Sunday, June 24, 2007

Teaching Young Swimmers

Over the next five weeks I'll be teaching a writing workshop at the local library to help young swimmers find their way into the water.

The plan is for us to meet each week in the children's room and talk for an hour about writing and stories in the hope that the children--more than 100 have registered for the free summer program--will eventually embark on their own story-writing adventures.

But with less than twenty-four hours to go before the start of the first session, I'm getting a little anxious about what I'm going to say.

I mean, how much can anyone teach children (or adults, for that matter) in sixty minutes about writing a story?

What I've decided is that I am going to focus the sessions on the process of writing
rather than on how to develop a plot or construct a character, mainly because I don't think it's helpful (or truthful) to make writing stories seem like a simple fill-in-the-blank exercise.

It's not that the children won't need to learn the elements of plot and character development eventually. (And for that it is sometimes helpful to fill in the blanks to questions such as "What does your character want?" and "What's keeping him or her from getting it?")

But as the children enter the water and begin writing their own stories, I think it's more important for them at this stage to learn about the pleasures that can come from playing with words.

My hope is that they'll explore their own imaginations without a goal in mind, simply for the sake of exploring their imaginary worlds and discovering things that they may never have seen before.

Whether or not their words lead to stories isn't the point, really. What's important is that they begin to hear (and enjoy) the sound of their own voices coming to them from the page for the first time.

So, here are a few of my thoughts on writing that I hope the children will take away from our sessions together:

1) Writing is a process... and it's very, very messy. Even with a story map or outline, plans can go awry; you can hit detours, dead-ends, and find, in the end, that your story--without any warning or explanation--has dried up. You can also discover a story that takes your breath away, the images flowing so fast that your hand has trouble keeping up with the words as they pour onto the page.

2) This messy process involves making (lots of) mistakes, but, amazingly, it's only by making mistakes--back-tracking, revising, revising yet again--that you begin to understand what it is that you want to write. The very process that seems so frustrating, in the end, leads you to what you needed to know all along.

3) Ideas for stories can come from anywhere... from memories and experiences, from the news reports on TV or in the paper, from details that you notice on your way to school or work, from overheard conversations, from old photographs, from paintings in museums, from incidents in school or at camp, from dreams or day-dreaming... from anywhere.

4) If you listen closely to your inner voice, you can find out what you really want to write about. This is important since, unless you're excited about an idea for a story, the words will most likely appear flat and uninteresting on paper, and you'll lose interest over the course of revision, and your enthusiasm--as well as the words--will evaporate into thin air.

5) The process of writing involves finding an idea, then searching for the right words to give form to the idea... and then finding a shape for the story... with a beginning, middle, and end... and a plot, which is all just another way of saying that you need to find a character who wants something but who faces a series of harder and harder obstacles that will keep him or her from getting it.

6) There is no reason to hurry or force the process. What's the rush, really? So, take pleasure in the time that you need to discover and write the story.

When I was growing up, I never heard anyone speak like this about writing stories.

Libraries offered books... and a quiet place to read... and a few kind-hearted adult librarians sometimes suggested books to read.

But never during my childhood or young adult years did I meet an author or hear one describe his or her writing process.

Nor did writers visit schools to read and sign their books.

Writers were like ghosts, invisible, and their books emerged (as I imagined the process) straight from an author's imagination onto the shelves of the library and into my hands.

And teachers didn't sit down with us and talk about where stories came from or how they got written or who might write them.

But in fourth grade I was lucky to have a teacher who told a story every day after lunch.

Once everyone settled down, Mrs. Hunt opened Sheila Burnford's The Incredible Journey and began to read aloud in her deep voice. And, with our heads cradled on our desks, we listened as another chapter in the story unfolded.

Hearing Mrs. Hunt's voice every afternoon as she read aloud to us was all the encouragement that I needed to fall in love with words and stories.

So, maybe years from now a child will look back on this summer and remember the voice of an unknown writer whose name she will have long forgotten.

Maybe she'll remember him reading a story at the local library.

And maybe she'll recall that moment as the time when her own love-affair with words and stories began.

You never know the mysterious way this process works, right? (Sometimes I think teaching is even more mysterious than writing.)

Wish me luck. I'll let you know how it goes after the sessions end next month.

1 comment:

Jack said...

That sounds like a unique and wonderful way of laying out your program of introducing kids to writing, Bruce. Not only will they enjoy hearing "the sound of their own voices coming to them from the page..", I think they'll marvel at this new way of imagining what has been--or could have been. Good luck with it.