Monday, September 29, 2014

Permission Granted

     I'm ba-a-a-ck!  I have been on sabbatical since the first of the year.  In an ironic twist,  the person who has written little in nine months has been asked to write a post on---creativity.

     I wasn't writing, but I was still teaching my Young Authors Workshops.  I did not feel my own creativity entirely dormant, because I was encouraging creativity in my students daily.  They, in turn, forced me to explore new ways of thinking about writing.

     This year some of my older students are into fan fiction.  They are some of the best writers I have ever had.  I believe they wrote better because, having their subject pre-selected, they could focus their energy on writing well, and often.  They didn't experience the first block that a lot of my students have, finding something to write about.

     I don't like giving my writers "prompts."  Most of them attend schools where "writing prompts" are given at least once a school day to write about a very specific topic in a "journal."  I thought this was a great idea until I learned from my daughter that the "journaling" was done for the five minutes or so the teacher took attendance.   The teacher riffled through the notebooks from time to time but never actually read them.  By the time students come to Young Authors, they have had it with "writing prompts" and "journaling."

    This past summer brought the most challenging groups to my writing workshops. My students are ages 9 through 14. A few were extremely competent writers (one had even been published in a national magazine at age 11!)  As I said, some were into fan fiction. There were the superhero fans.  Since two of the workshops were during the World Cup, all some could think and write about was soccer. And then there were "the unwilling participants"---the handful that were there because their parents use day camps as daycare--and mine was the only one open that week.  I was also working under the handicap that, no matter how the city recreational department described my workshop in the catalog, most of the kids (and all of the parents) were under the impression that it was a remedial writing/grammar/English-as-a-second-language class.  (Or as the kids put it "More school.")

     How could I get such a diverse group enthusiastic and creative about writing without getting too regimented and "teacher-ish."  Focused but not too focused?  Structured but not overly so?

     First, I gave them permission to write bad first drafts. (Anne Lamott's advice from Bird by Bird, re-rephrased in G-rated terms.)  Then, as a fellow TA mentioned last week, I told them not to think too hard.  Finally, I gave them "freedom of subject" without letting them know it.

     Just as a too specific writing prompt turns my students into a block of ice, unable to proceed with the voice of their language arts teacher echoing in their heads, telling them to "write anything you want" will make half the group also go into freezer mode, because it requires them to come up with something all on their own.  I get a lot of kids who have no idea how to create something out of thin air.

     So how do you give a prompt without being too general or too specific?  Thanks to my students, over the years, I think I have come up with the best prompt.  I give it as part of a list of specific prompts, the kind they are used to (and hate.) This is to give them the illusion that they have a choice in topics.  (No one has ever picked a decoy prompt.)  Then I give them the following suggestion:

     If you could be anyone or anything, in any time or place (in this world and time, or another), could do anything you wish, and know you could not fail, who would you be  What would you do?

     This open-ended, semi-focused prompt seemed to bring out the creativity in everyone.  The fan fiction people inserted themselves into their already-created characters and world.  The soccer kids became members of World Cup teams.  Super heroes made an appearance. Some became time travelers, putting themselves in the historical past, or the unknown future.  All of them took this exercise in many directions I had not anticipated.  It was great!

     This made a great foundation for the students to expand their work.  Once they had written three or four pages, it was easy for them to turn the main character (themselves) into something more fictional.  Or, in the case of the fan fiction writers, change the pre-packaged main character into something of their own invention.  In subsequent drafts we would worry about conflict and  subject- verb agreement and logic.  The main thing was to get over the initial road blocks to creativity, a blank page and a feeling of restriction.

     I am still not back to writing. When I do get out my half-finish WIP, I hope to remember the lessons my students taught me this summer.  Don't think too much.  Don't sweat the details in the first (or second) drafts.  Most of all, I will give myself permission to imagine myself in other time.  Another place.  Accomplishing what I have only dreamed of, knowing that I cannot fail.

     It's good to be back, you guys!.


Carmela Martino said...

LOVE this prompt, MA. I'm noting it for use in my own youth writing camp. Thanks so much for sharing! I'm so thrilled to have you back.

mary ann rodman said...

Thank you, Carmela. It's good to be back. The prompt is culmination of ten years of Young Authors workshops and honing "the perfect prompt" with the help of my students.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Mary Ann's back!
I have so missed your voice, your viewpoint, your words.
Your Fan Esther

April Halprin Wayland said...

Moi aussi--welcome back, Mary Ann!

What I loved is that no student has ever chosen to write on the "decoy prompt"--wow. That says it all. You've clearly hit a chord.

And BTW, can I register for your class? I promise to sit in the back and not make a fuss.

mary ann rodman said...

Esther, April--Thank you. Feel free to drop in to the Roswell, Georgia Young Author's workshop any time.
The trick with the decoy prompts is to not let the students know they are prompts. Ask them to write down something like "your favorite person, your least favorite person, your favorite toy when you were really little" and then bring out the REAL prompt. The first three are usually so personal and grounded in the real world that they can't or won't write about them, but the last has enough balance between their real desires and fantasy, they feel that they can cut loose.
I missed you, my fellow Teaching Authors.