09 March 2013

What I learned from Walter Dean Myers today

Walter Dean Myers
A few days ago I heard that Walter Dean Myers would be speaking at the Festival of Words, a one-day literacy event for Delaware teens, teachers and librarians. The program would focus on young adult literature, poetry and writing, so of course I immediately made plans to crash the party. (Actually, I emailed and begged to go and they said, "We would love to have you!")

For those not familiar with the awesome that is Walter Dean Myers, he is a poet and author of more than 100 books for children and young adults. (By his count, 105 have been published and seven more are "in the pipeline.") But we're not only talking quantity, here, folks. He's won a boatload of awards for titles including Monster, The Scorpion, Somewhere in the Darkness, Fallen Angels, Hoops, Autobiography of my Dead Brother, and Lockdown. He's written about life growing up on the rough streets of Harlem, basketball (his true love), and the Vietnam war (where he fought and a brother died). He is currently serving as Ambassador for Young People's Literature.

Mr. Myers opened his talk by describing a typical day. He rises at 4:30 a.m, feeds his wife's cat, gets coffee, and then proceeds to write five pages, which takes two-and-a-half to three hours, he says. Yep, by 8 a.m., the man has completed his writing for the day! (But not his revising on another book, or his planning of a third. He has three books going in various stages of development at any given time.)

He shared many wonderful anecdotes and snippets of advice from his life as a writer, and answered dozens of questions. "I had to overcome the idea that all writers are geniuses, just open a window and let the muse come in," he said, reflecting on the need to learn the craft of writing. "No one would go into plumbing without learning the craft." Also important: "Learn how to finish books." 

He described his own approach to story development, the "Pre-writing" stage, which starts with a question and character. He charts the basic story on a six-box grid to see if it's interesting enough. Then he lists 30 scenes. "If I do 30 scenes and the scenes work, that's a book." 

Myers keeps a notebook with pictures of the characters in his WIP, which he pulls from a website that features older kids who need to be adopted. And he creates a timeline for each character, from birth to the present. A key event on that timeline is something that happened when they were four years old, which would be their first memory. 

"Pre-writing is most important," he says. "I'm a good writer, I'm a pretty good re-writer. But I make my living pre-writing."

I asked him how he decides whether he'll write a story in prose, verse, or screen-play form (as Monster was). His answer was fascinating, as he described how he interviewed prison inmates before writing Monster and found that whenever they spoke of their crime, they spoke in third person. It was a way to distance themselves from the crime... separate it from how they viewed themselves. So, Myers told his character Steve Harmon's story similarly, in first-person diary entries when sharing his feelings, but as the film script for a court-room drama when telling about the crime. The result was riveting! 

Myers noted that he never gets too attached to his words. If he's written a story in verse and the publisher wants him to change it to prose, he says, "I change it."

Thank you, Festival of Words and Walter Dean Myers for an educational and inspiring event!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a great talk! How amazingly productive.