The Writers Circle

creative writing community, craft and inspiration

On Guns, Boys, and the Bomb that Needs to Go Off

time bombThe 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.

3 comments on “On Guns, Boys, and the Bomb that Needs to Go Off

  1. Sophia Freire
    January 25, 2013

    It’s an interesting question isn’t it? Does imagining violence mean that there is something ‘wrong’ with a child’s mind or is this just simple healthy play? I think classes like this one are a good thing, but I know that there are many people who will point to those stories and scream “Danger.” But I think this is a way for children to start to understand violence and classes like this give them the power to control it. I know many of the stores would probably make me cringe, but overall I think it’s healthy to safely explore the darker parts of the imagination. Imaginary play is really looked down upon in our society.

    • Judith
      January 25, 2013

      Sophia, I entirely agree. It’s a bit of a tricky edge to navigate, but from what we’ve seen, these are usually healthy, happy kids who have been exposed to violence in the normal course of what our culture calls “entertainment”. Perhaps their interests would be less if we didn’t show them Star Wars, Harry Potter, or dare I say Hunger Games at such a young age? We believe that writing is a safe outlet to explore fantasies of all kinds. On the page, when bad things happen, we authors are in control and can determine the outcome. In real life, real violence is anything but in our hands. In fact, some researchers observe that violent play is a way for children to work out their anxieties about life. They are little people in a big scary world. In their imaginations, they can be heroes and save the day. Perhaps this permission to imagine in safety and control will give them a bit more confidence to confront the everyday challenges that inevitably come to us all.

  2. Sophia Freire
    January 26, 2013

    But the thing about violence it’s not just in our entertainment it’s in everything. Even if they didn’t see Star Wars or Harry Potter they still learn our history, many of our heroes were made made heroes by war. General George Washington, Joan of Arc, Hercules.

    Horrible things like Aurora and Newtown need to be prevented by we have to attack that problem from all sides. Mental Health, violence in the media, and gun control.

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