The first story I wrote was dated on December 8, 1993 inside my first grade manila composition book. In the fourth grade, I kept a clothy baby blue diary that harbored my inner-most childhood wishes. But, my adventures as an aspiring writer began in the sixth grade, and it started with an infatuation with the Nickelodeon film adaptation of Louise Fitzhugh’s “Harriet the Spy.”
I wish I were kidding, but I’m not.
After renting this movie countless times, I became a spy–the self-proclaimed Harriet ‘M.’ Welsch of my neighborhood. I carried a flashlight, rusted binoculars and a spy-book, not a girly-whirly diary or a basic school journal, but a black-and-white marble notebook that contained bona fide top secret information. Come to think of it, how did I even get this stuff?
Although we were generations apart and I lived across the country from Harriet’s brownstone in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, she was an 11-year-old girl with an insatiable hunger for worldly knowledge, and also a bit of a loner just like me.
Character fads came and went throughout my adolescence, but Harriet stuck around for a while. She became my literary counterpart, but she wasn’t an ideal protagonist for a children’s book.
In fact, according to Anita Silvey, an author and children’s book critic, “Harriet the Spy” was banned in schools in the 60s for its mild profanity. Harriet was ill-tempered, but many readers eventually praised Fitzhugh’s character as a self-assured nonconformist and avant-garde writer.
As a lifelong fan, I’m commemorating this novel’s 50th Anniversary by going deeper into this awkward phase of my life.
During my spy days, I staked out a spy route near my house and jotted down the date, time, and place of my observations. I peeped through windows, climbed trees, hid behind bushes, and eavesdropped on anyone who was unlucky enough to be nearby. I wrote down everything because I wanted to know everything.
Spying was my job, and I took it seriously. On one occasion I walked up a narrow, never-ending driveway up the street from my house that led to a private lawn of a mansion built in the 1920s. As I crept toward the house with the intention of sneaking inside, a Rottweiler and a pack of small nipping dogs chased me out of there. Although Harriet had been caught once, I felt like I let her down that day.
Each notebook evolved into a spy-book-burn-book hybrid. I stopped paying attention in class. I buried myself in the pages of my notebook and wrote cruel dossiers of my classmates at Hilltop Elementary.
When they learned about my spy-book, they didn’t start a “Spy-Catchers Club” like Harriet’s classmates did. Instead, some banded together and brought their own communal notebook and wrote about everyone in class. Their notebook never ressurected from its papery grave. There was only room for one notebook and that notebook was mine.
At the time, I couldn’t believe the film was reenacting itself right in front of me. It didn’t occur to me that outside of my fantasy world, I had hurt some of my closest friends who had somehow gotten a hold of my notebook, just as Harriet’s best friends Sport and Janie did in the novel.
I tossed my collection of spy-books in the trash in an attempt to erase that entire experience from my memory, and regretfully, I can no longer look back and remember everything that was worth writing about at the time.
Since then, I’ve learned about the weight of my words. Words have the power to inspire and ignite the imagination, but they also have the power to destroy your relationships: Always choose your words wisely.
Being a writer is a privilege, but it’s also a job that carries an enormous amount of responsibility, and in the words of Harriet’s brilliant nanny Ole Golly:
“It won’t do you a bit of good to know everything if you don’t do anything good with it.”