Intern Robin Galbraith

Would-Be Kid Writer Robin
By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I tried to write my first story when I was in second grade. My family was gathered around the TV like every night. While “M*A*S*H” played in the background, I stared at my blank paper and dreamed up what I thought was a hilarious story of a girl who used every possible excuse to avoid going to bed—a subject I knew well.

During the commercials I excitedly told my mom my plans.

“Oh, hon,” my mom said. “It will never be published. We aren’t writers. That’s just something our family wasn’t born to do. Stop showing off!”

I now understand my loving mom meant well. She was just 21 years old when she had me. As the daughter of an alcoholic father and overworked mother of six, my mom was taught to “know your place.” She worked hard to care for her family and thought she was protecting me from disappointment.

However, as a child, what I heard was that writers are born, not made. I was like Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby, stubborn and curious, so I dreamed of secretly writing stories without my mom knowing. But how I could write them if I was a terrible speller?

Ramona Quimby Is Saved By Her Teacher

I was in the lowest reading, spelling, and math group until Miss Rowe, my fifth grade teacher, took an interest in me. She instructed my young mother to read me novels at bedtime, suggested I be given a journal to write in every night, recommended math workbooks for vacations, and advised my mom to use my love of acting and plays to improve my reading.

 My mom followed my teacher’s instructions with gusto. By eighth grade, I was addicted to journal writing and reading series fiction. I was even put in a few honors classes and began to see learning as something that took effort, not talent. I continued to tell myself stories in my head but never wrote one word of those stories on paper. I was too afraid I’d discover I wasn’t a writer.

Reading: The Gateway to Writing

In high school, I was a TV addict who proudly wore a t-shirt declaring, “I’d rather be watching ‘General Hospital.’” I performed skits with my friends and created novels in my head, but still didn’t have the courage to write a single story on paper.

A neighbor encouraged me to become an elementary special education teacher because I was good with kids. I loved my students but came home exhausted each day.

My mom had discovered audiobooks, now that she was an empty nester, and peppered our phone conversations with details of her reading.

Inspired, I recovered from teaching each afternoon by reading authors like Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, and Milan Kundera before I turned on the TV.

Within a few months of regular reading I was itching to write. I still wrestled with the fear that I was “showing off,” but my urge to write was so strong I finally defied those nasty whispers inside my head and wrote my first story when I was 27 years old.

Rules for Recovering TV Addicts

When I was pregnant with my first child, I read The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (Penguin Books, 2013) and vowed my children would grow up in a home of books and writing. I slowly weaned myself off constant TV watching by making a series of rules:

  • I can’t watch TV until 8 p.m. 
  • I can only watch pre-recorded shows. 
  • I can only watch one hour of TV a day.

These rules not only gave me time to read and write, they made me a story critic. I began to analyze the stories that won my coveted one-hour slot. What captured my attention? The characters? The dialog? The plot?

A Woman’s Place Is in the Study

Tragically, my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when she was only 52 years old and died in 2012 when she was just 69. As I grieved for my mom’s shortchanged future, I thought about the lessons I was teaching my two kids.

Writing wasn’t just for me; it showed my kids that women have dreams, too. I took writing classes and joined several critique groups. As my kids grew up, I carved out more time to write and encouraged my children to write their own stories.

My writing wasn’t showing off, it was modeling good habits.

Techniques of the Selling Writer

While my stubborn streak pushed me to finish a draft of a middle grade novel, my next obstacle was learning to write well. The feedback I received from my critique group was politely positive, but I began to suspect they were holding back their criticism. I didn’t push for more honest feedback because I was afraid they’d tell me I’d never be a writer.

Ten years after I had been writing, I got up the courage to submit my work for a professional critique at a local SCBWI writing conference. My critiquer did not have any problems with politeness; she was blunt. I was taken aback at first, then I realized this was good. She took my writing seriously. She didn’t say I had no business writing. She told me what I needed to improve as if this was possible.

One of the conference speakers recommended a book on how to write scenes. I ordered Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain (University of Oklahoma Press, 1991) as soon as I got home. It was a 300-page how-to manual on writing scenes with showing, not telling.

 On my first reading, I was overwhelmed. On my second reading, I took detailed notes. For the third reading, I applied the principles to a fan-fiction story for the TV show, “Veronica Mars.”

My critique group loved my new writing style!

I now had proof that you can learn to write with hard work.

Take Joy

Just when I became comfortable with writing, I fell ill with a series of baffling symptoms that left me practically bedridden. I visited doctor after doctor, desperate to figure out what was wrong. In 2014, a physician figured out my complicated set of thyroid, parathyroid, and autoimmune issues and scheduled surgery to remove my parathyroid tumor.

That same month, I applied to the Vermont College of Fine Arts to study writing for children and young adults. The lesson I had learned from my mom was that life is too short to “know your place.”

When I studied at VCFA I met an entire community that believes in writing. My first advisor had me read Jane Yolen’s Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft (Writer’s Digest, 2006). Instead of seeing writing as a struggle, Yolen sees working on craft as a pleasure, an attitude that changed the way I looked at writing.

Four semesters later, I read my humorous young adult short story for my graduate reading to a sea of laughter and was glad I had given myself permission to write.

You matter. Your stories matter, and the journey you take to learn to write them down will be the adventure of your lifetime!

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