Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Dav Pilkey and the three ‘P’s for successful writing

My tweener grandsons and I arrived at Saturday’s North Texas Teen Book Festival nine minutes after the starting time for the keynote speech by Dav Pilkey, author of the world famous (at least in the world of middle grade readers) Captain Underpants series and more. Nine minutes. No problem, I told the boys, who had only been persuaded to attend on the promise of breathing the same air as their hero’s author. Pilkey was due to repeat his speech the next hour. I informed the cheery greeter that we were here to see Dav Pilkey.

And she said, oh, all the tickets are gone.
Gone? Fifty-one minutes before Pilkey’s second speech of the day, and there were no more tickets? If guys serious about getting a head start on their teenage attitude could cry, the boys would have.
Let’s wait and see if there’s room, I said. Even if all the seats are filled, there’s plenty of standing room. Isn’t that breaking the rules? the boys said. Won’t we be thrown out? In front of everybody?
Five minutes before H-hour, we arrived back in the auditorium. There were. . . seats available. Not many. And some people were standing in the back. But without yet knowing it, we had exercised one of Dav Pilkey’s three required “P’s” of successful writing—persistence.
It was a trait developed during a school career marked by diagnoses of ADHD and dyslexia, which made a future as a successful writer seem, to say the least, unlikely.
Pilkey (l) at North Texas Teen Book Fest
“Because I was such a failure at school, I concentrated on something I was good at—drawing,” he told his audience at the book festival. 
Drawing comic strips of superheroes (an early character, Dogman, acquired super powers after being struck by lightning), he stapled the sheets of drawings and (often) misspelled captions into books that gave him popularity with fellow students. 
Teachers were less enthralled. “You can’t spend the rest of your life making silly books,” one told him—a statement that evoked hoots of laughter from his middle grade listeners.
However, he credits that teacher with an important contribution to his writing life, although perhaps one she wouldn’t appreciate. “One day in second grade, she said the word underwear, and every kid in class laughed.”
Insisting that underwear was not a funny topic, young Pilkey's teacher put him in timeout, which he spent devising the first version of his iconic Captain Underpants character. And kept drawing silly characters because, “If you want to be really good at something you have to practice.”
He even developed an appreciation for reading, “it gives us new ideas.” (A school reading of A Tale of Two Cities was later reimagined as A Tale of Two Kitties.) 
“Who likes to write and draw?” he asked. (Hands shot up.)
“Do you ever get blocked?” (Hands up again.)
When that happens to him, Pilkey said, he likes to play, another of his “P” words. (Yes, Captain Underpants’ creator loves “P” words as much as his characters do.) 
“And there’s another important ‘P’—persistence.”
(“Wow,” I told my guys, “we didn’t break the rules. We persisted!”)
Persistence, Pilkey said, is what kept him going after more than 20 publishers rejected his first “grownup” manuscript. “I was just devasted and I didn’t know what to do. Except send it out again. If I had given up, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Practice, play, persist. Lessons for writing. And maybe, for life. 
Oh, yeah, in case you’re wondering, Pilkey keeps persisting, with a new book out this summer starring that original childhood hero, Dogman in (wait for it) Lord of the Fleas!

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