April 13, 2010
I visited a Vermont school yesterday where several sixth graders wanted to talk about the much-reported recent suicide of a Massachusetts teenage girl who had been bullied incessantly, and about the indictments of several students alleged to have bullied her. One girl said to me, “Have you thought about how close that situation was to your book?” I said, “Until today, no, I hadn’t. But I see what you mean.”
The girl who killed herself was from another country and culture, like Catalina in The Revealers. And as is Catalina she was allegedly targeted by a group of powerful, popular girls who saw her as a threat. In my story, Catalina lives; she doesn’t even consider hurting herself. But reality is, sadly, sometimes darker and more disturbing.
It has struck me recently — and not for the first time — how often middle schoolers, when you get them writing creatively, will allude to suicide, or write directly about it. Recently I spent four days at another Vermont middle school, where virtually every student wrote or at least began writing a scene that featured two characters we had brainstormed together. The second day we reviewed and revised, as a group, selected drafts. Two eighth graders volunteered to share stories — one with me privately, one before a class — that ended in double suicides. So did the story that an eighth grader at an urban school outside Boston also recently shared with me.
When I read those stories, I wondered: How should I respond? If you’re encouraging adolescents to express themselves and this comes out, or they seem to be toying with this, what do you say? I put this question to my friend Geof Gevalt, who runs the Young Writers Project, a wonderful enterprise that connects young writers to each other and features their best work on a website and on weekly pages in newspapers across Vermont. The YWP has more than 3,500 active teen users of its site — so I asked Geof, who like me is a former newspaperman, who he responds when this darkest of subjects come up.
“Teen life is focused on self, on development, on emotional ups and downs, so, not surprisingly, we frequently see references to some edgy material ranging from cutting to suicide,” Geof emailed. “Part of the power of the site is that it is based on civility and respect, and part of that respect extends to students’ privacy. But if we see something that concerns us, we contact the writer to just check in, see how they’re doing. Occasionally we’ll call someone.
“We don’t break their confidence — if, we call, say, and a parent answers, we identify ourselves and tell them that we often check with writers if we have questions about their writing and would they mind if we chat with their daughter or son? We don’t get into what our question is about.
“In chatting with the young writer, it does not take long for us to see that they are fine. I think they appreciate our contact and we try to emphasize that we’re not censoring their work, just checking in to make sure they’re OK. What we find more times than not is that a writer is experimenting — the thoughts have come into their minds so they put them down. And, since they are inexperienced writers, they often can’t express their thoughts with nuance, so it sounds starker, often, than even they intended.”
One sense I get from this is that it’s probably, usually, unwise to overreact to a young writers’ piece that toys with suicide — but it is worth checking in to see if that person is in fact okay. “I’ve had several kids who have opened up to me on the phone, but only because they know me,” Geof adds. “Once I’m reassured that they’re OK, I wish them well and that’s that. I do keep an eye on their writing …”
What more can you do? What should you do? I’m not even pretending to know any answers; I’m just asking the questions. When young people raise this dark, scary subject in writing that they show us, or that we’ve asked them to do, what should we do?
April 6, 2010
There are books that stay with you in your life, and sometimes you’re not sure how they managed it. How did they make it through all those changes? But some books do, almost as if they’ve been quietly living with you, hanging around, finding a way, waiting to be noticed and to matter again.
In my life, one of those books is a yellowed Penguin paperback by Malcolm Cowley, a well-known 20th century editor who knew many of the great authors of his time. His book, — And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade, is the only one I know whose title starts with a dash. (Did you notice?) Subtitled Chapers of Literary History, 1918-1978, it’s a collection of short pieces that Cowley did over his long career. I must have had this book for at least a quarter century. I gave it away, at one point, but it came back.
There’s one piece in it that changed my writing life, maybe even made it possible. Rereading that piece today, I realize that what did this was actually one paragraph. Really, it was a single sentence.
