Sunday, August 19, 2007

Walking Across the Sand

During the last two sessions of the Young Writers Workshop that I taught at our local library, I introduced a simple exercise to help the children distinguish between an idea and a story.

I wanted the children to understand on a deep level--way down in their guts, not just in their minds--how a story evolves from idea to story.

So, we spent a few minutes after introductions talking about where I find ideas for my stories, and then I asked the children to share where they find ideas for stories.

Even young writers, it seems, are aware that ideas for stories are hiding everywhere.

If you look closely enough at your life, you can find them in dreams, at school, in books and movies, while playing games with friends or listening to family stories, on and on...

After they shared a handful of ideas, I asked them to stand up and join me in the middle of the room.

"Pretend the floor in front of us is covered with sand," I said, arranging them in a line behind me. "Now let's walk across the sand."

We walked across the imaginary sand, the children marching behind me giggling and wondering what was going on, but willing to take a hike--even if it was an imaginary hike--because, after all, it gave them a chance to stand up and move around the room, if nothing else.

As soon as everyone made it across the sand, I turned to the children and asked, "Ok, what happened? Was that a story?"

Some of the children shouted, "Yes!"

And some of them shouted, "No!"

And, of course, I had to ask: why yes... or why no.

"Nothing happened!"

"There was no setting!"

"No characters!"

"No conflict!"

Exactly. It wasn't a story... because the hike across the sand lacked these crucial elements.

Was I pleased with their responses? You bet.

Then, I asked, "Where can you find sand?"

"A desert," some of the children cried.

"A sandbox," others called.

"A beach," others said.

"Fine," I said. "Let's pretend the sand is hot... and let's walk across it again. This time think about where you're walking: a desert, a beach, or a sandbox."

So we set off again, walking in a line across the sand until we reached the other side of the room, the children giggling as much as the first time, still wondering where the exercise was leading.

When everyone had safely crossed the sand, I asked, "Who walked across a desert?"

A few hands went up.

"Who walked across the beach?"

More hands.

"And who walked across the sandbox?"

Only two hands.

"Everyone who walked across the beach... over here," I said, dividing the children into groups.

Next, I said, "Talk to each other and figure out who is on the beach (or desert or sandbox) with you, and why? What do you want? And what's keeping you from getting it?"

I gave them five minutes. In that time they had to come up with a story--a character or characters, what the characters hoped to find by walking across the sand, and what prevented them from reaching their goal.

While they talked, brainstorming different ideas, I went from group to group asking questions, urging them to think of situations and characters and problems, and then left them alone to work out the problems on their own.

And, oh, the stories they came up with.

Shipwrecked pirates on a beach searching for food.

Cats lost in a sandbox wanting to go home.

A plane crash in the desert, the survivors searching for treasure buried long ago in
Pharaoh's tomb.

The children spun stories out of ideas with the same skill a spider might weave an intricate web.

No matter how many questions I asked each group, I received answer after answer, their imaginations a rich source of inspiration for stories.

After the exercise, I asked the children to return to their seats and to think about an idea that they had discovered during our discussion about ideas.

"Now it's time to develop your ideas," I said, "into stories...."

And the children spent the remaining ten minutes of class spinning their stories.

There wasn't enough time in the one-hour sessions for the children to finish their stories, so I never found out how the stories ended... or if the children spent more time working on them after leaving class.

But, really, it didn't matter if they finished their stories.

What mattered was that now they understood the difference between an idea and a story.

Each child had started on the journey that a writer embarks on when setting off to explore his or her imagination.


Jack said...

Those kids got a great introduction to the process of firing up the imagination. Combining the physical activity with the mental exercise will probably help them retain it in memory.

Nick said...

I think I will bear that room full of sand in mind myself when next I go looking for stories. Good lessons like that have an unlimited shelf life. Thanks!

Bruce said...

Thanks, guys, for your comments.

I don't know if the kids will remember the exercise, but we had lots of fun doing it. I do know that people learn differently... and sometimes it's easier to learn through physical activity rather than simply sitting at a desk and listening. Whether the activity helps make the exercise more memorable, though, who knows?

Getting to that room is half the battle (and avoiding the quick-sand is part of that battle), but once you're in the room crossing the sand in search of stories... it's like magic: you find yourself transported to another world, inside another life, discovering secret treasures that you never expected to find.