Sunday, July 29, 2007

Rarely Swimming in a Straight Line

On my first night teaching a young writers' workshop at our local library, I stand in front of a roomful of twenty children and try to describe my writing process.

Writing, I tell the children after a brief discussion about where writers find ideas, can often feel as frustrating as trying to untangle a mass of knotted string.

You take a thread--an idea, perhaps, or an image, or a feeling, or anything, really--and you begin to pull it, teasing it out into the open, to see where it will lead you.

If you're lucky, I continue, that thread will lead to another idea or image. And, eventually, if you pull the thread long enough and refuse to let go, it may lead to a story.

I share some of the threads that have led to my stories... and explain how I came to write these stories... and read a few excerpts, hoping the children might begin to see how to shape their threads into stories of their own.

And then, after reading the excerpts, I explain how these threads--the very ones that they may spend so much time teasing and pulling--may often lead to nothing.

After lots of work, a writer might end up empty-handed, only to find himself or herself searching for yet another thread, another way into a story.

My aim in this discussion isn't to discourage the children but to illuminate the process of making stories.

I want these young writers to understand that the process is often messy: rarely does it follow a straight line but rather an unpredictable, often confusing, path.

Most of all, I want them to learn that only by taking risks and making a mess (mess = lots of false starts, dead ends, blind alleys, etc.) can a writer discover and begin to explore his or her story.

We spend a few minutes speaking about plot and characterization, of course, but not for very long because the children seem to know that a story needs a plot and characters to inhabit it.

Before the end of the hour, we open our journals and start writing... a two minute free-write that stretches to four, then five minutes.

After we finish, I give the children a chance to spend the rest of the session on their own stories or to continue exploring whatever subjects they may have found during the free-writes.

By the end of our time together, a few children come forward to share stories that they've started during the session.

Seeing their notebooks open to pages filled with freshly scribbled words lets me know that a certain kind of magic has taken place in the room. The children have tapped into their imaginations and started to write.

That's all that I'd hoped for, really, when I designed the session... that the children would be able to make a start, a beginning...

But even though the workshop seems to have gone well, the moment I leave the library I begin to worry that the idea of process is too abstract, too squishy, for children to grasp. And I think about how I might explore different aspects of writing stories in the next workshop.

On my way home I ask myself how I might talk about stories in a more concrete way and what I might do differently. I wonder if I should talk more about stories... about how to tell the difference between an idea and a story... and what makes a story work as a story.

Can I explain the basic building blocks of stories: scenes... and can I show the children how a scene works... and how it leads to the next scene... and the next... from the beginning of the story to the end?

And can I show how each scene reveals a change in the character, a progression that brings him or her closer to an ultimate goal?

Better yet, can I show each step a writer takes to create a story... from the initial idea to the burst of words to the messy trial-and-error required to find the shape of the story?

I'm not entirely sure that I can pull it off. But sometimes teaching, like writing, doesn't follow a straight line. The process requires that you take risks.

So, when I arrive home, I prepare a new lesson.

Will the plan work?

Check back next week. I'll let you know.


Elaine Magliaro said...


I used to spend a lot of time in my elementary classroom writing with my students. Sometimes we did "freewrites"--which, I think, helped the kids to get into the flow of writing. I had them write research reports, creative stories, and four or five poems each year--that they'd polish and publish. Two things I discovered from working intensely on writing with my students: First, because I was writing--I became a better teacher of writing. Second, I learned a lot about the writing process from working with my students. Helping them to look at their work and revise it...helped me to do the same thing.

Bruce said...

It's so true. I'm much more aware of the structure of stories... and what's missing... when I'm helping other writers, and that increased sense of awareness helps a great deal when I turn back to my own work.