The essay is called “How Writers Write.” Cowley did it as the introduction to the first volume of the great Writers at Work series of interviews with famous authors, begun by the literary magazine The Paris Review in the late 1950s. That first volume came out in 1958; it had verbatim transcripts of in-depth conversations about the craft with 16 well-known writers (eight more volumes would eventually be produced). Like many of those interviews, Cowley’s essay is fascinating. Relating what he’s learned from working and talking with accomplished authors, he discusses “the germ of the story,” then the stages of the process. Which writers add more, in later drafts? Which take out more?
In the midst of this is the sentence that opened my door. “The first draft of a story is often written at top speed; probably that is the best way to write it.”
Farther down this paragraph, Cowley quotes Flannery O’Connor: “I don’t give a hoot what the writing’s like, I write any sort of rubbish which will cover the main outlines of the story, then I can begin to see it.”
Not every writer works this way, Cowley is careful to note — but most good ones seem to. At the time, young and groping for my way, I was one who didn’t. I would labor and labor, rework and rewrite a sentence or a paragraph until I had dug myself into a hole. Needless to say, outside of early newspaper deadlines, I hadn’t produced much. Then I read that paragraph.
Years later, I always try to write the first draft fast. I don’t always succeed. It can be more tempting to labor over what you’ve just written than to push on and write more, take that risk, get stuff out that you can later work with, and revise. But if you hope to get a flow going, to get ideas, energy, originality — which of course we do — then I think most of us have the best chance if we can let loose in that first draft, and just try.
When I do writing workshops, I offer this. I’ll ask students to experiment — “Just try this. Just once. See how it goes.” I’ll give them two minutes, for a warmup freewrite, and then five minutes to draft, each on their own paper, a scene whose two characters we’ve all brainstormed together. I’ll say, “The experiment is this: start writing and don’t stop. No matter what. Try to let it go. Let it flow. See what happens.”
Often afterwards, young writers will say, “I was surprised! It was much easier than writing usually is for me.” Or, “Something just happened in the scene! I didn’t really plan it or think about it. It just happened”
Write the first draft fast. Take that risk! Try to let go the voice that says, “Oh this is so lame,” or whatever that voice says to you, in your particular head. This voice is your fear; we all have it. But writing the first draft fast can — it just might — leave that fear behind. And you may produce something that surprises you, that has original energy, that is worth coming back to and revising, rewriting, working to build on and improve.
You just might.
March 29, 2010
I’m a (very) amateur musician, and years ago I had three instructional cassettes for blues harmonica that were recorded by the great harp player Paul Butterfield not long before his much-too-early death in 1987. At one point on the sessions he recorded for Homespun Tapes, Butterfield said something like this: The longer I play music, the more I find myself interested in melody. I find that I care, more and more, about playing the melody.
For a bluesman to say this is striking, because the blues are supposed to be so much about improvisation and expression. Isn’t melody something old-fashioned, limiting, kind of corny? Butterfield said no. The more he played, the more he realized that this was what really mattered. In music, he said, melody is the heart of it.
As a writer, I feel the same way about story. Everyone knows what story is, and everyone recognizes and connects with a great story, even if — as with melody, in music — we are defeated if we try to define it, pin it down, find its formula. When I interview people for writing projects, especially if this is someone who isn’t used to being interviewed, I’ll often begin by saying, simply, “Tell me the story.” When you ask that, no one says, “What?” We know instinctively how to tell our story, just so long as we don’t think about what we’re doing. In the same way we can whistle a melody, but most of us will be stopped and baffled if we’re asked what key we’re in, what’s the chord structure, where does the melody create and resolve the necessary tension.
People discuss that stuff about story, about narrative: that it has to have conflict, that it must create and resolve tension, that it must have certain elements or components. Oh, probably so. I prefer to think just that story is important — that writing fiction is really all about character and narrative, and that these two are inseparable, human elements of the same creative movement that will shape itself naturally if we start it well and give ourselves honestly to its telling.
