Talking about writing to junior school kids



This is the transcript of a speech I gave to grade sixes and sevens at a junior school in Johannesburg. It’s about persistence, story-telling and overcoming self-doubt.

When people used to ask (as you know they often do) ‘What would you like to be when you grow up?’ I could never answer straight away.

How could I! There were so many options!

My best friend was going to be a doctor, which sounded pretty great until I passed out cold in front of everyone when she dissected a frog for the class in grade 6 science. Maybe medicine wasn’t really going to be my thing.

For the longest time, I wanted to be a nature conservationist. I was mad about animals, and crazy about nature and plants, and couldn’t think of anything more awesome than a life spent in hiking boots trampling around in the bush. With a bit of luck, any frogs that I encountered would be hopping about, and wouldn’t need dissecting, so that was OK, too.

But the truth is, that even though I thought I was dreaming of oneday becoming a conservationist, what I was really doing was inventing stories about being one. Because that’s what I did with everything – I made up stories.

When I was supposed to be doing Maths homework, I made up stories. When I was standing on the hockey field waiting to leap into action after the ball, I was making up stories (needless to say, I was lousy at hockey).

I made up stories in my head ALL THE TIME.

Stop dreaming, Miranda.

Pay attention, Miranda.

What are you staring at outside the window that’s so interesting, Miranda?

I drove my teachers nuts.

I was often in trouble for not finishing my homework, or forgetting to do assignments, but I couldn’t seem to stop because the stuff going on inside my head was just SO MUCH MORE AWESOME than the things that were happening in the world around me.

The only thing that was as fascinating as my imaginary world was reading the books other imaginers had written.

I read whenever and wherever I could. Even in the bath, which was very risky, as you can imagine.

Inspired by all this reading, I tried to write some of my stories down. I started lots of different ones, and almost finished a few, but everything I wrote was just AWFUL.

My stories were never as funny or exciting as the books I read, and they seemed to ramble on without going anywhere interesting.

Worst of all, my characters all sort-of sounded like me, which was extremely annoying.

Writing was also really hard.

Like REALLY hard.

It took serious concentration and discipline to force the words to get on the page in the right order, and people had always told me I was bad at concentrating, and very bad at being disciplined.

So I decided, in a sad sort of way, that while stories were the most fun thing ever, I was never going to be good enough to write them.

And for the next twenty years, that’s what I believed.

So how come I’m standing here today talking to you about being a published writer, with my name on real books that sell in real shops all over the world?

Well now, that’s where the story gets interesting.

It turns out that no matter what courses I studied, or which strange jobs I tried, the secret desire to have my say and create stories never left me.

My problem? I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to do it, and there’s nothing quite as destructive and disempowering as fear.

It’s not surprising that the word ‘petrified’ means both turning ancient plant or animal matter to stone over time (think fossils), and also, being so afraid of something that you can’t move a single muscle.

In a way, when it came to me wanting to write, my fear of being bad at it had turned me to stone.

I didn’t know it at the time, but overcoming this fear was the one thing that would enable me to become a real writer, not just creating stories, but crafting really good books.

It all started to change when I was living in London in a tiny flat that was really just a room, and doing all sorts of horrid jobs that brought in a bit of money, but scored ZERO in terms of satisfaction.

Desperate to do something to wake myself up out of this mind-bending boredom, I made a deal with myself.

I would sit at the computer and write this story that I’d been thinking about for years, but it would be FOR MY EYES ONLY.

Nobody else would ever see it, so even if it was terrible, it wouldn’t matter.

I made a rule that I was to write a bit every single day, even if I didn’t feel like it, and even if I only managed a few lousy words.

And that’s exactly what I did.

And as I worked on the story, day-after-day-after day, something began to change…

I forgot about the judge-y voice inside my head that had been stopping me from trying all those years.

I forgot about how awful it would be if I tried and failed, because all my thoughts became about the story itself.

How would I get this character to realise this thing?

How could I make this other character interesting and believable?

What would this sort of person say in that sort of situation?

How could I show what someone was feeling without describing all their boring thoughts?

It was FUN.

And now, many many years later, I’ve learned to trust the process of writing.

I’ve learned that if I sit down and commit myself to figuring out all the weird little problems and questions that come up when I’m trying to tell a tale, the fear goes away, just long enough for me to get it done.

And now I’m going to share a secret with you.

The fear is actually still there.

It always will be.

It’s there because I’m a human being, and all humans want to be accepted by other humans, and doing something that puts that acceptance at risk will always scare us.


Well think back to ancient times when we were all living in caves and trees, foraging for food, being hunted by predators and attacked by other tribes – if our own group rejected us, kicked us out of the cave, being unprotected in the wilderness would mean our certain death!

So fear of rejection is kind of baked in to us.

It’s how we’re built.

Art (and writing can be a form of art) is particularly scary, because it’s about taking something that’s inside you, and showing it to the world, and the world might just go: EEUW!

Or even worse, they might not care at all…

I believe that forcing myself to pursue my art in the face of this fear is what will one-day make me a great writer.

That courage and passion will bleed into the work and give it depth and life.

Perhaps it can do the same for you, too, whatever your creative dreams may be.

If I’d kept on waiting for the scared-feeling to go away before I started, I’d still be twiddling my shivering little thumbs, and I wouldn’t have these beautiful books on shelves in shops, and on people’s bedside tables. I wouldn’t be working on more books now. I wouldn’t be a writer.

So my advice to you is, whatever it is you dream of doing, accept that being human is scary.

Accept that to share something that comes from your own imagination is even scarier,

BUT the fear doesn’t have to stop you.

So, even-while you’re shaking in your boots with fright, just put your head down and make a start.

And who knows? You might, like I do, forget to be afraid while you’re busy creating, because the process is absorbing and fascinating and furiously fun.

One more secret? It’s still scary each time I send a book out into the world.

People might still go EEUW! And some of them do.

But the joy of making my art, creating my stories, writing my books, is something I will never deny myself again.

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