I sympathize with the thousands upon thousands of people out there to whom “writing a novel” is an expressly important line item on the old bucket list. Me however? I’m not one of them. I love to read. I devour novels. I am the wormiest of book worms. My Kindle is my most prized possession and when I thought I lost it last week I wept for 2 days nonstop. Seriously. Ask Brad. I never had the itch to write my own novel, though. Don’t know why. I certainly fit the description for the type of person I’m referencing in that first sentence. Creativity, intelligence, art, beauty, all huge priorities to me. Perhaps I always worried that trying to climb that mountain myself would destroy the joy I get out of reading. There’s a great line in a Billy Bragg song: “The temptation to take the precious things apart in life to see how they work, must be resisted for they never fit together again.” God I love that line. It’s like going backstage at Disneyland. You think you want to, but the second you see Mickey Mouse with his head off smoking a cigarette you regret the decision. I don’t know what it took for F. Scott Fitzgerald to write something so elegant, so brilliantly threaded together and evocative as The Great Gatsby and I’m not sure I want to know. I like to think it was magic.
I am, however, a writer of children’s stories. Writing children’s books is something I’ve aspired to do since I was 7 years old. I loved to read at that age, and I had a vivid imagination of my own so writing stories seemed accessible, easy, something I could actually succeed in doing. I had plans to be published by my 8th birthday. Of course, I wasn’t. That plan fell into the trap of something one always *talks* about doing but never actually does. Allow me to quickly share with you the story of the The Little Red Toolbox:
I have very few crystal clear memories of my childhood. I don’t know why, I had a happy one, I just have an absolutely terrible memory. I do remember a small handful of moments incredibly vividly as if they just happened. One such moment was the day I realized it would be “easy” to be a children’s book author. I was 7 years old. My mom was driving me to school in the morning and I sat in the backseat quietly daydreaming to myself, as I was wont to do. I had already discovered my love of reading and writing but I wanted to take it to the next level. I wanted to be published by 8. It just seemed so easy. I had this great idea for a book about a toolbox, a little red toolbox to be exact. I practically had my pitch to Random House completely worked out. Each page would have a description and illustration about different things one can find in a toolbox. It would target the pre-K to Kindergarten age group and would be very simple, elegant, and educational. My little 7 year old brain thought to itself on this morning drive to school “This is going to be so easy. I’ll just write, draw the pictures, send it all off to a publisher and voila! I’ll be published by the time I’m 8!” I kid you not. I thought that. No fear of failure. No struggle. No bellyaching about how hard it would be to succeed. A sentiment that we adults seemed to be plagued by from our peers as well as ourselves. Pure, innocent, beautiful childhood delusion.
I never wrote The Little Red Toolbox. I suppose even as a child I had a penchant for becoming easily distracted. I’m sure as soon as Thaddeus from the 2nd grade class walked by I forgot all about my career goals and became consumed with whether he would sit next to me at lunch that day. I never wrote it, but I also never forgot it. I’ve conjured up that memory and thought about it constantly over the years. I never let the idea go. Somewhere in the back of my mind I figured someday I’d write The Little Red Toolbox. Someday.
2 years ago I’m in a Barnes & Noble shopping for a gift for my little cousin Ian. I’m browsing through all of the children’s books. I turn a corner to look at the Pre-K reading level and, oh my god, what is that? Oh my god it’s impossible. It was a book called My Little Red Toolbox. And every page had a description and illustration about what one might find in a toolbox. I couldn’t believe it. My jaw dropped, my stomach turned and my heart broke. Someone did it. Someone stole my idea. Someone stole my childhood dream. In fact, he did not. I know for a fact that no one could have stolen the idea from me because I never told anyone about it. I kept it to myself. Someone just did what I was too lazy, too scared, too apathetic to do. In that moment of frustration and heartbreak, a cloud over my head cleared away and I had one of those whatchamacalits, those moments of clarity. The truth is, our ideas are not our own. They are gifts to be used and if we don’t use them, someone else will. Creative people are merely vessels for stories and ideas to flow through, but the stories existed long before us. If Herman Melville had not written Moby Dick I’m certain someone else would have come along and written, not the same novel, but a similar one that filled that same needed hole in the canon of great literature. No, an idea that’s just an idea does not belong to you until you claim it, and more importantly share it with the world. Then it becomes yours forever. I could say that I had the idea first, but who cares? That person discovered the same idea. The difference is that he had the guts to write it down. He had the guts to share it, and now it’s his forever. He didn’t steal it from me. I let it go. I know why I never wrote The Little Red Toolbox. I was afraid. As I got older I lost my sheen of childhood optimism and became afraid that, oh, maybe it was actually a stupid idea or, oh, maybe it would actually be kind of hard to get published. Maybe people would judge me. I was afraid and creativity has no patience for fear. The idea lost patience with me and left to go find someone who would have the guts to realize it.
I realize we’re talking about a pre-school book about a toolbox. We’re not discussing the lost text of War & Peace here, I know. But god, that little red toolbox meant a lot to me. The profundity of the moment I discovered that book opened my eyes to the potential I was neglecting in myself. I have a million other ideas in my head to accompany The Little Red Toolbox. Better ideas. I made a promise to myself that day that I would not let anyone else take those ideas away from me simply by writing them down first. Standing in that bookstore amidst the likes of Dr. Seuss and R.L. Stine, I wanted to be there too and I knew that I could. I was right about everything when I was 7. I did have a great idea, I could have been published. I was right about everything except for one thing, the easy part. The truth is, it would not have been easy, and the day I realized that is the day I gave up. Such a shame.
The moral of the story: All of the great ideas in the world are like fairies flying around in the air. Not everyone can see fairies. Special people can. Artists. Dreamers. The passionate ones know that fairies exist. But you have to figure out how to catch them, make them your own, and send them back into the world as something people will recognize, will see, and will believe in. If you don’t, someone else will.
So what does this have to do with NaNoWriMo? (National Novel Writing Month)? Everything. If you don’t know what it is, click on that link. I’m not going to become a novelist and I’m pretty sure the novel I started yesterday is going to be an embarrassment to the English language, but I will write everyday. Writers have to write. Every. Single. Day. That much I’ve heard from the best, and I believe them. I look at the next 30 days (29 now) as writing boot camp. This month is going to discipline me beyond belief and whip my lazy Say Yes to the Dress/Roseanne/South Park-watching butt into creative shape. Come December 1st 2011, I will be so used to sitting down with a pen and paper everyday, the rest of those Little Red Toolboxes will finally start to flow out through my pen and into the world. And I will accomplish my childhood dream of being a published children’s book author. You just wait and see. I missed the 8 year old mark. Let’s aim for 30.