This is not to say there aren’t aspects to story-and-character that we can talk about. If your characters don’t face some sort of challenge, you won’t, most likely, have a real story. If your characters don’t make mistakes, don’t struggle — if they’re not people, in other words, acting like people — then you may have a story but it almost surely won’t be interesting. I’ve heard myself say, talking to students on school visits, that I don’t know if there has ever been a good story about heaven — I’ve never heard of one — but there have been many great stories about hell. (Yes, I did use that word. Good stories tend to use the words that people really say.)
In the end we know a good story when we read one, or hear one, or watch one on screen, because it reaches us, it moves us, and it stays with us. When you think about it, that’s a lot like a good melody.
When I visit middle schools to talk about my books and writing, it’s exciting to work with teachers who are creative and innovative, and cultivate that energy in their classrooms. One who always gives me ideas is Steve Olivo, a language-arts teacher at Parker Middle School in Reading, Mass., where the eighth grade has read The Revealers each of the past several years.
Before my visit this year, Steve emailed to ask if I was comfortable with his students “back-channeling,” or micro-blogging, during my talk and question-answer period with the eighth grade. I basically answered, “Huh?”
“The idea is that students are armed with laptops and are directed to ‘chat’ online about the presentation as it’s happening,” Steve explains on his blog, where he shares his own and his students’ thoughts about this experiment. Once I grasped the idea, I said sure, but wouldn’t students tend to be distracted? He said we’d find out. This was an experiment. I looked forward to seeing how it would go.
In Reading’s handsome, antique little auditorium, as the eighth graders filled the seats for our time together, I noticed that those who had laptops open, ready to use them, were perched around the edges. As the discussion unfolded, I saw that the laptoppers did not participate — not directly. Instead they were discussing and dissecting what they were hearing, online, together.
It wasn’t always easy. “It’s really hard to pay attention to the author and do this,” one student wrote. “Does anyone agree?”
“Yes. I zone out when he’s talking and I’m typing,” another answered.
“Pay attention for a while,” Mr. Olivo advised. “Check in periodically.”
When he and I checked in afterward, Steve noted that this is how young people today are interacting with the world: they’re juggling multiple input channels, live and online. Anyone who’s ever tried to keep a teenager’s attention at the dinner table, when you’re competing with text messages coming into his/her cell phone under the table, knows how true this is. Steve’s idea is to accept this reality, and help young people get better at juggling their focus and learning this way.
“I feel it’s a skill that students need to learn — especially as technology continues to shift the way that we do things,” he says on his blog. “In some ways, backchanneling is a more sophisticated way of taking notes.” Well, yes, we do basically the same thing when we listen to a speaker and take notes. This is just more distracting, more demanding … and potentially more powerful.
Listen to this exchange from the Parker backchannelers, which happened as I talked about the writing process with students:
“When I make a piece of writing, it doesn’t change that much from draft to draft,” Jared D. wrote. “… Is it just me or does anybody else think making multiple drafts is pointless?”
“Well if you think of drafts as just rewriting the story without changes … then yes it is pointless,” replied Andy J. “But if you use drafts to edit and make your story better then it is not pointless.”
I couldn’t have said it better. However, only those students who were microblogging saw that exchange. I don’t think any of the backchannelers ever raised a hand or contributed to the whole room’s discussion. So did this work?
I’m not sure. I agree with Steve’s observation that this is the world young people are growing into — in fact, it’s the world they’re creating, with the competing, shifting, real-time ways they communicate, gather information, and process it all. Most schools, as they bar cell-phone use, are trying hard to keep this stuff out of the classroom, so kids can actually focus. But in all the other hours of their lives, this is most of our kids’ reality. Are we doing them a service keeping all that at bay for a few hours, so they can learn; or are we building a denial-based divide between school and the world they must navigate?
The next day, starting a visit at an inner-city school near Boston, I described the Parker teacher’s experiment to the principal. She didn’t like it! “The best thing we can do,” she told me firmly, “is help kids learn to pay full attention, right here, right now.”
