Finding Your Writer’s Gold: Writing Advice from Wendelin Van Draanen

Wendelin Van Draanen is the author of over thirty novels, including the Sammy Keyes series, Flipped, The Running Dream, and Wild Bird. This essay was adapted from a section in Wendelin’s inspiring new book, Hope in the Mail: Reflections on Writing and Life, which is part memoir, part craft guide, and part information on publishing.

 


 

It took me a long time to confess to people that I was writing novels. I didn’t feel fully “qualified,” plus writing was a very personal thing for me—as much therapy as craft.

When I finally did start opening up about it, an older relative asked me how I thought I could possibly be a writer.

“You’re too young to be a writer. You need more experiences,” he told me with conviction. As Jessica from The Running Dream would tell you, “Seeds of doubt can quickly grow into weeds in your garden of worthiness,” and that single comment brought on the crabgrass!

Seeds of doubt can quickly grow into weeds in your garden of worthiness

Jessica from The Running Dream

But here’s what I’ve learned over time: No matter how young you are, you have experiences. You have knowledge. You have feelings and observations and thoughts that are worthy of exploration. You can arrive at conclusions that will broaden the thinking of others. And keep in mind that it’s often the small story with a universal message that touches us most deeply.

The idea for my book Flipped came from realizing that my own youthful experience crushing on a boy was not by any means unique. As a high school teacher, I saw many of my students go through the same thing—having a massive crush on someone who did not like them back. So I took those painful love scars and used them to create Flipped. The scars had been there for years, but it was finally recognizing their value that allowed me to put them to good use.

It’s easy to overlook the value of things we see every day. But no matter how ordinary or mundane your environment may seem to you, if your story can capture the human experience within it, others will relate. For example: if you’re in school, guess what?

You’re surrounded by writer’s gold.

How a school works, the voices of the students and the teachers, the rules and limitations, the curriculum and expectations . . . it’s all part of your everyday grind.

But now look at that through the lens of a writer. You have the background and details to write about a school environment naturally. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the mechanics of school life will flow from your fingertips. It’s easy for you! Do you know how many authors— especially kid-lit authors— would love to know what you know? Maybe they were in school once, but that was probably a long time ago. Things have changed, and to get it right they have to work at it, and work hard.

Likewise, if you have a job—no matter how boring or ordinary you think it is—the way it works, the conversations in the employees’ lunchroom, how your associates relate to one another and the boss . . . everything about it is writer’s gold. If you’re a dog walker or a babysitter, if you work in a fast-food drive-thru or stock shelves at a discount store, start seeing the writer’s gold that surrounds you.

Even if you’re in a rough situation right now, find a way to look at it through your writer lens. What you’re going through may be hard and dark and frightening, but it’s also writer’s gold. There are details about your everyday life that will give a natural authenticity to your writing, and you have some powerful stuff to write about!

So . . . pay attention to the ordinary around you. Find the story inside it. Find the human connection, because the best stories are the ones that touch our hearts.

So . . . pay attention to the ordinary around you. Find the story inside it. Find the human connection, because the best stories are the ones that touch our hearts.

 

So . . . pay attention to the ordinary around you. Find the story inside it. Find the human connection, because the best stories are the ones that touch our hearts.

Wendelin Van Draanen

And don’t listen to people who say you’re not seasoned enough or qualified enough to be a writer. No matter what your situation is or how young you are, you have enough to paint a story with words, to make others hear you. So take a closer look at what you already know. What’s inside your heart? What’s inside your vault? Write what you know, and write what you feel. It’s a great place to start.

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