Among the many things that stood out about my recent visit to the second grade was a comment by one of the students about perspective. She didn’t call it that, of course, but what she said was even more interesting. After our discussion about the five senses, and how writers try often to show, rather than tell, using those five, I read the class some excerpts from some of my favorite books. One was The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White. Another was the new book Timmy Failure by Stephen Pastis, a fellow Candlewick author whom I met in Kansas City. A funny book about a boy detective who thinks he’s awesome when in fact his name is all too descriptive, Timmy Failure opens with Timmy telling us how amazing he is, and how everyone else simply pales in comparison. After reading the first few pages, I asked the kids if they noticed any of the five senses used in the excerpt. Were there things Timmy was seeing, hearing? Were we, as readers, smelling anything with him? Touching anything? As a matter of fact, we weren’t. And I thought I might have stumped them. But one intrepid girl raised her hand and said, “We’re touching his mind.”
Wow. Just wow.
Not only was that a very accurate way of describing that first chapter, but what a beautiful way to put it!
Yes, we were touching Timmy’s mind all right, and finding out what it felt like to be him. And that takes me to the subject of voice, the hardest, and also the best, part of writing. To get the voice of a character, you need to understand his or her point of view, how he or she experiences the world. Getting to that place where you “touch his mind” is, for me, the way into any piece of writing. I sometimes start with ideas about plot, or theme, or even setting, but I’m never really launched until I’ve discovered what the minds of my characters feel like, and what their voices sound like. And isn’t that the essence of what it means to be a writer? Trying to touch your characters’ minds, and, through them, the minds of many others.