Oh, yes. The fracturing of young people’s attention, and of their capacity to pay attention, is a big real-world issue in education today. It affects everything, as you know if — like me — you’ve got a middle schooler at home, or a too-distracted crowd in the classroom. If you can’t pay true, focused attention, you can’t learn, you can’t create, you can’t succeed. Will Steve Olivo’s “backchanneling” experiment help kids cope with this century’s fracturing input, learning to focus their attention in pieces that they can shift with skill? Or does it just help them do more chatting while they miss what’s really going on?
Not sure. Couldn’t tell. Glad I was part of the experiment, though.
November 10, 2009
It doesn’t come from thought.
I don’t know where it does come from, exactly, and I don’t think it matters much whether I understand. What matters is that you learn, are always learning, how to work with the flow of ideas and creativity in your writing, or in whatever you do that draws on this mystery. It matters that you try, and in trying that you learn to work with the energetic process that can come through you.
And it doesn’t come from thought.
I first noticed this in my first full-time newspaper job, on the weekly Bernardsville News in Bernardsville, New Jersey. Our tiny newsroom was upstairs in a converted 19th century train station — Bernardsville is still on what used to be the Lackawanna Railroad line — and it was a windowless, narrow chamber with steep-sloping walls from the pitched roof outside. I am very tall and couldn’t stand up in the room anywhere. Our weekly deadline was late Tuesday, and as it approached in late afternoon I would sit at my desk with piles of notes. I’d have been working on several stories, none of which I would have tried to write before the deadline pressure got intense. I’m not recommending this! But that’s how it would be, every Tuesday afternoon.
I would go through my notes for a story with a yellow highlighter. I wouldn’t highlight the key passages properly, because there wasn’t time for that; instead I’d mark along the sides of the scrawled segments that I liked, some of which might be good quotes for the story. I’d do this intently, with no time at this late point to plan anything out. Instead I would go into an odd, unthinking focus.
I would sit there with my notes. Maybe I’d page back through them, or maybe not. Mainly I would just … sit. And, in a minute or so, I would start to write. Then, as I wrote, with no time to think, something would start to shape the story.
That it didn’t come from thinking was what I discovered then, in my haphazard, deadline-powered experience. I wasn’t consciously working out these pieces of writing, I was just writing them. Had I done prewriting? Yes, absolutely I had, with my ragged rushed highlighting — but what I had not done was any kind of outlining or planning. No time for that.
Instead I just wrote. And, somehow, surprisingly, it came out pretty well. I got good feedback! I discovered a certain power that could come through me, absorbing my material and giving my story an order and flow that was often surprising and wasn’t perfect, but could be worked with, wrestled with, as the story (usually too long, at first) began to smooth and squeeze into a final form. I could work with this process, I could learn to do it better, and I didn’t have to do it only under panicky pressure. But my process has always remained, since then, basically the same.
I inform the work and fill the well by doing the research or observation or interviewing, making notes all along. I always then mark up my notes — that’s key, for me — but I don’t try to map out what’ll come next. I may do some freewriting before I start the actual draft, but it’ll be sketchy and generally aimed just at helping me start. Then I just … do.
I sit and start to write. I try not to think while I’m doing it, because thinking gets in the way. With revising, too, I don’t think through what a piece needs, I go more by feel. I re-enter the process, feeling as I read what is needed, then just do the work. I can’t explain it any better — and, again, I’m not sure it’s important to understand why a creative process works for you. Everyone’s process is personal. What matters is to feel for what works.
And to keep doing it. Some days of course what comes out will be better, with more mysterious energy and surprising results – and some days it won’t be like that. Either way, what you do can be useful and can bring the work along. You can keep the process going. When the inevitable thoughts and worries do come, you can note what seems helpful — because some will be, probably — and then try your best to let go what is just anxiety.
Because it doesn’t come from thought.
And that’s about all I know.
October 26, 2009
Over the weekend I got this question via email from a middle schooler at Magnolia Science Academy in San Diego, California:
Do you have any advice for a new author? Because I’m writing a book (I know, I’m a kid, but I’m a pretty good writer).
