By Sherrin Fitzer

Sometimes it’s worthwhile to remember what your childhood passions were, as they may guide you to what you ought to be doing today.

As I look into my past, I see now that I always wanted to be a writer. I was a voracious reader. I vaguely remember a book with creative writing exercises in it that I loved. And Harriet the Spy was one of my favorite books. I have forgotten most of the books that I read as a child, yet this one has stayed in my memory all of my life.

Harriet is an only child with parents who love her, although their parenting style can be rather distant. She is taken care of mostly by her nanny Ole Golly. Harriet considers herself to be a spy and has a regular rotation of people who she spies on. She is never without her notebook and writes down all she observes, along with her musings.

Harriet calls herself a spy and aspires to be a writer.

Here are some tips on becoming a writer and/or becoming a better writer from Harriet the Spy:

Read: Ole Golly peppers conversations with quotations from Henry James, Dostoevsky, and Emerson while talking with Harriet, whose bookshelf is filled with books. After Harriet is sent to bed for the night she pulls out her flashlight and current book and reads “happily” under the covers.

When I taught College Writing I always told students that if they wanted to improve their writing they needed to read. Read something. Read anything. Read.

Observe: Ole Golly, Harriet and her friend Sport are going on a bus/subway trip to visit Ole Golly’s mother. As they are leaving Harriet makes a mad dash to her room to retrieve her notebook. “I never go anywhere without it” she tells Sport. While on the subway Harriet “scribbles furiously in her notebook.” She observes fellow subway passengers and describes them in her notebook because “I’ve seen them and I want to remember them.” Harriet is constantly observing her parents, friends, classmates and people on her spy route.

Observation is often where ideas for writing come from. Ideas can be found in the media, by listening to conversations and in something you have read. Keep your eyes and ears open.

Be Curious: “I want to know everything, everything,” Harriet yells to Ole Golly. Harriet thirsts for knowledge. She wants to know everything about the world and the people in it. In her notebook she asks questions: “What makes poor people poor and rich people rich? Where do people go at five o’ clock?” She writes that “Life is a great mystery.”

Never stop being curious. Ask questions. Explore.

Write regularly: Harriet writes daily. When she cannot write she wants to. Upon meeting Ole Golly’s mother Harriet “fairly itched to take notes on her and “can’t wait to get back to her room to finish her notes.” Ole Golly gives her sound advice when she tells her that if she wants to be a writer “she’d better write down everything.”

Write. Write daily. It doesn’t have to be perfect. No one necessarily even needs to read it but you. Just write.

And now the lesson that Harriet has to learn to truly become a writer: it’s not best to always tell the truth. Writing the truth in your notebook without purpose or compassion does not make one a writer. The notes that Harriet keeps in her notebook about people may very well be true, but they are very cruel.

Her classmates find her notebook and read all of the horrible things she has written about them:

–Sometimes I can’t stand Sport.

–I once saw Ms. Elston when she didn’t see me and she was picking her nose.

–Who does Janie Gibbs think she is kidding? Does she really think she could ever be a scientist?

–The reason Sport dresses so funny is that his father won’t buy him anything to wear because his mother has all the money.

–Carrie Andrews has an ugly pimple right next to her nose.

Her classmates turn against her, starting an anti-spy club. Her friends Sport and Janie leave her. Her teacher and parents find out about the notebook and take her notebook away from her during school hours. She is sent to a psychiatrist. None of this helps. They finally make her editor of the school newspaper thinking this may help and she still prints cruel things.

It is a letter from Ole Golly (who has gotten married and moved away) that finally makes an impact on Harriet. Ole Golly tells her:

“I have decided that if you are ever going to be a writer it is time you got cracking. You are eleven years old and haven’t written a thing but notes. Make a story out of some of those notes and send it to me.”

Ole Golly acknowledges that what Harriet has written in her notebooks is the truth and that it was not meant to read by anyone but Harriet. If however it happens to be read by others Harriet has to do two things:

“1) You have to apologize.

2) You have to lie.”

And by lie Ole Golly means that telling little white lies to spare someones feeling is not a bad thing. She clarifies by telling Harriet to “remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends. But to your self you must always tell the truth.”

Harriet overhears the word “retraction” while listening to her father and mother talk. In the next issue the following is printed:

“This page wishes to retract certain statements printed in a certain notebook by the editor of The Sixth Grade Page which were unfair statements and beside were lies…A general apology is offered by the editor.”

Harriet is now on her way to becoming a writer.


Photo: horngry/tumblr

Editor: Dana Gornall