Friday, January 11, 2008

On Teaching Children to Write

Writing stories--and how one learns to do it--is so elusive.

Can anyone explain the actual process of learning to write... or fully understand how a child--how anyone, really--finds words and manages to put them down on paper?

If you followed the postings at Wordswimmer over the summer, you know that I spent part of July and August at the local library teaching children (ages 7 to 12) how to write stories while seeking answers to these questions.

And last month I returned to the library to offer another workshop, hoping to help young writers step into the water so they can swim into their own stories.

These workshops with the children have taught me that the success of most workshops depends largely on whether a teacher is able to create a safe space, a place where writers, whether children or adults, feel safe to explore their imaginations and make mistakes.

This method of teaching takes great patience and sensitivity to each student's passions and interests. And it requires a willingness to let each student follow his or her heart wherever it wants to go... rather than insist that the student follow the teacher's plan for the day.

This kind of teaching also demands a willingness (on the part of the teacher and student) to suspend critical assessments, to simply let words flow onto paper. Suspending critical judgment means not worrying about proper punctuation or strict rules of grammar or spelling or paragraphing... at least in the beginning... so that nothing gets in the way of the imagination. Such a non-critical approach, I've found, enables writers--young and old--to dive unrestrained into the sea of their imagination and freely reproduce the scenes that they discover there.

As I spent time with the children during our summer workshops, I noticed how each child brought his or her own set of experiences to the exercises. By this I mean each child lived a different life, with different expectations and different experiences, and each child held onto the memories of his or her experiences in different ways...not just holding on to pictures or scenes stored in memory but to emotions--and a full panoply of senses (taste, smell, sight, hearing, touch)--that enriched the child's memory and understanding about life and what it felt like to be human.

Learning to write stories means, on the deepest level, I think, learning how to empathize with one's fellow human beings. To do this, writers must learn how to sort through their own memories, emotions, senses, and experiences, and then learn how to translate their emotions into the emotions and experiences of their characters.

But it also means learning that his or her view of the world is slightly slanted. That is, writers need to understand that they see the world in their own unique way, differently from anyone else's way of looking at the world. It's each writer's unique viewpoint, after all--the way he or she understands the world--that will draw a reader into his or her stories.

Without such a slant, without the perspective of the author reflected in the narrative voice and in the details that voice selects to put on the page, there is no story... because there is no narrator with whom the reader can relate.

In our sessions this past summer, some children wrote in their journals with ease and had no trouble finding words or putting them down on paper; their imaginations seemed to overflow, and they wrote quickly, as fast as ideas popped into their heads. Others wrote extremely slowly, not necessarily because their imaginations were less full, but, perhaps, because they found it more difficult to translate the pictures in their minds into words.

I had to remind myself that speed wasn't an accurate indicator of skill or talent. It was only an indicator of how fast a child could put words down on paper. No matter how fast or slow a child would write a story, I couldn't predict when or how skill or talent might be revealed in each child's work. Often, the two elements appeared in different amounts at different times during the process. In the end, I was less interested in skill or talent anyway and more interested in whether the children were enjoying the chance to explore and discover new worlds inside themselves and the stories that they uncovered there.

When I started these workshops, I hadn't expected that teaching children to write might be as mysterious as writing itself. Just as a writer can't predict how a story will end, I couldn't predict which child would find a story and which child wouldn't, who might put words in a compelling order, who might be left staring at a blank page. The process itself was, for the most part, out of my hands and in the hands of the children.

What I learned as a result of the workshops--and what I hope I can remember in the coming months--was that many factors contribute to a child's success as a writer: desire; unwillingness to give up; love of words; devotion to stories, and, most of all, that unfathomable quality--a writer's spirit--or the inner force that propels writers through the world toward whatever goals they may set for themselves.

Maybe what some people mean when they say you can't teach writing is: you can't teach spirit; you can only hope to kindle and nurture it.

By the end of the sessions, I came away with a much deeper respect for the difficulty each of us --beginning writers and more experienced writers alike--goes through to get words on paper. No one who embarks on this journey in search of words and stories is spared the struggle of trying to get the words down.

But teaching children about the process of writing also taught me to trust the process more fully. And it taught me to have greater faith in the invisible source of all stories, the source out of which our stories emerge.... and where we'll find more stories waiting for us, if only we--like the children--can summon the courage to dive in.

To read earlier posts about my experience teaching children to write, visit:


Carmel said...

As an adult writer whose words come out slower than I'd like, it was encouraging to hear you say that that's not necessarily a barometer of talent.

And it is always good to be reminded to turn off the 'editor' and let the ideas flow. I find I do this best by typing with my eyes closed.

Bruce said...


Some writers write as if the paper in front of them is on fire (Kerouac), others take years to find the right words (Ellison). So, speed isn't an accurate measurement of talent by any means.

Thanks for the tip about typing with your eyes closed. One of my teachers once described pulling a big, floppy hat down over her eyes to help her immerse herself more deeply in her imaginary world.

julie said...

Hi Bruce,

Julie here! I couldn't agree more with your insightful words. I am finding success in my teaching 7/8th graders by using this very same process. And the results are amazing!

It is nice to see the words of a professional to encourage me that shining the light on spirit rather than grammatical errors is a worthy practice!

Thanks again!

Bruce said...


Sometimes I worry that teachers are more interested in the "rules of writing"--making sure students are writing grammatically perfect sentences--instead of helping students figure out what they want or need to say.

Luckily, there are teachers like you who provide the inspiration for children to pursue their passion... and then encourage them to write about what they love... knowing that the rules can always be learned at a later stage in the process.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.