The Writers Circle’s attitude towards our For Boys Only class is clear – we allow (and sometimes even encourage) the grossness, violence, and general zaniness that lives just under the surface of our 3rd to 5th grade boys.
This has produced some wince-worthy stories – like the time they wrote about “poop on a stick.” Farts were big one session. Disgusting aliens. General destruction via an arsenal of weapons that can make the single grownup in the room reel.
This session has been particularly hard. The killings at Newtown are still on everybody’s mind – certainly on mine – while my boys’ class writes about guns and murder. A simple “head hopping” exercise about a ball crashing through a bay window produces stories where kids kill their neighbors, aliens land, kids kill their parents, the neighbors firebomb the kids… you get the picture.
So, I thought, it might be time to see if we can push this in a creative direction. Having told them (perhaps foolishly) Chekov’s famous statement that a loaded rifle in Act 1 means it has to go off in Act 3, I thought it might be time to introduce the notion of tension in the bomb that ticks constantly through the story – and doesn’t go off. Save the day, I encouraged them. Give me a story where I’m worried that bomb is going to explode any second. Don’t settle for the simple BOOM.
But – and this is the moral of the story – they’re simply not old enough to grasp the technical sophistication of the suggestion. They don’t get that the bomb that goes off is spectacle – the bomb that doesn’t is drama.
So instead of weaving the “tick tick tick” of the impending bomb throughout their story, they asked – can we have two bombs? Can one go off? What about guns? Can the hero blast his way into the room by shooting the villain?
And of course, my answer was “yes,” because it always has to be with these boys. Our underlying mission in this class is to allow them to write what they want to write – not what a grownup thinks is appropriate. When we permit their gory and grotesque imaginations to roam free, they embrace writing rather than shunning it. The success of the class is evident when I want them to start reading and they beg for just a few more minutes, when they tell their classmates a new (and probably even more violent) way to move their plotlines, when the class is over and they look at me, bewildered, and say, “Already? Really?”
They’re certainly not writing subtle stories, but every once in a while there’s a spark that excites me. A turn of phrase that suddenly lifts the story out of the mundane. The use of dialogue, even without the punctuation. The kid who did grasp the concept, however dimly and asked – can the bomb continue to tick even after it’s dismantled? A new and startlingly different concept – like the one they invented last week – of opening a portal in their stories and moving, suddenly, to their friends’ stories, finishing them up in parallel-universe form. And yes, the parallel universe is just as full of violence and gore as their own.
So, the bomb has to go off for these boys. As difficult as it is for me – and probably for the parents who hear what they’re writing on the car ride home – we need to give them the artistic space to invent their own universes, filled with weapons and explosions and scatological humor. And we have to trust that, in time, they’ll recognize the inherent drama in a story where the bomb doesn’t go off – because they’re excited enough about writing and imagination to retain it as a positive, creative outlet as they mature.
“Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing…It must be all around us. In this garden—in all the places. The magic is in me—in all of us.” —The Secret Garden
These famous words by Frances Hodgson Burnett adorn the walls of my local bookstore.
For me, bookstores are the magic. That’s why I began Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day.
When I was a child, two places besides my home offered respite, bookstores and libraries. (And I promise: as soon as Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day is firmly entrenched, Take Your Child to a Library Day will be next!)
There were four independent bookstores in my not-large town when I was growing up. Four. Each had a unique identity of its own. One had books you couldn’t find anywhere else. Another had everything that was popular with my classmates. The other tended toward big books with color photos, its children’s section hidden.
I watched as the wares began to tend more and more toward cards and gifts. I watched as one morphed into a toy store. Another closed and a restaurant came to inhabit the space.
We have two bookstores left in town, and I realize that makes us lucky.
When my children were born, I began taking them to story hour at the bookstore long before they could sit up for it. I held them in my arms so we could all listen. I would get a cup of coffee—and often a book. The bookstore was a place of respite for me again.
How many children, I wondered, knew the pleasures of time spent in a bookstore?
I floated the idea for Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day in late November 2010. If it were celebrated on the first Saturday of December, maybe it would encourage people out of the big box stores and into bookstores for holiday shopping. The Day could support local businesses as it enriched children’s lives.
