. After sharing my new career plans with my parents, my dad did something very special. He created Megan’s Self-Contained Writing Laboratory. It was a binder filled with paper divided into sections like Ideas and Journal and Observations, complete with a pencil pouch and all the writing utensils I could want. We even made a snazzy cover that looked like a science lab and he printed it on the color printer at his office. (To a kid in the mid-1990s, color printers were a very big deal.
I loved that binder. It came with me on family vacations and kept me up late at night. Did I become a professional children’s author? Nope. But I did become a professional writer of sorts and that binder is one of the most precious memories my dad and I share.
“Give them books and notebooks and don’t ask too many questions,” Breysse recommends. “Books and notebooks provide the inspiration and the opportunity. Keeping a more hands-off approach provides the space and the freedom to take advantage of them.”
3. Stir up their imaginations
All stories begin with a “what if” question. What if kids from rival families fell in love? What if there was a secret world of wizards living among us? What if animals lived under a communist regime? What if everything a man touched turned to gold? I’m not saying every author actually asks these questions, but every story has a “what if” at its heart.
My 5th grade teacher knew this principle well and taught it masterfully. She was infamous for being the teacher that made you write the most, so, naturally, I begged to be in her class. We had the most imaginative assignments, the most memorable of which was the pickle assignment. “What if all the characters in a story were pickles?” she asked us. She handed us a list of pickle related vocabulary and set us off re-writing classic works, replacing the protagonists and antagonists with pickles. My tale of Relisho and Jarliette won first prize.
If your kid wants to be a writer, you need to get comfortable with that dreaded open-ended question. Ask your kids “what if” questions to stir up their imaginations and cultivate out-of-the-box thinking. Ask your daughter what would happen if her hands turned into bowling balls. Ask your son what he would do if his hair was made of lava. (Kids love lava.) Ask them wild questions that force them to use their creativity and look at the world from a different perspective.
4. Critique with extreme caution
“Developing a talent for writing is a lot about feeling like you can try new things, even say something stupid, without thinking your parents, or anyone else, are going to scrutinize it all,” said Breysse. Creative types are notoriously sensitive about their work and it can be difficult to know what to say or when.
Bowman said her family struggled with this issue. “They would read things I wrote in high school, but often gave me unwanted negative criticism. Like when a child makes a figure out of Play-doh and proudly displays it to her parents, then Mom says, ‘That looks nothing like a real cow.’ I’m sure in their minds they were trying to help me become better by pointing out the flaws, but what really happened was a crushing defeat where I wasn’t sure I could even be a real writer.”
This is particularly hard to navigate when your kid asks what you really think of his or her latest work of genius. Bowman said, “Writers will often ask for feedback; make SURE they want honest feedback before you say anything negative.” She recommends the following sample conversation:
“Do you want honest feedback?”
“Even if it’s negative?”
“Are you sure?”
“So if I think it’s complete crap you want me to tell you that?”
“YES DANG IT.”
Then be prepared for defensiveness when you do give honest feedback. “We will take what you say to heart, but we may tell you you’re stupid and don’t know what you’re talking about. Just ignore these comments,” Bowman said.
5. Encourage them to no end
My parents and teachers were endlessly supportive of my writing. No one necessarily said I should try to be a full-time author when I grew up, but I received a lot of praise for my work. When I left teaching to work at Kettle Fire with my husband, my brain went back to that early encouragement. I remembered that I’d been a writer since I could hold a crayon and that being a professional copywriter was, in a sense, my destiny. Not everyone has that kind of encouragement to draw on though.
Bowman felt her parents didn’t take her writing seriously, so her older brother became her champion. “Once he knew I wanted to be a writer, he offered me resources, advice, encouragement, and everything I wanted from my parents, but wasn’t getting. He even made me feel like my interests were necessary for the benefit of the world.” While she’s grateful to have had his support, Bowman still wishes her parents would’ve handled her creative aspirations differently when she was younger.
“I think the biggest help for artists of any kind is to believe in them. Believe me, we already doubt our skills enough as it is. Be very interested and tell them they can do whatever they put their mind to. Do not say that it’s just a phase or treat it like it’s just a phase. Even if it is just a phase, be all there. Be all in. Kids who know they have their parents’ support and belief no matter what they’re interested in at the time will go so far. There’s this idea going around that parents are uncool and their involvement or interest is unwanted. That is completely untrue. Even if kids act like your interest is uncool and they push you away, they never ever want you to stop believing in them or encouraging them.”
6. Don’t worry about the future
It’s true that getting a book published is next to impossible, but that’s not the only thing a kid who wants to be a writer can do. I’ve reported news stories, given speeches, taught English, named companies, and created marketing campaigns – all of which depended on my ability to write. Even scientists and engineers need to be masterful writers. In fact, one of my science classes in college required so much writing that the university counted it as an English credit.
Breysse noticed, “As I look around to see if I might have other options later in life [besides journalism], I see that most job postings require strong writing ability, so it’s also my most marketable skill.”
By the way, of those 81% of Americans who think they’ll write a book some day, only 2% actually complete the task. So maybe your kid really will write a novel or an epic poem or paradigm-shifting work of nonfiction. Maybe they won’t. But their love of writing will become a tremendous asset no matter what they pursue.
Have any suggestions for parents of budding writers? Have any stories about your own authors-in-training? Leave a note in the comments.