Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Talking about Writing X 2

I gave two writing talks yesterday. One to Mrs. Brown’s fifth graders at Allisonville school; the other to a group of library patrons in Thorntown, mostly senior citizens. I’ve visited to Mrs. Brown’s class every year for a while now. She does a book project with her students--turning them all into authors, and I go to give them writing tips. The books the students write are charming, with the typed copy pasted in, illustrations and—best—the author’s bio at the back. They are a whole lot of extra work for Mrs. Brown, which she does gladly. Her classroom is bursting with things to look at and think about. When she brings me up to date on what the kids are working on, I can tell she’s as curious and engaged as she wants them to be.

She is one of my heroes. She’s one of those teachers who should be cloned or, at the very least, given a place at the head of the table where the discussions about what schools should be are taking place. Or better yet, figure out how to clone her. Schools full of Mrs. Browns would get better all on their own.
But that’s a whole other topic. I want to write about my day of two writing talks.
I began by asking Mrs. Brown’s students, “What is the hardest thing about writing for you?”
Hands shot up.
Everything about writing is hard for me. I can’t think of anything interesting to write about. I have an idea for a story, but I when I try to write it down I can’t. Sometimes I get a story finished, but then when I type it up I think there isn’t enough, but I don’t know how to add more. Sometimes I get part of a story done, but I don’t know what happens next—so I stop. Sometimes I get off-topic. I keep stopping to fix the parts I think are wrong, but then I can’t get going again.
First, I say, “Writing is hard for writers, too. Writing is supposed to be hard. If it’s hard for you, you have something in common with all the great writers who ever lived. 

Then I tell them some things I’ve figured out about writing. 
Everybody has interesting stuff to write about, we have to learn how to trick our brains into finding it for us. 
Ideas aren’t words, so we have to learn how words work so that we can translate our ideas into stories. 
Writing gets easier (and way more fun) when you learn how your brain works and let it help you: part of it is made for picturing the story in your mind so that you can just write down what you see; part of it is made for fixing up the story and making it better once you get it written down. Let yourself stay in the part where the pictures are in the first part of writing. 
Nobody gets a story perfect the first time they write it. Writers re-think and revise. You can go back and look at what you’re written, look for words that you can make more like pictures. Avoid adjectives, use strong, visual nouns instead. Take out adverbs! For example, “walking slowly” might become strolling, sauntering, meandering, limping—depending on how the person is walking and what you want the reader to know. 
When you get stuck and can’t go on, ask yourself, “What if?” A good imagination is no more than the writer being willing to ask “What if?” until the right thing pops into her mind. 
Don’t worry about fixing things as you go along. Just write as fast as you can, write everything you can think of--then you can think about fixing them. 
It’s okay to go off-topic in the first part of writing. Sometimes what feels like being off-topic is just your brain having a better idea about what the story should be. Let it go, see what you’ve got. If the off-topic part doesn’t work in the end, take it out. 
If you worry too much about getting it right the first time, the pictures stop coming and you get stuck. 
Remember: writers revise. You can fix what needs to be fixed when you finish getting your story down on the page.
Mrs. Brown requires serious note-taking, so most of them were scribbling madly. I love that.
We did an exercise that helped them see something they remembered. Then they wrote, not worrying about anything but getting down the pictures they saw in their heads. Watching people of any age do this exercise makes me supremely happy. A particular kind of quiet falls, there’s the sound of pencils scratching. The kids are bent over their papers, each in his own little world.
When the timer went off, they looked a little stunned to be back in the classroom. “What did that writing that way feel like?” I asked. Different. Easy. My hand hurt. I couldn’t write fast enough. I didn’t get stuck. It felt…light. I wrote so much.
One boy never looked up at all. He just kept writing. And writing. He was still writing when the bell rang and it was time for me to leave.
A few hours later, I was on the interstate heading for the Thorntown Public Library, about twenty miles away from Indianapolis, where tseven library patrons showed up to talk about writing. We met in the young adult section of the old Carnegie Library, a cozy space. The whole library feels cozy. In fact, it’s so cozy, it has a lovely ginger cat in residence. Tober checked in on us now and then. He has his own blog, which you can read at

Speaking of people who should be cloned. I vote for Karen Niemeyer, librarian, and Christine Sterle. They’ve made the Thorntown Public Library a place where patrons feel at home. Everyone in the group knew each other; Karen and Christine knew them all by name. And Karen didn’t just get the program going and get back to work. She stayed and talked and wrote. Christine was working at the desk just outside the door to the YA room, but when the flow of check-outs slowed down, she wheeled her office chair into the room to join us. That made me smile.
Two very different places; two very different audiences. But the Thorntown group’s questions and concerns about writing were exactly the same as the fifth-graders’ had been. I talked about exactly the same things I’d talked about earlier in Mrs. Brown’s classroom. We did the same writing exercise. The older audience had exactly the same reaction.

I think (hope) each group of people left feeling that writing was more possible for them, feeling inspired to start (or finish) that story they’d been thinking about…now.

I know how I felt: full of energy, feeling really, really lucky to get to talk about writing two times in one day!


Jen Fu said...

This is great advice. Also, I wish every public place had a cat in it.

Leeann said...

As a college student struggling to write her first long piece (a novella) for class, this was great advice to have right now. The past few days I've just been sitting at my laptop, willing the Word document to have more words and wondering if I'm actually good at writing or if I've been fooling myself all these years. It's nice to have these reminders now and then that writing is hard for everyone, but there are ways to get going and make it fun again.

Barbara Shoup said...

Yes. Every public place would be better with a cat!

And, Leann, keep at it! Stay with the pictures in your head. So glad the blog post helped.