Portrait Of The Author At Seven

Last week I told you about an experience I had as a budding author in junior high, and how my life came full circle in November as I returned to Atlanta to participate in the NCTE conference - the same organization that gave me one of my first writing awards at the age of fourteen. This week, fellow author and Edgar-nominee Matthew Baker (IF YOU FIND THIS) is hosting my earliest piece of writing to achieve recognition.

My 2nd grade teacher was one of my favorites - in fact, she's still substituting at the school and spotted a typo in IN A HANDFUL OF DUST, which made me just put my head down on my desk as if it was lights out / time out.

She was a big supporter of creativity and one of the things that we did in her class year-round was write our own books. We gave them "hardcovers" of cardboard and choose our cover design from a box of Contac paper... and then (unbelievably) we were given a needle and thread to bind them. During any free time if you felt like writing a book you were encouraged to do it, and I have a plastic container in the attic full of stories by young Mindy.

My teacher spotted me writing whenever I could, so she told me to pick what I thought was my best book and she would enter it into the Young Authors Competition.

I can't say for sure whether it was a contest, a conference, or a workshop. All I know is that I made it. So one Saturday I got up early, went somewhere (I don't know where), and spent the day with a bunch of other kids whose work had been chosen. I met either Byrd Baylor or Peter Parnell (I can't remember which one it was, I just remember this book), and someone had brought a bunch of desert animals for us to touch.

At one point we were put into groups and asked to share our books with one another. This is the moment that has remained clear to me right up to the present day. Each kid read their book out loud, and I thought every single one of them was better than mine. I remember my confidence slipping away as their talent outshone my own. I could tell you to this day what every one of their books was about.

Because I thought they were better writers than I was.

That still happens. Constantly. The curse of being both a writer and a reader is that you can hardly call reading a pleasure activity any longer. If you read something that you think is poorly done yet has sold many more copies than your own work, you have to wonder what they are doing right that you aren't. If you read something truly amazing you are transported as a reader, but the writer side of you plummets into a darkness because you don't think you will ever be as good as they are.

However, I think both experiences are humbling - and being humbled is a good thing for anyone. It makes you try harder, do better, work longer, push forward. If I ever believe that I am the best then I will stop improving, and I will have failed my readers.

I think about that Young Authors gathering quite often, and sometimes I wonder where those other kids in my group ended up. Not because I want proof that I was, indeed, better than them and have made a career out of writing, but because they were good, and I'd like to see what they are doing with their craft now. Because I guarantee you they still write.

My story LISSSSSSS (the trademark sound my fictitious pet dragon makes), is up on Matthew's site today, complete with my original artwork.

Oh, and yeah - the other kids had better illustrations, too.