I write funny stories…or at least I try. I don’t think of myself as funny and I don’t think most of my friends do either. I’m a pretty sincere person. I get easily caught up in the plagues of the world: civil rights, poverty, education, global warming. And all through the lens of children, which makes me even more depressing to hang out with, and basically means I have to work hard at my funny stories.
For Christmas my kids were given the cast recording of Matilda, which is absolutely amazing. But it’s up there with all the plagues that melt my heart. I can’t say it’s funny. There’s certainly a lot of humor in it, but there’s lots of sadness, even more than the book. The music is brooding and tragic and builds to these outrageous crescendos that break my heart (Miss Honey really brings tears to my eyes). The whole thing is too brilliant for words. My kids play it over and over and over again, and no matter how many times I hear it, I listen happily.
As fun as it is, I started to become even more brooding and tragic than usual, and my writing followed along like a good little dog (not like my dog Pepito who pulls terribly when he’s on the leash but some imaginary, well-behaved dog I like to call Josie). Anyway, after repetitive listening to Matilda my main character ended up in the hospital with memory loss, all his bones broken, and his marriage in ruins, and he’s only ten! You don’t want to know what happened to the rest of the characters.
I admit, I had not realized until this moment the power that outside influences had over my writing and in turn, over me. Luckily, besides being fairly morose, I am one of those people who like to have touchstones beside them when they write. My touchstones are books that have some magical essence that is similar to what I am working on. Not exactly the same but close enough to give me a little pick-me-up when I need it the most, like when the box of chocolates is empty.
For the series I’m working on now I always have a Junie B. Jones book (doesn’t matter which one because they’re all hilarious), any of Louis Sachar’s Wayside School books (because they’re all brilliant), and any Roald Dahl book because even though the musical version of Matilda is brooding and tragic, that book and all his books have a bounce that is unmatched by anyone else (in my opinion).
These books are beside me so that when I forget I’m writing humor, and get lost in my brooding and tragic side I can open them, read a sentence or two anywhere, and be brought back to the place I need to be. I don’t copy them, but I draw some remarkable strength from them.
I’ve learned that other authors are my touchstones—teaching, guiding, and helping to tell my story through all the distractions of the world (and I know there are lots of those, and most of them really stink!).
I’ve also learned that I need to be bloody careful about what I listen to or take in when I’m writing a book. The good news is this realization totally cuts down how much I watch General Hospital or The Voice, which totally breaks my heart. And I’ve finally learned to listen to Matilda only on weekends when I know I’m not going to get any writing done anyway, so I can cry my little vocal chords to their hearts content.
Can’t help asking: What books do you keep on your desk? How do they help you?
Molly Burnham is a July 2010 graduate of the MFAC program. Teddy Mars Almost a World Record Breaker, the first of three books she has under contract, will be published by Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins in December, 2014. Molly lives in western Massachusetts.