Here’s my response:
1. Keep a notebook. This can be any type of notebook, big or small, plain or fancy, but it should be separate from your regular school notebooks. You can carry this writer’s notebook everywhere, or lock it up in your room at home to stay private — but try to write in it every day. Some writers just use their notebooks to jot down observations and ideas. Others keep a “freewriting” time when they write anything, really, in their notebook for, say, ten minutes, or to fill three pages. I suggest that you take the second approach mainly. If you make time, even just ten minutes, to write in your notebook each day, you’ll start to develop a relationship with it; and the more you have that, the more you’ll have a relationship with writing. Most writers’ notebooks are the place where their ideas first hatch.
At first, or before too long, writing in your notebook will start to seem like a chore, yet another thing you’re supposed to do. If you keep doing it anyway, you’ll start to look forward to spending time with it. Then your writer’s notebook can become a friend in your life — a friend for your life. But you have to give it your time and energy, especially after the first excitement of having it and writing in it start to flag. Push through that, and you’ll begin to build something real.
2. If you have a writing project you want to complete, like a story, write on it a bit every day at the same time if you can. If you miss a day, that’s okay, but do your best to write every day that you can. You may only have half an hour, say before dinner or before bed — but if you come back to your writing at this time every day, before long you will realize that you’ve really started to accomplish something. Don’t wait and think you need a whole weekend or a week to write. Instead, make it a part of your everyday life. Writing at the same time every day lets the mysterious inner rhythms of creative work start to develop and prepare to help you, each time you come to your project.
3. If you’ve written something you think may be promising or possibly good, don’t decide you’re done at that point — because that’s almost always just the beginning. Ask someone you trust for their feedback, and listen to what they say. Try to read your own work — this is very important! — as if you were coming to it for the first time. Be honest with yourself: does what you’ve written work as well as it possibly could? If you can then see how to make your work better, take a deep breath, be grateful for the insight and the ideas, and start working on the next draft.
Understand that writing is always a process. If you think, “I have to be done with this,” then you won’t be able to write well. If you can always be trying to learn how to improve your work — if you can always be open to the process, no matter whether it takes you through two drafts or ten — then you have a chance to do good work. And that’s all that any of us ever have: the chance to do good work. The more you do it, the more you’ll learn to trust the creative process, give it your best energy and be open to what it can show you.
If you want to try to get something published, there are some very good outlets for young writers. Check out these links (they’re also at right, under Blogroll): teenink and my YA author friend Laura Williams McCaffrey’s resources for young writers.
Good luck … keep a notebook … and write for fun! The more you enjoy doing it, the more you’ll keep doing it. Dreaming of publishing a book or getting famous probably won’t keep you going for all that long. What can keep you going as a writer — and all writers have to learn how to keep going — is building a real relationship with your writing, and learning to enjoy it in your life.
Early this month I had the pleasure of visiting Roth Middle School in Henrietta, N.Y., outside Rochester, where every student in all three grades — six, seven and eight — was taking part in a schoolwide reading and discussion project with my young-adult novel The Revealers. On the day of my visit, as each grade filed into the auditorium for its hourlong talk with me, a very cool slide show was projecting onto a big screen up on stage. The slides were photos of Roth students and teachers, taken during the classroom readings of my book. As each image flicked onto the screen, it was accompanied by Michael Jackson’s funky and inspiring song “Man in the Mirror,” with its lyrics:
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change
The idea, as principal Denise Zeh discussed with each grade when she introduced me, was to challenge every student, in reading and thinking and talking about this novel that portrays middle-school bullying and social pressures, to take a clear look at themselves and the role they’re playing in the school community. I think the kids got it. (They liked the song, too.)
What we had together was a powerful and memorable day — and along with the slideshow and this personal focus, one creative and quite effective aspect of the program was the school’s selection of two dozen “author ambassadors.” I met these students first, spending time with them at the beginning and end of the day; during the hours in between, they were very active in helping me connect with their fellow students.
