Samuel Clemens wrote as Mark Twain. Charles Dodgson wrote as Lewis Carroll. I was thirteen years old, living in Jerusalem, and I wanted a pen name, too. I kept it a secret. In the gold trimmed pages of my red leather diary, I tried to emulate the authors I read: Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Emily Dickinson. I signed those entries with my new nom de plume: Emily Lovejoy.
I locked up this secret and others (“I like Robbie Schmidt”) within the pages of my diary with a tiny gold key. I slid the diary under the bed and hid the key in a drawer. It turns out that you don’t need a key to open a diary. A paperclip will do.
One night, at dinner, my brother looked at me with that smile of mischief and impending torture that little brothers have. I wondered what was coming my way and was horrified when I found out.
“How is Robbie Schmidt doing, Emily Lovejoy?”
I gasped and sat very still… my face hot with embarrassment. Even at nine, my brother was wickedly funny and was able to parody my diary with biting wit. As mortified as I was, I ended up laughing, too. When were older, he would read something I wrote and say, “Whoa, Emily Lovejoy!” This was code for “language too flowery and grossly girlish.”
Emily and I still argue as I write. She has been tempered over time, but she endures. We write side by side… I with my favorite pen and she with her broad brush of starry storied light.
I’ve learned that when I tried to emulate my favorite authors as a thirteen year old, I was using them as mentors. Thanks to Lucy Calkins, Carl Anderson, and others at the TCWRP at Columbia University, I now consciously teach my third graders to read the writers they love, — to read like writers, using good books as mentor texts. Notice it. Try it. Remember it. These are the three steps in working with a mentor text in Writing Workshop.
Learning to write from a writer you love turns out to be a time honored tradition. Emily Dickinson’s favorite author was her mentor, too. She said of Shakespeare, “Why clasp any hand but his?”
My little brother grew up and, among other things, taught creative writing in a university. This week would have marked his birthday. So on this particular Sunday morning, I am thinking about him, about writing, and about all he taught me about writing:
Everyone loves an artist. No one loves an artiste.
You can’t just write about life. You have to live it.
And his final and most generous lesson:
Don’t take death so seriously that you can’t be serious about life.
I notice it. I try it. I remember it… everyday. With love. With Joy.