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I was a lonely, desperate kid, so I read obsessively. All that reading probably made me lonelier and more desperate, because I read instead of talking to people, or washing my hair, or learning how to say cool things. I took baths instead of showers so I could read uninterrupted (see above, dirty hair). I read books until they fell apart, and then read them again. And the book that I read to its most tattered state was Harriet the Spy.
It’s not that I liked it. In fact, if you take a long, cool look at the eleven-year-old Harriet M. Welsch, she’s a bitch. She writes mean things about everyone, even her best friends. She’s in love with herself. She abuses servants, and has a hefty dose of entitlement (“Why don’t we have a cook?” I asked my mother after reading Harriet the Spy for the first time. She laughed in my face).
Our differences aside, Harriet is singlehandedly responsible for my professional choices and development. Here’s what she taught me:
“She grabbed up the pen and felt the mercy of her thoughts coming quickly, zooming through her head onto the paper. What a relief, she thought to herself; for a moment I thought I had dried up. She wrote a lot about what she felt, relishing the joy of her fingers gliding across the page, the sheer relief of communication.” — Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
I’ve kept a notebook ever since I read Harriet the Spy for the first time when I was eight. For me, the world was always a watery place, but once I started putting it into words, it had solidity and definition. I never knew what I had to say until it was on the page. My notebook has always been a friend in itself, a slightly dumb one who doesn’t mind my cross-outs and bad grammar, who regards my thoughts and feelings as something important to be recorded and saved and retooled until they’re just right. And if you do something that weird long enough, you end up making it your profession.
“Harriet never minded admitting she didn’t know something. ‘So what,’ she thought, ‘I could always learn.’” — Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
I realized recently that the #1 prerequisite for all of my jobs — writing, teaching, and especially investigative work — is the willingness to ask hard questions.
Writing doesn’t just involve the all-important “What if” dramatic question (What if a cow wore pants?), but also all the follow-up logistical questions (What kind of pants? Are there holes for the tail and udder? What about the obvious going-to-the-bathroom problem?). And then there’s the point in fiction when you’ve written your way to a larger, more universal question (Aren’t we all, in some way, cows in pants?).
Harriet asked questions because she was interested, and she taught me that being interested is okay — great, even. I now ask questions like, “Why did you get a divorce?” because I’m definitely more interested in that than “How was your weekend?” And I’ve learned that at least 65% of the people you meet would rather talk about something real (“He left me for his cousin”) than make up something fake (“Oh, it’s a long story”).
“Miss Whitehead has buck teeth, thin hair, feet like skis, and a very long hanging stomach. Ole Golly says description is good for the soul and clears the brain like a laxative. That should take care of Miss Whitehead.” — Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
I started working as a private investigator in 2002, after a writer/attorney came to a reading. He asked me to lunch, and within ten minutes he was telling me all about his marital problems (see #2, Asking Hard Questions). When he realized how nosy I was, he offered me a job working on cases, and my P.I. career was born. Since then, I’ve mostly worked on rape cases, and I’ve recently broken into the murder game (as an investigator, not as a killer) (But don’t f*ck with me).
The observational skills that make someone a good P.I. are the same ones that make someone a good writer. Writer-spies observe people closely — who they are, what they do, how they smell, what they value, when they’re lying and why, what they want. People’s devils are in their details, and you can tell much more about people from what they hide, rather than what they show. If you want to really understand your community of humans, you step in and look closer, rather than averting your eyes because it’s polite.
“Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.” — Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh
Morally, Harriet the Spy is the worst book ever written for children, because the overall theme is this: life is only bearable if you lie. But Harriet and Ole Golly are right. Life is full of dilemmas and hypocrisies. And what else is fiction itself but the lie that tells the truth?
I don’t write fiction just because making things up is fun. I write fiction because the world makes no freaking sense. My fictional worlds are the only places where I can reorder events and ideas to the point where I can understand anything. This is how I negotiate writing, sanity, P.I. jobs where I have to pretend to be a pregnant widow, and retail establishments when I’ve lost the receipt. We’re going for the greater good, here.
Okay, I feel myself veering off course, but you get the picture: 1. a great book can turn you into a writer, and 2. author Louise Fitzhugh is directly responsible for all my professional choices. I need to appear for a subpoena on the 13th, and that’s what I’m telling the judge. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Erika Krouse is a novelist, short story writer, and a member of the Lighthouse faculty.
This post is part of our Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts is meaningful to them. Lit Matters stories will be posted throughout the month of November, leading up to Colorado Gives Day on December 9. Mark your calendar for Colorado Gives Day or schedule your gift now. Thank you!