Students might think, "What's the matter with me? Writing is very hard for me."
Avi, a published and award-winning author who's popular among young teen-agers, said the most important thing he wants to tell them is, "Nothing's the matter. Writing is very hard."
He spent Wednesday talking to Westminster West Middle School students in large and small groups and signing books with his one-word moniker.
"Avi is the only name I use," is his answer when children ask him why he has only one name.
His twin sister, Emily Leider, who at age 1 gave her brother the name that has stuck for the rest of his life, writes poetry and biographies. Her latest book, about to be published, is about Mae West.
Born in 1937, Avi grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a family of writers. His mother wrote short stories; his physician father wrote scientific pieces; his grandmother was a playwright; two great-grandparents were poets.
Yet, Avi said, his parents and teachers discouraged him from becoming a writer. It wasn't because they were opposed to the artistic lifestyle -- they just wanted him to be a sculptor. They didn't think he was good enough to be a writer, he said.
At 17, he decided he would write for a living anyway.
"I think you become a writer when you stop writing for yourself or your teachers and start thinking about readers," Avi wrote in a question-and-answer flier he gives to students. The flier also lists the two dozen books he has written. They include comedy, mystery, adventure and fantasy.
"It's important for them to know I find writing very difficult," he said of the students. "What they don't grasp is how to deal with that difficulty. They give up or get frustrated."
Avi now lives in Providence, R.I. He was able to come to the TTC Westminster school because he was here to receive an honor from the State of Maryland International Reading Association Conference last weekend in Towson. The president of the association is Dianne Hoffman, a teacher at West Middle.
His latest book is "The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle," which won the Newbery Honor, a kind of runner-up to the Newbery Medal that is one of the highest distinctions in children's literature.
"Yes, I am a successful writer," he told the West Middle students. "But writing is very difficult for me."
The success of his last book always helps him deal with the difficulty of writing the next one, he said.
"I can say, look, I did it before, so if I keep working. . ."
He spoke to a few large assemblies of students but also took 45 minutes for a workshop with about 50 students selected by teachers.
A few of the students told him about problems they have writing and coming up with ideas.
"Think of your lives as worthy of being put in a story," he told them. "There are no little events. Given the skill, the ability and the writing, you can make a story out of anything. I'm saying this as a theory, of course."
To help them create a structure for their ideas and creativity, he advised them to choose writers they like and imitate them.
"Sit down and imitate the story," he said. "There's no way you're going to write the same book. Absolutely no way. You'll write your own book."
Seventh-grader Hilary Short's problem wasn't how to get started. It was how to stop.
"Whenever I write a story, it goes on and on, and I can never end it," she said.
"Good," Avi told her. "It's always easier to cut than to expand."
But he said difficulty ending a story is a signal that the writer has lost track of what the story is about. He said Hilary should stop herself when she thinks the story is out of control and ask herself, "What is this story about?"
The answer should be about two sentences long, he said.
"Go back and cross out all the things that aren't part of the story," he said. "Now it's focused, now it's direct."
The workshop was just about to end when another student asked Avi whether, after a book is published, he thinks of ways he could have written it better.
"Once I publish a book, I never read it," he said. "The reason I don't is that I know I'll find something. There's no such thing as a perfect book. You stop when you can't give it any more.
"And that's a good way to end," he said. "Goodbye."