I was so impressed with the author-ambassador idea that afterward I asked Sheryl Diana, the librarian at Roth who led the organizing of The Revealers project, to write a brief description of how this part of the project had been put together and how it worked. Below is what Sheryl kindly wrote in response. To learn more, contact her at Sdiana@rhnet.org.
Roth has posted its slide show of The Revealers “schoolwide read” online, together with photos of my visit — in particular, of my interactions with the author ambassadors. To view those great photos, click here.
Roth Middle School’s “Author Ambassadors”
by Sheryl Diana
Roth Middle School was proud to have Author Ambassadors to welcome and assist Mr. Wilhelm during his visit. We spent the month of September reading The Revealers aloud in homerooms. As librarian, I have always tried to include as many students as possible in an author visit. For Doug’s visit our teachers had the challenge of recommending one student per team, using the criteria that the student should be an avid reader or writer, or have demonstrated a special interest in The Revealers.
I received 24 recommendations (not the ten I had expected), and was able to include them all. I met with the students briefly the day before Doug’s visit and gave them general instructions.
On the morning of the visit, the ambassadors met with Doug during our 20-minute homeroom time. He asked each of them to give their name, and one interesting thing about themselves. They were delighted! At each of our three grade-level assemblies, the ambassadors from that grade met Doug in the auditorium before the rest of the students arrived. They were able to chat with Doug, and had front-row seats. A few of them chose to help introduce him.
At each grade-level lunch, the ambassadors ate at the table where Doug was signing books. They were able to talk to fellow students and to Doug during that time. The conversations were as varied as the students. At the end of the day, the ambassadors gathered in the library for an informal chat with Doug about what he’s writing now. They enjoyed every minute of his visit. One of our teachers created certificates for the ambassadors, which Doug graciously signed and distributed. They each left with a signature, even if they had been unable to purchase a book.
Thanks to Doug’s flexibility, and remarkable memory for names, every student in the school felt important and listened to that day, none more than the wonderful ambassadors!
October 5, 2009
Years ago, I was young, living in Asia, teaching English for a meagre living, and trying to write a book when I didn’t know how. I had been a newspaperman back home, and that helps in some ways: You do write for a living, but you learn to do it in a hyperated rush on deadline. You come to depend on that deadline, on that external pressure. If you leave a job like that behind — and I, living then in Kathmandu, Nepal, had left mine a long ways behind — and you’re trying to write a book on your own, you can wonder:
How do I do this?
Today, about 28 years later, I resumed working on a new young-adult novel, which if it gets published (always a big if) will be my 12th. I started it last winter. Recently I’d had to take a break, to get married on Labor Day weekend (it turns out this, like writing a book, involves a lot of work), then to work again through the first half of the story-in-progress, revising the draft, getting back to the point when the first draft stops — then to spend a week reading, making notes and trying to brainstorm the second half. Which I hadn’t started yet.
And all that is fine, necessary; but there comes that point when you do have, once again, to start writing. Today, Monday morning, that’s where I was. And no matter what I do, how well I try to research and generate ideas and otherwise prepare, when I face that blank screen I never know what is going to happen. I just don’t.
But I do start. That’s the key — just to start, and not to go back over and over but to push ahead. It doesn’t have to be great; it’s just a start. A rough draft. Once I do get started, I work on the project every day that I possibly can, from 8 to 10 a.m. if I can make that time, or later in the day if I have to. Before my two hours end, my goal is to write at least 1,500 words.
Today I did that, a little more in fact. And when I had moved on to other projects in my day, I remembered something I once read in a book. It was in a long, very wonderful novel, War and Remembrance, written by a very successful author, Herman Wouk. The book came out in 1978 and I read it not long after that, when I was living overseas and trying to write. Wouk’s novel is 1,056 pages long — and it encompasses, in a thrilling, absorbing and moving story, virtually all of World War II. I’m pretty sure I read it twice, along with Wouk’s previous novel, The Winds of War. (I was a long way from home, I had time, and they were worth it.)
