Been There, Done That: Writing Stories from Real Life
Award-winning and bestselling authors turn their own real-life experiences into captivating works of fiction!
Where do authors get their ideas? And how do they turn those ideas into stories? This anthology looks at the process of taking real-life experiences and turning them into works of engaging fiction. The collection features award-winning and bestselling middle-grade authors who provide both original fictional short stories as well as the nonfiction accounts that inspired them. The contributing authors include Julia Alvarez, Karen Cushman, Margarita Engle, Dee Garretson, Nathan Hale, Matthew Kirby, Claire Legrand, Grace Lin, Kate Messner, Linda Sue Park, Adam Rex, Gary Schmidt, Alan Sitomer, Caroline Starr Rose, Heidi Stemple, Rita Williams-Garcia, Tracy Edward Wymer, Lisa Yee, and Jane Yolen.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpt from Been There, Done That: Writing Stories from Real Life
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED
Love, Like Leeches
by Gary D. Schmidt
Probably the best job I ever had—the best job I ever will have—was a job at a summer camp on the maintenance crew. I had to deal with plugged up toilets and corn dogs and kids who threw up—mostly because of corn dogs—but I also built a new cabin and messed around in boats that needed repair and put in docks and planted gardens and built rock walls and assembled bonfires and did a whole lot of things I could never do in the suburbs of New York City. And when I wasn’t doing any of those things, I’d play baseball near high pines and swim in clear pools that emptied out in small waterfalls and lay down in the middle of a field to watch hawks circle on the thermals above.
I lived for those summers in the Catskill Mountains. When high school was what high school often is, filled with jerks and would-be jerks and locker rooms and meaningless homework and drama about not very much and social status crap, I thought of that camp, those mountains, and the friends I had up there who loved what I loved and still love: high grass and hawks on thermals and mountain pools and pines.
And camp had one other thing, the most important thing, the really, really most important thing: Mindy White. Mindy White had long dark hair. She had green eyes. When she laughed, her voice was like Poetry. When she smiled, her smile was like Beauty. When she looked at me, I wished more than anything that she loved me like I loved her.
But she didn’t. Because Mindy White was actually in love with another guy at the camp, a little older than me, who was an idiot. I tried telling Mindy White that Lee Buttface was an idiot, but she was too much in love. She talked about Lee while I did the dishes. She talked about Lee while I helped her peel the carrots. She talked about Lee while I fetched cabbages from the basement below the kitchen, or the lemon pies from the freezer, or the canned ravioli from the pantry. She talked about Lee while I scraped the burned oil and lard from the grill in the kitchen—the hottest and most awful job at camp, but one I took my time on, because she worked beside me. I scraped the grill with my shirt off—it was that hot—and I thought that might do something. It didn’t. She loved Lee Buttface.
For two years I listened to Mindy White talk about Lee Buttface, until I heard one day over the winter that Lee Buttface had broken things off—I told you he was an idiot. I was overjoyed. I was thrilled. I was filled with fathomless hope.
I went to the weight machine and began a program of lifting.
The next summer, Mindy White came to camp. Lee Buttface, too. And you know what? She still loved him. Really. She still loved the idiot. Even when he started going with someone else at camp. Even when I stood over the grill, shirtless and buff and everything, she still loved the idiot. She read me stories she had written, and in every story, the hero’s name was . . . well, do I even have to say it?
There was a set of falls near the camp. It was filled with black and leechy water. We swam there anyway, mostly because of the jumps—even though you had to puck the leeches off your skin every time you came out of the water. You could jump into the big pool at the bottom from a rock about twelve feet up. But you could climb to the top of the falls and jump into the small pool that gathered there from forty feet up. And that pool really was no bigger than your outstretched arms. No kidding.
One day I went there with two of the counselors—and Lee Buttface, who didn’t know that I hated him. The whole way there, Lee Buttface told us how he was going to jump in first, how he wasn’t afraid of any heights, how he figured he was going to dive in headfirst, how he had done stuff like this plenty of times.
When we finally stood on the ledge in brutal sunlight, the two counselors jumped, then I jumped, and then Lee Buttface stood alone and looked down. And looked down. And looked down. I have to say, I felt sorry for him. I could see he was about to wet his pants. But he looked down, and he looked down, and he looked down, and finally I called up and told him to climb back, he didn’t need to jump, it was fine, we’d come and do it another day, it was really fine.
He climbed down.
The whole way home, he explained why he hadn’t jumped. The water was filled with leeches, he said. He was allergic to leeches, he said. He could die from leeches, he said.
I wanted to tell Mindy White he’d chickened out. I really wanted to tell Mindy White he’d chickened out. But I never did. The next day in the kitchen, she read another one of her stories about wonderful, marvelous, amazing Lee, how he saved the day, how he was loving and kind and true and blue.