Bloggers took the idea for the Day viral, the publishing industry e zine, Shelf Awareness, and the American Booksellers Association’s magazine picked up the story, and within two weeks, eighty bookstores were celebrating.
In the intervening year, I decided to visit some of the participating bookstores, and so we took our family on the road. We drove from New Jersey to Oregon, stopping at sixty bookstores along the way. My kids were not just going to story hour now—they were getting a roadside view of our country, seen through the prism of a bookstore.
And what a country it is. Bookstores are hubs of the community. Book clubs meet there, and writers groups; churches hold socials, and home-schooling families congregate. One bookstore we stopped at has an amphibian room decorated with the skeletons of animals, which the son’s owner collected for science class.
The cross-country trip helped Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day grow to over 250 stores participating in almost every state. As the second annual Day approaches on December 3rd bookstores have hung posters, distributed bookmarks, planned author events, baked cookies, and blown up balloons.
I have goals for the third annual Day next year. For one thing, I would like to establish grants for children who are unable to visit bookstores on their own. The grants would provide transportation for the child and a parent or caregiver, plus offer a gift card from the bookstore.
Maybe the biggest goal I have for the Day is what it can say about the world we’re creating, each and every one of us, every day. A place where we value uniqueness and the slower pleasures of interacting with people who know our likes and dislikes. A place where we stop in and say hello instead of just clicking a button. A place filled with treasures we can see and touch and smell.
I want my children to grow up in a world like that.
I want them to be surrounded by magic.
Jenny Milchman is a suspense writer from New Jersey. Her short story ‘The Very Old Man’ has been an Amazon bestseller, and another short piece will appear in the anthology ADIRONDACK MYSTERIES II in fall 2012. Jenny is the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, and the Made It Moments forum on her blog. Her debut novel, COVER OF SNOW, will be published by Ballantine in early 2013.
What does it mean to be creative? Some people might imagine a “bohemian”, someone with no boundaries, who floats on a whim to seek the muse. Someone who dons wild clothing and wilder hair, who is as likely to fall in love as to commit suicide or murder.
To be creative, you don’t have to be erratic, uncontrolled, addicted or unpredictable. In fact, these qualities are far more likely to kill your creativity as to nurture it.
The word “creativity” shares the same root as the word “create”. In other words, you have to actually make something to be creative. Making things requires discipline, technique, excellent organization and problem solving skills. It’s nice if you have a little talent, too. But even if you don’t, creativity is a process and it can be learned.
In simplest terms, creativity experts summarize the lesson thus: first, you have to embrace the broadest thinking possible; then, you have to make an assemblage of critical decisions.
In an article in Newsweek, The Creativity Crisis, the creative process and its measurable degradation in America since the 1990s were detailed and scrutinized. What makes a creative thinker and how can creativity be nurtured? And where is American education going wrong?
I came face-to-face with the creativity crisis myself when my son was writing a report for elementary school. To guide him in his assignment, he had received a shockingly detailed (to me anyway) outline. Every paragraph not only had to be structured with a topic sentence, three detail sentences and a concluding sentence. He also had to give specific information in each sentence. This outline didn’t require any input from my son, only compliance. In fact, if he didn’t follow the outline precisely, he would be marked down.
This orderly approach was certainly easy to follow, and would be even easier for his teacher to grade. But it gave him no space to consider or explore his topic. It did not challenge him to make his own associations, organize his own research or thoughts. He just had to fill in the blanks. Simple call-and-response. No writer I’ve ever heard of works that way. Even those of us who depend heavily on outlining leave a little room for the possibility that an unexpected thought might fit in someplace we hadn’t thought of before.
In fact, the Newsweek article precisely stated the nature of my alarm. In it, an expert was discussing America’s educational focus with Chinese educators who have historically and notoriously emphasized cooperation over creativity. The Chinese response to our standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing was to laugh out loud: “You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.”
How do we teach our children creativity and preserve it in our culture? Talk to any creative person and they’ll tell you. Divergent thought must come first. Given a problem to be solved or a project to be executed, one must first assess – or even better, “play” with the infinite possibilities before settling on solutions.
As writers, this is as natural as breathing. Faced with a blank slate and the entire world for contemplation, we select a kernel of inspiration, a topic we are curious about, a thought we had briefly while walking down the street, and from it we create entire worlds.
