I hear a blizzard swept through most of the continental U.S. last week. My Facebook feed has been full of pictures from friends back East.
Pictures of . . .
Snow piled halfway up their front doors.
Cars buried beneath several feet of snow.
And smiles wrapped behind layers and layers of sweaters and scarves.
While snow fell in other parts of the country, I busied myself with getting our house ready for company. But the cleaning made me hot, so I needed to turn on the air conditioner. I mean, it was at least 70 degrees outside, for goodness’ sake.
As a California native, I don’t know snow. I’m told the Eskimos have multiple names for the different types of snow. But I only know it as the white fluffy stuff I see in pretty pictures.
But there was that one time, when I was seven years old . . .
My family had moved to the heart of the Ozark Mountains, in the Northwest corner of Arkansas. In the middle of the school year, I stepped into a brand new second grade classroom. My new teacher asked me where I was from.
I told her, “I’m from California.”
Immediately the kids in the room asked if I knew how to surf and if I had palm trees in my backyard.
Only I didn’t know what they were talking about. I was from a small town in Northern California, where everyone I knew was a farmer. Rice fields stretched for miles.
Nevertheless, I became the topic of much interest by my new classmates, who all said I talked funny.
One day I woke up to see a sheet of white snow covering everything outside. I had never seen real snow before, and I had always wanted to build a snowman. Then my mom said the most glorious thing I had ever heard. She said school was cancelled because of the snow! She called it a “Snow Day.”
Well, we never had any of those back home!
So I bundled up as best I could, but within 30 minutes I was soaked clean through. Being from California, we weren’t equipped with the proper kinds of jackets and gloves yet. But I didn’t care. I was determined to build my first real snowman.
The snow, however, wouldn’t stick together. My snowman looked more like a pile of white mush with a carrot on top — because everyone knows that a snowman needs a carrot for a nose. But my disappointment over a failed snowman soon dissipated as I shivered my way through the rest of the afternoon, delighted by my very first Snow Day.
A few days later, it was time to go back to school. And my second grade teacher asked the class to write a story about what they did for their Snow Day. So I wrote about my snowman-blob and how the snow tasted prickly on my tongue and how I struggled to make a simple snowball.
The next day, the teacher said she wanted to read a special story by one of the students. And, of course, she read mine. I was convinced she picked my story because I used fancy words. Thanks to Crayola, I always included fancy adjectives whenever I described a setting — such as the clear cerulean sky and the bold tangerine sun. I might have even mentioned the way my freezing cold lips turned a certain shade of wisteria.
Yes, at the ripe ole’ age of seven, I figured I was a dandy writer by virtue of my fanciness.
As my teacher read my story aloud, I heard my classmates gasp in awe. Except it wasn’t my fancy words that impressed them. It was the fact that I admitted I had never seen snow before. They couldn’t imagine a person living seven long years without ever seeing snow!
That’s when I realized it wasn’t my clever adjectives or impressive words that made my story any good. For that particular audience, my story was just different. That’s all.
My very first Snow Day taught me the most important writing lesson I would ever learn: Good stories are unique stories.
A great vocabulary is nice too. But we’re wise to tell a story straight. Clean and simple. If we’re drawing attention to ourselves, with endless bouts of alliteration and over-the-top rhyming schemes, then we’re actually pulling our readers out of the story.
Great writing never draws attention to the writer. A great writer knows how to slip into the background and let the words on the page speak for themselves.
So last week, when a blizzard blew across towns and states and I scrolled through my friends’ snow-filled photos on Facebook, I couldn’t help but wonder how many kids experienced their very first Snow Day. And which of them, I wonder, will become writers in the decades to come?
What’s the first writing lesson you ever learned?