Today I gathered around a kitchen table of a friend’s with four pint-sized wordsmiths. A mom in my homeschooling co-op invited me to come over because her son had apparently decided he wanted to be a writer after we did a creative writing exercise together. She wanted me to tell him what he could do to cultivate his craft – write, write, write and read, read, read! So I sat there with this budding writer and some of his peers and we talked about some of the practical sides of becoming a writer (e.g., good college majors for writers), how we can become better writers (e.g., keep a journal) and most importantly, why we like to write.
J. wants to write fiction to entertain people. He said it makes him feel good to see people enjoying a story he has written. C. likes to write to God. She’s only 6 and she shyly opened her composition book and showed me a prayer she wrote – a beautiful, simple love note to her Creator. I love you, God. I want to give you gory. (I tried not to smile when I saw how she’d spelled “glory.” One of the easiest ways to squash a young child’s creativity is to make him or her self-conscious about their spelling or anything else.) H. , who’s almost 8, says writing makes her feel better. “It helps me with my feelings.” Right you are, wise, little one.
There was one reluctant writer in the group. “I don’t like to write. I like to draw. See I can draw,” he said, showing me an impressive doodle of a rocket he’d just finished. It was later revealed that it wasn’t writing itself that bothered him, but the act of writing. He felt his rusty penmanship prevented him from writing what he really wanted to. “I’m too slow,” he said. I suggested he buy a small tape recorder and say his thoughts aloud and then transcribe them later. Or, I told him he could create rebus stories. That way he could use both drawings and words to communicate his thoughts.
I’m passionate about writing and so were these kids. Growing up, I was fortunate to have people who encouraged me to write. I started keeping a journal in 1986; I was six years old. I showed some of my old journals to the kids and they giggled at my sloppy writing and ubiquitous misspellings. I wrote, “We’re mooing” instead of “We’re moving” and “Sheetie is getting big,” instead of “Sweetie is getting big” when I was referring to our Lab puppy’s growth. I also fed "cartits" instead of carrots to Shadow, the horse I rode at horseback riding lessons.
At one point, C. said she loved to write, but that she wasn't sure if she should do it because her writing was really messy. I pointed out, “So was mine,” and showed her another page from journal filled with chicken scratch.
I told the kids that as a child, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always included “writer” in my top three list (my other two career aspirations were actress and horse trainer). I got my first byline in the second grade when I wrote a story about a plaque detective who climbed into the mouth of children and swung, clutching strands of floss, from molar to molar like a periodontal Tarzan. I'd recently seen the word "neurotic" somewhere and used it completely out of context, describing this plaque monger's work as "very neurotic." My teacher (she was not married to a dentist) loved the story and entered it in a contest. It won, was published and I was hooked.
I want these kids to be hooked, too. I don’t want this passion to die. Even if J., the would-be author, decides to be an engineer instead of a novelist, being a good writer will only help him. Writing is a skill that helps you move ahead in any career.For a brief period, I was in charge of perusing resumes and cover letters to fill a job I was leaving. I was amazed by how many smart people could not write. It can come in handy when you want to become active in politics and write a letter to a senator or file a complaint for bad customer service as well. I told the kids this and encouraged them to write a page a day in some kind of journal. The words didn’t matter, but the act of writing did. They must fill one page with something – it could be fiction, a recount of the day’s happenings, a poem, a letter to a friend, anything that was made up of words.
“And when you’re writing,” I added. “There are no rules.” This made them smile. A subject with no rules! They didn’t need to worry about grammar, paragraph structure or spelling. Not now. Nothing must stand in the way of the creative process. If you start force-feeding punctuation and grammar and other "rules" of writing to fervent scribes too young, too soon, you’ll only make them begin to hate the writing process, or in the very least, they’ll start to self-edit and their creativity will be lost in the frozen, graphic structure of “perfect” syntax.
“Do you want to write something now?” I asked.
So we did a characterization exercise. In less than five minutes, we developed a character named Fred. He was a 10-year-old boy with brown hair and big feet. He loved to bungee cord jump, but he was deathly afraid of motocross. He worked for the government. Don’t you dare ask how a 10-year-old can work for the government. Set aside your adult logic for just a moment, please.
Then I told them they had to write about this Fred guy. “You may find that your story stops being about Fred and starts being about the orange that started talking to him when he was preparing a snack,” I told them.
They looked at me like I’d lost it. “Remember, there are no rules,” I reiterated.
Then they started to write.
Minutes later, H. asked me if she could read me her paragraph. In only a few sentences, she explained that Fred helped his dad with government projects (see, she didn’t let him being 10 keep him from important work). In addition, she immediately created conflict. Fred’s dad was now missing and he wanted to find him. “I’m hooked,” I said. “I want to know more.” And I did.
She beamed. H. had also written “Fred is a maroon.” One of the other kids asked her what she meant.
“It’s a reddish brown,” she explained.
“Yeah, but what do you mean?”
“Fred is a maroon,” she replied. Like, duh.
I loved this. To her, Fred was a color.
During a prior creative writing class, J. wrote about the adventures Nerd Boy and Sidekick Kid, both of which had a flatulence problem. Another child wrote about a superhero who was horrible at flying his spaceship and often crashed into things. He created such a likable character and was so fired up about him that he filled 10-plus pages about this clumsy and unlikely superhero.
Seeing these kids’ passion for writing and their uninhibited imagination has been a real gift. It’s reminded me of a time when I wasn’t worried about writing for editors or getting published. It reminded me that although I've gotten paid to write PR materials, advetorials, features and essays, fiction is my first love, my real passion. It reminded me that a character can be a color if you want it to be. There are no rules. There are no rules.
I’ve been asked to lead a creative writing workshop/club for homeschool kids. I am humbled by this invitation, but I’m also really excited about it. I’m hoping that my creativity, which these days is too often stifled or self-edited by my worries of what others will think about how I write or what I write about, will feed off theirs. Above all, I’m hoping I can help these children, raw with wonder and imagination, to fall in love with writing and the creative process just like I did with the encouragement of my parents and some teachers and professors of mine. (Thank you, Mom and Dad, Mrs. Isaac, Mrs. Guy, Mrs. Melvin and Dr. Hollifield!)
“Why do you write, Mrs. Wicker?” J. asked.
“For all different reasons,” I answered. “Sometimes I write an article to educate or to inform. I write my blog to chronicle my motherhood and to help me grow in my faith. I keep a prayer journal to force me to meditate and talk to God instead of getting distracted and wondering about what I should make for dinner when I should be praying. Sometimes I write to inspire, to complain or to sort out my feelings. And sometimes, I write just because I want to.”
I should have added that that’s the best reason of all.