One important character in War and Remembrance is an elderly, successful Jewish scholar and author who, for much of the story, is a refugee on the run from the Nazis. Amid all the adventures and dangers and horrors he experiences, this character tries to keep his work going. He mostly does, too. At one point he says, of his morning’s work, something like this: “I did my 1,500 words.”
I was impressed by that, even then. I thought, Is the real author telling us something? Is this how he got these massive, world-scale novels written — by doing his daily 1,500 words?
This morning that line came back to me. I don’t know if I’m remembering it exactly, but I’m almost positive about the 1,500 words. And I do think Wouk was telling us that this how to do it. Set a daily goal for your writing, then meet it every day.
Myself, I find that setting and meeting this particular goal, which is challenging but achievable — 1,500 words is a fairly good workout, especially if you’re finding those words inside yourself and you start out not knowing where they are — allows you satisfaction. A book is a very big project, and you may or may not be able to achieve the one you dream of; but each day you can do 1,500 words. And over time, those words do do add up. You and I may never write anything like War and Remembrance … but we can do a certain number words a day. We can.
And if we do … who knows where we might end up?
September 21, 2009
When my YA novel The Revealers first began to catch on, I got a few requests to visit schools where kids were reading the book. I thought this was interesting — and surprising. I mentioned it to a more experienced author friend, who said, “Doug, schools like to bring in authors! For a lot of children’s writers, school visits become a big part of their livelihood.” I had no idea.
Well, now I do. Visiting schools, mostly middle schools, around the country has become quite a big part of both my livelihood and my creative life. My new year of visits starts this week, with a Friday visit to Rivendell Academy (don’t you love that name?) in Orford, N.H. So this is a good week to set down the five top reasons why I like (I could even say love) to visit schools:
5. I meet kids who could be characters — because they are. “I write for you,” I often tell middle schoolers — “so tell me something about yourself.” One sixth-grade girl in Ohio told me, “I like to catch snakes and bring them home.” I said, “How does your mother feel about this?” She said, “Oh, she doesn’t like it very much!” And I remember the boy who sat way in back, dressed all in military camouflage, at a Massachusetts school. “I like to bake things,” he told me. “I like to bake cakes.” In my current novel-in-progress I have a boy character who dresses all in camouflage. Did that idea come from that kid? Who knows?
4. I get told what to read. Many middle schoolers are vacuum-cleaner readers — they read constantly. I’m often asked what books to recommend, but it’s much more fun to ask them what they’ve liked lately. Years ago, volunteering at the book fair when my son Brad was in middle school, I noticed that kids kept coming in eager for new three books I hadn’t heard of: Tangerine, Holes, and something called Harry Potter. (If you haven’t read Tangerine, try it!)
3. I can share and “air” what’s in my notebook. Writing is mostly a quiet, private process, which is fine; but when students or teachers ask what I’m working on, or how I work, I enjoy pulling out my little notebook. Like every writer I’ve ever talked with about this, I keep a notebook; it’s where notes, noticings and ideas first go, and where they may start to grow into something. I’ll pull out my plain, black, Moleskine pocket book, show that it has no lines (I don’t like lines in notebooks), and maybe read a page. The notebook I filled over the summer begins with this, which I heard somebody say: “All it takes is a little more attention.”
2. I may get asked a question I’ve never been asked before. I often tell kids I really appreciate it when this happens — and when it does, I always say, with a big (probably goofy) grin, “I’ve never been asked that before!” You may ask, “Well, what were some of those questions?” And the truth is, in that moment, before an audience, I’ve never pulled out the notebook and written those questions down — so I don’t remember. See, that’s what happens when you don’t write things down. My project this year: Write these favorite questions down.