In an exercise I use frequently in my creative writing workshops, I give students a pile of photographs of people’s faces. Some could be just “anyone”, but have curious, emotionally charged or meaningful expressions. Others are faces that are distinctly different, often defined so by unusual clothing, make-up, hairdo, setting and more. I ask my students to choose a face that speaks to them. This is the first decision of a creative thinker. It’s often an emotional choice. Why pick one and not another? Does one image remind you of somebody you love or hate, someone you’d like to meet or are afraid of? Does the expression reflect something that’s going on deep inside yourself?
Once the choices have been made, we don’t analyze. An analytical approach would poison the subliminal brew that’s essential to the creative objective. Instead, at this point, I simply ask students to write free-form for ten to fifteen minutes.
“Don’t think. Don’t edit. Don’t stop. Let your pen flow. Let your thoughts fall onto the page like rain.”
Here, you may think, comes the crazy “bohemian” and her shapeless approach to creativity. But in fact, as each writer works, they are making more decisions. They are looking at the face and choosing perhaps to describe it. Or maybe they start by giving the face a name. Or maybe they decide to write as if they are the person in the photograph. Or as if they’re holding the photograph. Or as if someone else found it in the glove compartment of an abandoned car…
As each choice is made, a new dimension solidifies in each writer’s creative process. Each choice informs the writer about their character and circumstance. Each choice transforms the fleeting sparks of inspiration into concrete words on the page.
With each choice, the options for that particular piece of writing narrow. The more detailed the decisions, the more specific the story becomes until all the divergent thoughts have drifted away and the story, characters, language, pacing and more are completely clear in the writer’s, and eventually the reader’s, minds.
The one thing that is missing in this process is absolute certainty. There are no quantifiable results. Writing is subjective. Each reader is the unique judge of failure or success. And this, I think, more than anything, is what’s scary to educators and administrators trying to shape the educational process. You can’t box creativity. You must let it breathe. It must be left to its own devices, but nudged and nurtured along the way.
It takes a little more energy, patience, intuition and a lot more courage to teach this way. But for our next generation to regenerate the American hallmark of creativity and innovative thinking before it is completely lost, we must let their minds out of the box and let them play.
These days the face of literature and learning are changing so rapidly, it’s hard to know much of the time what we’re even looking at or why we bother to write.
I came across a rather interesting video that says it all both forward and backward:
It’s thrilling and terrifying. A truly brave new world. But my quandary goes beyond the welfare and future of publishing to something more essential: the preservation and accessibility of information and knowledge itself.
In many ways, information seems more accessible than ever. Certainly when my son has to write a report for elementary school, he can google everything he needs to know right from the computer on my desk. He looks at me in astonishment when I tell him that, in my day, that same report would’ve taken hours of research at the library.
I remember losing myself in the stacks – the long dim, slightly dusty corridors where spines lured me like whispered promises. As a child, my mother used to take me and my siblings for afternoons at the local children’s room where I would lie in a quiet corner surrounded by a carefully selected tower of books, musing for hours about worlds of imagination and possibility I’d never dreamed.
In high school I discovered that I could ask the librarian for the yellowed pages of newspapers published nearly a hundred years before. Not microfiche (which used to give me motion sickness if I scanned too quickly), but actual pages carefully preserved in an acid-free box kept somewhere in the library’s bowels.
It was in the hallowed Reading Room at the New York Public Library that my odd passion for dry academic tomes and archaeological reports bloomed. Their humble Pandoran pages opened like a treasure chest, filled with stories nothing else could have revealed. It was exhilarating simply to hear the subtle crack of a volume that only I and probably a half-dozen others had requested in the last half century.
I could have discovered none of this without the library. Unlike the elite halls of wisdom of ages gone, public libraries in America are an incomparable symbol of freedom and equality. The concept of free public libraries is inherently tied to a free public education, a right that I pray no one can argue against, except perhaps in the hope to making the definition of “free” include “highest quality”.
But in this era where it seems everything is migrating online, libraries are under threat. Here in New Jersey, Governor Christie’s proposed budget includes a 74% decrease in funding for library services. According to a recent Legislative Alert posted on the New Jersey Library Association’s website, this cut will eliminate all statewide library programs and services. It will affect all types of libraries in the state and, once state funding is eliminated, New Jersey will lose $4.5 million in federal funding.
