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.