1. I get ideas — and I test ideas. As I said up top, school visits aren’t just part of my livelihood, they’ve become a huge part of my creative process. Last year, when I wanted characters to do a lunchroom prank, I asked middle schoolers in Pasco, Florida what that prank should be. I’ve asked kids to write down for me the nastiest text messages they’ve ever received. I’ve noticed their shoes, their hair, the slogans on their t-shirts (my favorite: two seventh grade girls in St. Petersburg, Florida walking side by side with shirts that said, Unique), and more. Sometimes I know what I’m looking for; sometimes it’ll just be there. And I’ll write it down.
Will this become part of a story, a scene, a character? Again, who knows? It’s a process. And that’s something — the flowing, evolving, surprising nature of creative work — that I never get tired of talking about with young people who have open ears, and vacuum-cleaner minds.
Like the guy said: All it takes is a little more attention.
Check out Doug’s new book, his first YA nonfiction: Alexander the Great: A Wicked History
September 14, 2009
Do kids today need grownups to hire people to show them how to play?
Last week in the Boston Globe, columnist Derrick Jackson said a charter school in that city has hired a national nonprofit, Playworks, to come in and teach students how to play “old-school activities like jump rope, hula hoops, four square, capture the flag, circle dodgeball, and kickball.” (See “Let the Kids Play.”)
Jackson writes, “Whoever thought we’d need a national crusade for kickball?” And he quotes Boston College psychologist Peter Gray:
“’All cultures until modern times played in age-mixed groups, where younger kids learned skills from older kids and older kids learned to be nurturing and caring. This is how kids educated themselves. This is how kids learned to assert themselves while not antagonizing other people.’’’
I’m not so sure about the not antagonizing people part. I expect in my old neighborhood we drove some adults crazy, noisily playing games till all hours outside. Today I have a 22-year-old son I’m very proud of, who played organized sports from grade four through sophomore year in college (he’s a senior now). Those sports were great for him, and I admired and appreciated the adults who made time to coach — but Brad was in his teens when I realized he had hardly played a game in his life that adults had not organized, scheduled, coached, refereed, and costumed.
Yesterday, Sunday, I watched a young teenager that I know, a very bright guy with a whole load of ingenuity, spend about eight hours sprawled on a couch playing World of Warcraft on the Net.
I think World of Warcraft is amazing in a lot of ways. It creates an imaginative (very imaginative) world in which players all over the world can use their wiles and ingenuity to become powerful. It’s incredible to look at. But what I also notice is that all the imagining in online gaming like this has already been done. You play, you do battle, you gain power and have adventures — but you don’t dream up anything. It has already been dreamed, designed, and created before you start.
I visit middle schools often, to talk with students who read my books, and I see that the power to imagine and create is still strong in young teens. It doesn’t go away. But with fewer and fewer art and music programs in schools, and with so many of kids’ outside-school activities shaped and dominated by adults — by online-game designers, and by parents who coach and costume and organize — where do kids find the blank spaces they so need to fill on their own?
Creativity requires blank spaces. The young artist needs an empty page; so does the arising writer. I think the filling of spaces around the home with improvised play is not much different, and just as key. In our old neighborhood we invented and played for years a game that all of us still remember. We called it Flies and Mosquitoes.
Nobody that I grew up with seems clear today on what the actual rules of Flies and Mosquitoes were. We know it involved a small group of kids searching for a larger group of kids who could hide anywhere, as long as it was outdoors, all over our block. I remember sprinting through backyards to find hiding places up in trees that I could have fallen out of, and down in basement window wells that were grubby and slippery with rotting leaves. I remember the feeling of crouching there, waiting to make a wild break for it the moment when I was about to be found. Whatever the rules were, we loved Flies and Mosquitoes. I wonder if there’s any neighborhood today where kids would try such a game, or where grownups would allow it.
Okay, so kids are safer. I guess. But is anything preconceived and organized by grownups ever quite the same as some grubby blank space you can fill on your own? In real quality of experimenting experience, can an online gaming or networking community ever come close to a tribe of kids annoying adults all over a neighborhood?
And who will remember, in years to come, those magic young hours they spent on Facebook, or playing World of Warcraft?