Reading Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh turned me into a writer.
Eleven-year-old Harriet M. Welsch (the M her own invention), as you may or may not recall, wants to be a writer. So to prepare for being a writer, she decides to become a spy. She keeps a notebook full of observations of the world around her — brutally honest observations about her friends, people she sees on the street, and those on her spy route. After school, she changes into her spy clothes (old jeans, hooded sweatshirt, ratty sneakers and a tool belt with a flashlight, canteen, boy scout knife, and pockets for her notebook and pens) and goes to her appointed rounds, spying on (and passing judgment on) a series of unsuspecting people. Harriet has a wonderful nurse called Ole Golly who advises her and is always quoting great literature (in one scene she’s reading Dostoyevsky) and encouraging Harriet to be a writer.
Harriet is not the most likeable character. She’s mean and hateful at times. She says terrible things about the people she’s closest to. She’s sent to a psychiatrist. I’d never met a protagonist like her before. She was the most believable character I’d ever encountered — the one most like me.
After reading Harriet the Spy, I started eating tomato sandwiches (the only lunch she ever ate) and began my career as a spy. I made my own tool belt (mine had a flashlight, pocket knife, little bag with things to pick locks, a walkie talkie that I pretended to talk to headquarters on, and, most important of all, a notebook.) No one was safe. I spied on the entire neighborhood, taking copious, detailed notes. Mr. and Mrs. Smith: dinner at 6 – chicken and corn on the cob, watched boring PBS show, went to bed early. Mrs. Richardson: snuck outside with oxygen tank and had a cigarette at 8 pm. I went through my grandmother’s desk and took notes on all the bills and letters I found there. I was sure, for a while that she was engaged in some illegal activity, a pay off of some sort, when she wrote a check to CLP each month. Who was CLP? I listened at her door. Eavesdropped on phone calls. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered CLP was Connecticut Light and Power.
The project I was most fond of was the boyfriend files: a secret, coded (I was always inventing new codes involving switching one letter of the alphabet for the other) dossier on the men my mother when out with. I wrote down every detail: name, description, car make, model and license number; when he came, how long they stayed out; if he came again.
I, like Harriet, used my notebooks and secret files to help make sense of the world. Being a spy in training to become a writer meant you had to notice everything.
But I think the biggest lesson I learned from Harriet was this: no matter what happens in the world around her – the loss of her nurse, the discovery of her notebook by friends and classmates who then form a Spy Catcher club – Harriet writes. Her inner life sustains her. As long as she has her notebook and pen, she can get through anything.
I never stopped writing after meeting Harriet. My words carried me through a lot of tomato sandwiches, Mom’s boyfriends, games of checkers with my own psychiatrist, and endless other ups and downs of growing up. And now, I get to make a living from them. Harriet, I think, would be proud.