I don’t often take a public political stance, but loss of our libraries is more than a personal affront. It goes to the very heart of the American tenets of freedom and equal opportunity.
As a novelist, I could not do my work without the library. Even today, access to expensive research databases and obscure texts that I often obtain through interlibrary loan are the backbone of my research. The Internet is simply not enough. (And please don’t talk to me about the Devil – I mean Wikipedia.) With all the posting and scanning – legal or otherwise – going on online, there are simply some things that will never make their way into the digital world.
But the issue goes beyond my personal and peculiar penchant for the obscure. Libraries provide essential services to people without internet access (and yes, there are still quite a few!), people who long to learn what they do not know, who need jobs in this crisis economy, who are applying to schools or starting new businesses, who want to introduce their children or themselves to a body of literature that is otherwise out of reach – accessible and free to all.
When so many core values in America have simply slipped away in recent years, this one is simple, affordable, and more than worthy of saving.
Go to http://capwiz.com/ala/nj/issues/alert/?alertid=14842591 to let your legislators know if you agree. The library you save may be your own.
You may have noticed that I don’t often blog about technique. For me, this forum is more about sharing the experience of writing.
The truth about craft is that it’s all in the doing. We each confront the blank page or screen time and again. We learn to accept struggle, failure and critique, then go back to do it all over again.
How utterly true!
But we all learn from each other. Certainly in this Writers Circle, we’ve done that week after week, sharing our perspectives, making suggestions, taking them as often as we throw them out. Then trying again.
We can also learn from writers more experienced than ourselves. We’ve all heard grateful praise for Natalie Goldberg’s life-changing Writing Down the Bones. It’s a terrific book of freeing prompts and exercises whose goal is not to produce finished work but to express and observe moment to moment both the outer world and the inner life of the writer.
There’s also Anne Lamott’s classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I love her metaphor – taking it word by word, step by step. It reminds me of that hiking piece I wrote for all of you a couple of years ago. I’ll post it here, since not everyone was around back then.
Stephen King’s book On Writing is supposed to be excellent though I’ve only read it in excerpts so far. And of course, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer nudges me to link to several lists of Best Books:
- The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century
- Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels
- and Time Magazine’s 100 Best English Language Novels from 1923 to the Present
Reading the finest writers with a critical eye to how they manage to create their prose is perhaps the very best way to learn the literary craft.
But if you must ask for a holiday gift this season, what any spouse, child, parent, boss, friend or neighbor should know is that the #1 choice any writer would ask for is TIME.
Writing well truly doesn’t require an MFA, a trendy concept or even particularly abundant talent. What it needs more than anything is exorbitant amounts of focused, uninterrupted time.
Happy holidays, everyone. I hope you all get the gift you most desire. I look forward to hearing from or seeing all of you in the coming year.
There is nothing more rewarding that to reach a moment of culmination – whether it’s completing a short story or a novel, or simply experiencing a moment of true acknowledgment of your work. Last night’s Creative Arts Showcase at Maplewood’s Words Bookstore was one of those culminating moments. I was honored to sit in the front row listening to stories, excerpts and essays I’d heard in countless versions. After our circle worked for weeks and months nurturing and nudging each writer’s efforts along, it was exhilarating to finally witness them presented to the public ear in “finished” form.
But “finished” is in quotations for a reason. If a piece of writing is ever really finished, it can only be because the author has passed beyond. Even I still have, tucked high up on a bookshelf, a copy of The Thrall’s Tale tagged with changes I would make should I ever have the opportunity. As writers we are always hearing something different, seeing something in our work that we hadn’t noticed before. And we are always maturing creatively and personally. Our vision shifts with each moment of life’s breath, until the truth itself has found another form.
So this 1962 essay, When Does Education Stop? by James Michener, seems appropriate. It is written with a focus on college education, but the message reaches further, to the burden of taking on really challenging tasks and accepting the effort they require. The truth is that we are all always learning, that we cease to learn at our peril, and that the breadth and depth of our understanding are critical to the shape our work and our lives will form. Anyone who attempts to write quickly realizes that even a short story or a three page essay can take days, weeks, months to perfect. We all must search within ourselves for that quality of effort and find the stamina to persist toward a goal that may remain forever just another draft away.