When I went to see Markus Zusak, famed author of The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger, I expected to learn a little more about his books and get my copy of The Book Thief signed. What I didn’t expect was to walk away itching to write my own stories.
But I did. And if what Mr. Zusak shared with his audience of nearly 500 fans at a local library on a Saturday night gave me the story-writing bug, I’m willing to bet it can help you get your students — especially your struggling readers and reluctant writers — a little more excited about creating their own stories.
So what exactly did he say?
He said, “I’m not a writer because I have a great I.Q. I’m a writer because I try to do the simple things well.” In other words, you don’t have to be a genius to be an excellent storyteller. But you do have to do four simple things well:
1. Mine your own life. Did you know that Mr. Zusak’s parents grew up in Germany and Austria during World War II? In fact, one of the most gut-wrenching scenes from The Book Thief is adapted from a story Markus’s mother used to tell him as a child. As an author, Mr. Zusak writes what he knows and finds inspiration in the stories of his own life.
2. Use specific details. During his speech, Mr. Zusak shared a hilarious story about the day he finally got revenge on his older brother. At the end of the story, he quizzed us on the details, and we knew them. What color was his brother’s lunch box? Red. What did he and his brother sit on during their lunch break? Paint cans. He then reminded us that using specific details makes a story more believable. More importantly, it makes you the story yours.
3. Remember that the unexpected gets the best reaction. In Mr. Zusak’s story of getting revenge on his older brother, the very best part wasn’t what we’d all been anticipating — the moment when Markus’s older brother cracked a raw egg on his own head. Instead, it was the moment when young Markus confessed to his dad (before anything had even happened) that he’d switched his brother’s hardboiled eggs for raw ones. Instead of chastising his son for carrying out such a cruel plan, Markus’s father turned to him and said, “Son, that’s brilliant.” In stories, it’s often the unexpected that gets the very best reaction.
4. Rewrite and rewrite to make your stories better. Mr. Zusak told us that he read, reread, and rewrote the first 80 pages of The Book Thief something like 150 or 200 times. When he started writing the book from death’s perspective, the prose was sardonic, sadistic, and even a little sleazy. In his own words, it was terrible stuff. But he kept writing and rewriting and rewriting again, eventually producing a stunning novel. He pointed out that great writers don’t become great just by thinking about writing. They become great by putting in the hours and hours of drafting, revising, and editing.
By the end of his speech, I had learned an important lesson from Markus Zusak. I had learned that the ability to write great stories isn’t an innate gift that you either have or don’t have. It’s about doing the simple things well, putting in the time, and not being afraid to confront the problems we find in our own writing. And for any student of writing, that’s a pretty valuable lesson.