I kept my shirt on, and scraped the lard from the grill.
by Gary D. Schmidt
The best job, I mean, the really best job at any summer camp is maintenance—because after you’ve finished scraping corn dogs and baked beans off two hundred plates and after you’ve wiped corn dogs and baked beans off twenty tables and after you’ve swept corn dogs and baked beans off the floors beneath the twenty tables—which isn’t easy—you’re free until suppertime, when you have to set the two hundred plates on the twenty tables again. So you can hike to the falls below Napanoch Road, which I had never seen but which were supposed to be seventy feet high, and where once two kids got caught in the undercurrent beneath the falls and didn’t show up again until the next
I could hardly wait to see them.
The falls, I mean.
And it’s where I was heading right now, along with Mark Mann and two other guys who I didn’t really know from farms down the road.
But not with Mindy White—who I really wanted to swim at the falls with.
She wasn’t coming.
Did I say that I really wanted to swim at the falls with Mindy White?
Did I say that I had been in love with Mindy White since Camp Orientation?
She waved as the four of us left. I waved back, even though I was pretty sure she didn’t know my name. She had green eyes and long black hair. How could I not have waved back?
But she wasn’t coming with us, and instead I was walking to the falls with Mark and these two other guys who had the arms and chests that throwing cows and hay bales around will give you, I guess.
The July sun was brutal, and we took off our shirts and draped them over our backs, and our sneakers sank into the asphalt of Napanoch Road, and Mark said he could hardly wait to get under the water, and I said I could hardly wait, either. So when we climbed over the guardrail and down the bank into the cool of the hemlocks, I was ready to dive beneath the falls—who cared about undercurrents? I was really ready. And I could hear them, hidden as they were behind the trees, pouring gorgeous white water over the high rocks, cascading into a crystal pool speckled with sunlight, the cool mists coating the green and mossy shores, the pine boughs, the rocks, and
We slid down the last of the path—the pine needles were slick—and came into the white sunlight below the falls. I looked up at seven stories of water gushing down. At seven stories of dirty dark yellow water gushing down.
Dirty dark yellow water gushing down into a black and eerily still pool.
No cool mists coating anything. Nothing green and mossy. Just stony shores crusted with—something.
Did I say the water was black?
It really was. I shoved a pine branch beneath its surface. It disappeared.
“We’re not going to swim in this,” I said.
Mark looked at me like I was crazy.
“Of course not.” He pointed up the falls. “We have to climb to the top.”
I looked at him like he was crazy.
Seventy feet high. The water spraying over the rocks—which looked pretty slimy. Gray plant stuff on most of them—and it looked pretty slimy, too. And did I say seventy feet?
“To the top?” I asked.
He nodded, and together with the other two guys, we skirted the black pool, leaning against the rock walls so we didn’t touch the water, and reached the bottom of the falls.
Just for the record, the rocks were pretty slimy. They even smelled slimy. And they were sharp.
Mark left his shirt on a rock—we did, too—and he began to climb beside the cascading yellow water. We did, too. “Don’t look down,” he said, and he laughed like it was so funny. I guess the other two guys thought it was so funny, too, because they laughed just like Mark did.
I didn’t laugh.
Everyone always says, “Don’t look down.” But of course you look down. Of course you do. You want to see the sharp rocks you’re going to hit after you slip off that first hold. So I looked down as I heaved myself up, one ledge after another, leaving the sharp rocks farther and farther and farther beneath me so that the impact when I hit them would be greater and greater and greater.
“You all right?” hollered one of the guys beneath me.
He probably figured I was going to take both of them with me when I slipped.
“Never better,” I hollered back.
Translation: This is how people die.
But since I’m telling you this, you know that I didn’t, and that I clambered up behind Mark when we reached the top, and that I looked down again at the whole slimy seventy feet and tried not to upchuck.
While the other two guys clambered up, Mark showed me another pool, close by a shadowed cliff. This pool was tiny. If you were floating in it right now, you could stretch out your hands and touch both sides, easy. But you wouldn’t want to float in it, because the water was black here, too.
“That?” I asked Mark. “We’re going to swim in that?”
He said something, but the sounds of the waterfall bounced off the slimy rocks and filled the air and I couldn’t hear him at all.
He pointed, and I looked up.
“There’s a ledge above us,” he screamed.
He moved his hands up and down as if he were pulling himself up.
I got it: more climbing.
And the rocks were slimy and sharp again. Of course.
We climbed—Mark, then the two guys, then me. Forty more feet, the thunder of the waterfall in our ears, me looking down the whole time.
