A small crowd of children is gathered in a semi-circle on the floor around me as we begin the second session of the Young Writers Workshop at our local library.
After brief introductions, I talk about how a writer always notices details about where he or she lives and ask the children to share some of their observations about living in Florida.
Sometimes if you look closely enough, I tell them, you can find ideas for stories hidden in details: clouds like castles floating across the sky; a thick line of ants crawling up a wall; strange-looking birds that might have flown out of the pages of a Dr. Seuss picture book.
Who might live in a floating castle, I ask, and why might ants crawl up a wall? What if birds actually flew out of books? Could you spin a story out of these questions?
Another way to uncover the stories in your life, I suggest, is to draw a map of your house or favorite playground or neighborhood.
It doesn't have to be a serious map with accurate distances measured between houses or street names or anything like that.
Rather, the map is meant as a way to help writers recall interesting details about their lives or incidents that may have happened recently... or long ago.
My hope for the exercise is that it will engage the children in a hands-on activity, encouraging them to think about interesting details in their lives, even stories, without the pressure of having to find words to describe the stories.
And the process of drawing a map of familiar surroundings--a neighborhood, a house, a favorite playground--may trigger memories of events that can be developed into stories.
The credit for the map-making exercise goes to Jack Gantos, the author of Joey Pigza Swallowed The Key, Rotten Ralph, and a host of other books. He shared the exercise during one of his lectures that I was lucky to have attended years ago.
Gantos, who uses map-making to mine his own experiences for stories, had drawn a series of incidents on his map in bright magic-marker colors, the kind of wacky events that can only happen in a Gantos story. It was his map that inspired me to draw a map of my neighborhood and which led to the discovery of some of my own stories.
As the children crowd around me, I share my map, showing them the pond where one of my friends almost drowned; the dead tree in our backyard filled with ghosts and bats that flew into the air squealing at dusk every night; the hole my best friend's brother had cut in his backyard fence which my friends and I climbed through to go sledding on the golf course.
Not stories, exactly, but threads that might lead to stories.
In order to make a story, I explain, you need more than an idea. You need to construct scenes that show your character struggling to get what he or she wants.
And after reading a few scenes from some of my favorite books, I ask the children to develop their own scenes as building blocks for their stories. Ten minutes later, after working silently on their own, the children share some of the scenes that they've imagined.
All too soon the class comes to an end, and, as the children gather up their journals and pens, I encourage them to keep writing. It's hard to watch them leave, not knowing if they'll ever finish the stories that they started.
But the next day I learn from the librarian, who has spoken to some of the parents, that many of the kids are still writing, sustaining themselves with the power of their own imaginations.
How amazing is that?
Even though hearing her comments helps me feel as if the class is a success, I still harbor doubts about the lesson. I can't help worrying.
Did I give the children enough useful information about writing stories? How might I improve the lesson?
I think about these questions for a day or so and come up with this crazy notion: what if we try writing a story together?
Wouldn't that be amazing?
Will it work?
I have no idea, but stay tuned and I'll let you know what happens.
If you'd like to learn more about how Jack Gantos uses maps as inspiration for his stories, visit: