In Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw, I came across some advice that made me ponder the validity of how I started writing.
“But I couldn’t make it into a story,” I said, feeling a whole lot braver.
“Who cares?” said Mrs. Badger with a wave of her hand. She’s the kind of person who wears rings on her forefingers. “What do you expect? The ability to write stories comes later, when you have lived longer and have more understanding.”
Here, we see the main character, Leigh, who is determined to become a famous or at least mildly successful author. I’m sure lots of us here empathize with this desire. He constantly writes to one author named Mr. Henshaw, who responds and tells him the best way to learn to write well is to keep a journal. Leigh takes this advice to heart and eventually has the privilege of meeting a successful author after writing a well-liked story for school. He’s ashamed about having written a personal narrative rather than a fictional short story, and the author, Mrs. Badger, tells him what I quoted above.
I don’t necessarily agree with this. While one does write better with age, keeping a journal may not be the best practice for fiction. Journalling allows one to become familiar with descriptions, but these are typically descriptions of the self. Creating a life, a world, and complicated situation takes more than the “Dear Diary, Today I did such-and-such” approach.
Everyone is different with their writing practices and origins, and I understand that. Perhaps my experience is more different than I’d thought. Not counting preschool letter scribbles, I began journalling in first grade simply because I’d won a diary as a prize. I began writing fiction only one year later in one of my old school notebooks, although that notebook had been almost completely filled with copied information on dinosaurs and tigers. I don’t connect my fiction with the diaries I’ve kept since then because the diaries are about feelings and people and all that muck. Fiction has always been so much richer to me.
Leigh’s entry for school was likely more descriptive than I’m letting on. After all, Mrs. Badger liked it! She told him, “I happened to like A Day on Dad’s Rig because it was written by a boy who wrote honestly about something he knew he had strong feelings about. You made me feel what it was like to ride down a steep grade…” Leigh was going to write about a wax man who drove a truck and melted a little every time he made a stop. That I would rather read! It’s both tragic and imaginative—two things many of us want to experience when we read.
The best way to hone your skills at any age are to write descriptions and to write all the time. Whether you’re sending a personal narrative to—I don’t know—a magazine, or developing an alien world, I doubt that a journal can get you to the level of sophistication of where you want to be. Sure, it worked in Dear Mr. Henshaw because it wouldn’t have been much of a story without that development. I could be wrong about my assumptions, though. Everyone is different.
Thoughts, anyone? When did you first begin fiction or journalling?