A mom approaches me in the school lobby and says that her 10 year old girl loves, “I mean loooooooves,” she reiterates the verb, to write. Instead of taking after-school soccer or theatre or drawing or tai chi, this girl wants to write, the mom says; would I work with her one-on-one on her stories?
So we set up a schedule where the girl, “Maddie,” walks to my home every Wednesday after school and for 10 weeks, we work for an hour on her very long, very unstructured, very lively story. It is like a scarf that goes on and on, with different colors, different stitches, different levels of commitment and depth of attention. Sometimes, “Maddie” knows exactly what she wants to say. There is a protagonist and of course an antagonist and the drama! On days where “Maddie” is “flowing,” I take her lead and make cautious suggestions. “Maddie” doesn’t like interference; she doesn’t like to be told anything.
“Ummmm, yeah, I guess i could try that,” she’ll say on a particularly generous day. Other times, she’ll simply state, “I know.”
I can tell that she’s stuck or limited by her craft. While “Maddie” knows how to write, how to link a subject and verb together, she’s never been taught how to write fiction. On those days, I will still suggest technical choices available to her; these choices or “supplies” (dialogue, action, time, situation or place, description, etc.) are stored in her mental “toolbox.” I read aloud a passage from John Cheever or Alice Munro, adult writers whom i’m sure she doesn’t know, yet whose words would excite her. She listens and when we meet the next time, after she’s done an exercise I suggested, she says, “I used description.” She reads her assignment aloud. I tell her that the way she used it, giving details like how the pond looked in the morning when the horse drank from it, made the scene more powerful, a bit sad. She had, I explained, begun to develop a mood, the emotion which fuels the narrative.
I, the reader, felt something; I was moved by her story. “Isn’t that why you like to read so much? Because of how the books or the writer makes you feel?” On that day, she gave me a teensy weensy smile. When she left, I could tell she was very proud.
By Elizabeth England, Essay and Interview Specialist