Excerpt from Chapter 2:
Finding Narrative Topics That Matter
I think the single most important thing we can teach our student writers is how to generate meaningful topics for themselves. This is not to say it is not also critical for our students to learn about craft and conventions and process. But one can be a writer without knowing how to write well. I was a writer for years before I gained any skills as such, generating through adolescence terrible poem after terrible story.
Until our students learn to find their own ideas for their writing, they are either utterly dependent on someone else to tell them what to do, or totally incapable of writing at all. Either way, they are not yet writers. They do not yet know what it means to use writing to fill the time, to change people’s thinking, to explore the world, to explore themselves.
If we do nothing else as writing teachers, let us show our students how they can find the kinds of ideas that will inspire them to be writers, and that will inspire their readers to be readers. If your students do not know what to write, or if they simply write to fill up pages but not to impact an audience, it is probably because they do not yet know how to find or make meaningful topics. To help, you might teach any of the following strategies. Students who are writing true stories can use them to uncover moments from their own lives, whereas students who are writing fiction can use the same strategies to create events in a made-up character’s life; when teaching your students to write fiction, you might add to any of the following strategies in this chapter the phrase: When we write fiction, we make up a story about a make-believe character who experiences something similar.
Recall Comments: One way writers find meaningful story topics is by recalling a comment we or someone else has said and the emotions surrounding the comment.
Mary Ehrenworth taught me this strategy as a way to help students bring to light moments that matter; moments that, for some significant reason, linger in their minds and hearts. As writers, we know that words have power; the way someone crafts an argument or the line of a poem or a story can impact readers for a lifetime. Perhaps this is why story writers so often rely on dialogue to not simply move along the plot, but to convey emotion and complexity and tension; what people say, when and where and how they say it, often carries more weight than anything else we may think or do. It makes sense then, that recalling comments from our lives is a powerful tool for generating story ideas.
When I worked with a group of 4th graders who were just beginning to gather ideas for a realistic fiction piece, I said, “I want to teach you that writers sometimes get ideas for our stories by recalling a comment we said or heard; when writing fiction like you’re doing now, we can create a make-believe scenario in which someone says or hears the same comment. As we know, what people say often has a huge impact, so telling the stories of these moments usually means writing stories that are full of emotion and meaning.”
“Let me show you what I mean. When I think about comments that linger in my mind, I remember when I was seven or eight and standing on the playground with Hera. She turned to me and said, “Your arms are so hairy, you’re going to grow up to be a boy.” Even now, when I remember that moment, my stomach tenses; I feel hurt and embarrassed all over again. I know I could use this comment to write a great story, so I’m going to jot it down: Your arms are so hairy, you’re going to be a boy when you grow up!
“Now I’m thinking, ‘What’s a make-believe story in which someone would say the same thing? I know siblings tease each other a lot, so maybe I could write a story about a brother and sister who get into a fight and the boy says that to his younger sister. That’s one idea.
“I could also write a totally different story about a little boy who has a crush on a girl at school. You know how sometimes when young kids have crushes they tease each other? The boy could say that to the girl one day because he doesn’t know how else to get her attention.
“You know, my story doesn’t have to be about someone saying the comment; it could be about someone over-hearing the comment. Like maybe I could write a story about someone who hears her friend saying those words to someone, and because it is so mean, she realizes she doesn’t want to be friends with someone like that.
“I can also think of other comments I remember from my life, like when my grandmother said, ‘I love watching you move.’ I felt so special in that moment. I could write a story about a girl who says that to someone she has a crush on. There are so many possibilities!
“Do you see how one way I get ideas for fiction is by recalling comments that really impacted me and then imagining make-believe events around the same comment? Do you see that my story ideas are meaningful because they come from an emotional experience? Do you also see how, because I’m writing fiction, I can come up with a lot of different story ideas from the same comment?”
“Now it’s your turn to try this strategy. Take a moment to remember something you said or heard and jot the comment or comments down in your notebook.” When students are writing true stories, I stop here. However, because these students were writing fiction, I also said, “Then, jot down some make-believe story ideas in which a character says or hears the same thing.”
To help students re-call comments, I say things like:
• Think of times when you felt strong emotion, and whether you or someone else said something that caused the emotion.
• First think of people in your life, and then think of things they’ve said which you’ve never forgotten.
• Think of people in your life and the things you’ve said to them which you’ve never forgotten.
To help students use their comments to generate make-believe stories, I say:
• How did you feel when you said or heard that comment? What’s a different situation in which someone might feel those same things and therefore say the same thing?
• What caused you or the person to say that? What might cause a make-believe character to say the same thing?
Fatin started generating ideas during the strategy lesson and continued with the strategy once I sent her back to her seat. By the end of workshop, she had a list in her notebook of comments from her own life as shown in Figure 2-3.
Recall Moments of Success: One way writers find meaningful story topics is by recalling moments of success.
Recall Unforgettable Moments: One way writers find meaningful story topics is by recalling unforgettable moments - the moments that linger with us year after year.