Four Lessons For Writers From Harriet The Spy

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Louise Fitzhugh’s beloved children’s novel, the LOTS team took time to re-read Harriet the Spy and record our grown up observations for a book we loved as a kid.

As a sort of prequel to our upcoming observations article, I thought I’d take a minute to share some thoughts I had on Harriet’s favorite thing – writing.

As a writer, I find I both admire and relate to Harriet M. Welsch’s writing experiences. Sometimes, the only way to work through a feeling is to write it down. And while her writing got her into some predicaments, I think there’s a lot to learn from an eleven year old’s love for the craft – she wanted nothing more in life than to be a writer, and she lovingly and carefully worked on her art every single day.

Here are some lessons I learned (or at least had reinforced) from Harriet’s story:

1. Write constantly. Harriet had a habit that, despite getting her into trouble, we could all take a cue from. She wrote everything down – her observations, her memories, thoughts from her life. She wrote so much that when she had her precious notebooks taken from her, she couldn’t organize her thoughts. Writing helps process things, and as the saying goes – practice makes perfect.

“‘What are you writing?’ Sport asked.
“‘I’m taking notes on all those people who are sitting over there.’
“‘Why?’
“‘Aw, Sport,’ -Harriet was exasperated -’because I’ve seen them and I want to remember them.’”*

2. Always carry a notebook. Harriet’s weapon of choice was a classic green composition book. It went everywhere she went and was always at the ready for thoughts, feelings and observations. Likewise, you never know when a stroke of genius will hit you – it’s a great idea to have a place to jot down your ideas on the go.

3. Make observations. Harriet took pleasure in recording everything, even the mundane. In observing the mundane, such as Harrison Withers’ relationship with his cats, she gained insight about herself and what makes people tick – and was able to turn that into a popular story for her school paper.

Harriet comments on just this – you’re never too old to observe. “When is too old to have fun? You can’t be too old to spy except if you were fifty you might fall off a fire escape, but you could spy around on the ground a lot.”*

4. Be true to yourself. Harriet’s overt truthfulness got her into trouble with her peers – but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t have been honest with herself. Your writing is for you, first and foremost.

However, an important lesson Harriet learned is when to lie. Honesty is wonderful, and meanness, well, as Harriet learned, being mean gets you a pot of ink poured over your head. Sometimes you lie to spare others.

That’s not to say you can’t be honest about how you feel – you should just learn to use care with other people’s feelings. You won’t be able to please everyone – there’s no making the Marion Hawthorne’s of the world happy all the time – but I think you’ll find you hone your words more carefully when you consider how your closest friends will interpret your writing.

I’ll leave you with my favorite quote, one I take to heart – “Remember that writing is to put love into the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.” – Ole Golly*

*Quotes from Harriet The Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

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