I didn’t fall. I didn’t upchuck. I didn’t wet my shorts—which is why the two guys went ahead of me, because they thought I might. We climbed, and climbed, and finally clambered up to a ledge where nothing was slimy because we were so far above the water, but where we still had to be careful because the ledge was pretty thin and four of us were standing on it.
I looked down. The dark pool was the size of a quarter.
“What are we doing up here?” I asked.
“We’re going to jump,” Mark said.
I looked over the ledge again.
“What?” I asked.
“We’re going to jump.”
“Into the pool,” he said.
I pointed down. “That pool?”
“You see any other?” He kicked his shoes off. So did the other two guys.
Right then, I think I hated them all.
“That pool is tiny,” I said.
“Yeah. So be careful you don’t miss.”
“You going to wet your shorts?” said one of the other guys—which was good timing because, in fact, I thought I might this time.
And then I got it. I finally got it. No human being would jump into a tiny pool from forty feet up. Especially a tiny pool with black water. No one would be that stupid. This was a test. This was three guys from farms testing me, the city kid from New York, who lived where no two trees touched their branches together. It was all a joke. All a stupid joke.
“All right,” I said. “So where are we really going to swim?”
Mark smiled and stepped to the edge. He looked back at me, turned, put his leg out, and fell.
I thought he was dead.
I really thought he was dead.
Did I say I thought he was dead?
I looked over the edge. He wasn’t dead. He was just climbing out of the pool and quickly wiping himself down—I wasn’t sure why—and now he was looking up and grinning.
“You coming?” he hollered. I could just hear him above the sound of the falls.
I’m not sure I was glad he wasn’t dead.
The other guys stepped to the edge. They looked back at me, smiled, turned, put a leg out, and fell, one after the other.
I guess you can figure out how that left me alone up on the ledge.
I looked down. All three guys were standing on rocks above the pool, still wiping themselves as they looked up at me. “You coming?” they hollered.
Of course I was coming. I mean, what would you do?
I stood at the edge, toes clenched around the rock. This wasn’t something you could practice. If you jumped out too far or to the sides, you’d miss the pool, hit sharp rocks, and die. If you didn’t jump out far enough, you’d scrape against the sharp rocks all the way down and leave whole organs hanging behind you. After that, the current coming across the pool would wash your organless body over the seventy foot cliff and down to the undercurrent below—and they wouldn’t find you until next spring.
“You coming or not?”
Did I say that I hated them?
I flexed my knees. I was going to do this. I bounced up and down a little. I really was going to do this. I flexed my knees again. I’d have to be sure not to scream on the way down. I flexed my knees again. I really, really was going to do this.
I looked down at the tiny black pool.
Flexed my knees again.
Looked down at the tiny black pool again.
And . . . I wasn’t going to do this.
Would you? I hardly even knew two of these guys, and I had only known Mark for two or three weeks. At the end of the summer, I’d be going home, where no one jumped off ledges into black pools. I’d probably never see these guys again. So if I didn’t jump, so what? My dog would still love me. None of my friends would ever hear about it. The sun would come up tomorrow morning. So what?
I took a step back.
And that’s when Mindy White showed up.
Mindy White. Did I tell you she has green eyes? Long black hair?
She clambered up the rocks and called to the guys and her long black hair blew behind her, and Mark pointed up and Mindy White turned her green eyes to me and she said, “Is Ethan going to jump?”
That’s what she said: “Is Ethan going to jump?”
And suddenly, the world was clear, because I knew two things. First, Mindy White knew my name. (Did you catch that?) Second, I was going to jump.
I stepped to the edge. I clenched my toes. Flexed my knees. A little more bouncing. Remember not to scream on the way down. Another bounce.
And I stepped out.
I took about half an hour to fall those forty feet. I watched the black water coming closer and closer. I didn’t scream. I kept my arms at my sides so I wouldn’t snap off my fingers by hitting them against the rocks. I blew out my nose so water wouldn’t get forced up into my brain. And then I was under.
Under, Alive, and Okay! And Mindy White had seen me jump!
Back to the surface.
It was beautiful. Everything was beautiful. I climbed onto the rocks. I looked down at the pool, and then at myself, and I knew right away why the water was black: It was filled with leeches. As fast as I could, I wiped them off and pucked the ones who had gotten hold, but I didn’t even care. It was all beautiful. The sharp and slimy rocks. The black pool. The leeches. The white and brutal light. It was all beautiful. Because Mindy White—who knew my name—had watched me jump with her lovely green eyes.
And I let my eyes move up to her, because she was standing on the rocks above the pool, and her black hair was blowing, and there she was.
Kissing Mark Mann.
Kissing Mark Mann.
Kissing Mark Mann.
There she was.
Later, we climbed down the rocks beside the seventy-foot falls. The two guys first, then Mark and Mindy, then me.
I never looked down.
From the Hardcover edition.