An essay about process and reward.
It all started with a simple request. My good friend Stacy told me she was going to read a scary story to her son’s fourth grade class at East Moriches Elementary. Stacy asked me if I had a story to recommend.
I told her I’d think about it.
And because Stacy knows me well, she said, “Is this going to be a John Gannon special?”
While it is a John Gannon story, I’ll leave it to my audience to decide if it’s special.
And my process began.
I didn’t know if I could write a scary story for kids. Truth be told, most of my writing these days is of the legal variety. While lawyering helps pay my bills, writing fiction soothes my soul. So, I gave it a shot.
But how to go about it? Well, I felt I should roll back the language a bit. Even when I write fiction, I usually write for adults. But the former teacher in me couldn’t resist trying to pump a little vocabulary in there. And that was my starting point: trying to think of good and fun words for children.
Puke. Puke is a good word, I think. It’s a fun word to say, and it has the air of a word that shouldn’t be said in class, so I was all-in on the puke train. And it’s a Halloween story, so let’s throw in dopplegangers, because they’re off the beaten path and fun to say. Ditto for golem and shaman.
I thought about the story some more. It was to be designed for reading out loud to a group, so I needed to limit the characters and the plot. It was specifically for the East Moriches kids, so I could put a lot of local flavor in it.
In my mental meanderings, I remembered a recurring dream I’d had as a child, where a witch would ask me to jump over a stick, but I was afraid I’d fall into a hole when I landed, so I wouldn’t do it. That used to scare me as a kid, so I put it in.
But where did the witch come from? Hmm. What’s the most populous witch-tropolis in American culture? Why, Salem, of course. So, I made the witch come from Salem.
But how did she get to Long Island? In asking that question, I reminded myself that there is a huge eagle statue outside the elementary school. Since the children had to pass it every day, they would easily recognize it. Into the story it went.
In thinking of statues, I remembered the creepy bronze statues of children playing outside the McDonalds two towns over. Well, they had to go in.
For eighteen years, my best friend Rich Gardini has gotten up on the roof of his house on Pepperidge Lane, in costume, and entertained/taunted the kids while throwing them candy and lowering piñatas and spraying silly string. How could that not be there? (To see short videos of the man on the roof, click here for 2009 and click here for 2006.) And then there was the town’s Spookywalk, done for charity to support Camp Paquatuck. That needed to be in there.
And speaking of Paquatuck, there are many places on Long Island that have Native American names. I brought them in, too.
My mind wandered vaguely through all these divergent thoughts, and a story started to cohere. I sat down at my computer, and two hours later I was done. It only takes twenty minutes to read out loud, so it works for Stacy’s needs. Whew!
I sent the story over to some friends with kids, for a proper audience vetting. So far, success. One friend’s daughter asked to be driven over to look at the scary McDonalds statues, so I’m thinking at least I managed to capture some part of her imagination.
Oh, and the universal critique from the children segment of my readership: I’m not so scary. But fun was had, and that’s enough.
I wanted to share the fun, so I put the story up on Smashwords, for free. That took about thirty minutes. Why free? Well, it’s short, first off, and didn’t take much effort. More importantly, I write in order to be read, and that’s enough. Although it’s too bad I don’t need to write in order to be fed, because I’d be a lot skinnier then.
It felt quite good, and it was great exercise, to write this short story for children. Actually, it was all I enjoy about the author’s experience in a condensed package: the joy of creation, followed by craft applied to construction, and the immediate feedback of satisfied readers. It reminded me why I like to write.
But more importantly, for you writers out there: don’t forget to stay in touch with the reasons why you want and need to write; and keep contact with the magical mental juices that creation stirs a’boiling; and above all, write, write, write!
So, sit down and write a scary story for Halloween. Do it now! Having a deadline helps clarify and motivate. Having a finished product in no time encourages one to embark on the next project. Do it!
Thanks to Stacy and her request, I’ll be setting aside some time tomorrow for writing. Hopefully, I’ll do it the day after that, and the day after that. Because…
a writer writes.