Monday, October 12, 2009

Out and About: Composting Your Notebook

     I began a new Young Writer's workshop this past weekend with some middle schoolers who are pretty sophisticated writers. Excited? You bet I was! These kids were ready for some serious writing work. I passed out composition books and pencils.
     "We are going to keep writer's journals," I announced.
     Silence. Expressionless faces.
     Oops. I recognized my error. In our local school system, journals are used to strengthen writing skills, and focus the student's attention to the subject at hand. Every single day.  By middle school, they are journaling five or six times a day, as they move from classroom to classroom.
      I know that teachers have specific testing goals to meet in spelling, grammar and punctuation. Creative writing?
      Not so much.
      I don't know how our school district fares on standardized writing tests, but I do know one side effect of daily classroom journaling; fear and loathing of "journaling."
     Back to my polite little writers, whose enthusiasm I squashed in the first five minutes by using the "j" word. I backpeddled rapidly.
     "OK, not really journaling," I said. "More like"
     Great. I'm the writer, and  can't think of the right word for what I wanted them to do with those composition books.
     "Blogging?" my teenage assistant suggested.
     "" For one thing, there are no computers available for the workshop.
      I wanted to say "diary," but that's not right either.  Diaries show you just how boring your life is. A day-by-day chronicle of my life reads like the old Cheech and Chong comedy routine about "What I Did on My Summer Vacation." To paraphrase, "The first day, I got up, I got dressed, I ate breakfast. Then I went downtown to look for a job. Day two, I got up, I got dressed, I ate breakfast...."
     In my childhood diaries, I wrote whatever I was thinking or feeling at the moment. Writing them comforted me. I might also add that I was an only child and didn't have to worry about a sibling digging through my inner musings.
     But I digress.  My Young Writers were still waiting for me to say the magic word.
     "Let's notebook," I said.
     Nobody flinched at my use of a noun as a verb. Encouraged, I made up some more "writerspeak." I knew I couldn't use the "p" word, either. (That would be "prompt.") Prompts leave me staring at an empty screen or page, feeling frustrated at my inability to cough up creativity on demand. But I am good at finishing sentences...both my own and those of other people.
     "Finish this sentence," I said.  "Just write the first that you think of.  No hard thinking allowed. Sometimes I wonder...'"
    Scribble scribble scribble.  The writers finished, and looked at me for further wisdom.
    "Now keep writing about that until I tell you to stop. If you can't think of anything, just keep writing 'I can't think of anything to write'.  Sooner or later you will come up with something."
     Yes, this is just another way of re-packaging a "free write." Say "free write" to me and watch me do a Wile E. Coyote, freezing in mid-air, just before i plummet off the creative cliff. Free writes are just a little
too "free" for me, and for most students that I encounter. There should be boundaries. That's boundaries...not walls. Less is more.
     Since I do the exercises along with my students, I wrote the first thing that came to mind....I wonder what it would be like to vacation in space? From there I rambled on about a cruise ship-like space vehicle, with room service and a gift shop that sold t-shirts that said "My parents went to Saturn and all I got was this crummy t-shirt."
     My workshoppers were considerably more serious. Their "wonderings" were about Big Life Issues. Just as I hoped, by the end of the allotted five minutes, they had moved from personal "wondering", to conjecture, which is the step before diving into fiction.
    "Let's do another one," the group chorused. OK, maybe they didn't chorus, but they were certainly having fun. While I never insist that anyone "share with the group" (or even with me, privately) if they don't want to, this group wanted to.  So we shared, and did more open ended
     I've never had so much fun with a writing workshop. At least not one I was leading!
     By the end of the afternoon, each writer had several pages of raw writing, compost for future projects, and the bare bones of a short story.
     And I will never have to use the "j" word again.
     We are "notebooking."

     Writing Workout

     The point of "composting" is not just to give the writer material for future use; it helps to engage the hand and brain simultaneously. That's trickier than it sounds, since most of us are so used to writing on a computer, mindlessly adding, deleting and Spell-checking. As my students complain "My mind works faster than I can move a pencil." Ah ha! That means you have to slow down, and think while you are writing. (Thinking--that undervalued writing skill!)

 Here are some of the open ended prompts I used. The second part of the part of the prompt is always "now keep writing." (Usually for five minutes, depending on the group.)

My favorite food is....   Describe without using the sense of sight.

If I could invite one person to supper, famous or not, living or dead, I would invite.....(I know; this is just a variation of the "who do you admire most?' prompt, but this seems to work better, creatively speaking.)

When I was five, my favorite toy was....

I really wish that...

What really makes me laugh is....

The one thing I could really live without is....
The one thing I can't live without is...

If could be someone else for a day it would be...

I'd love to hear your open-end prompts. (Sorry, no prize involved here. I'm just interested in hearing from

What I'm Reading.
Adult Non-fiction: Anne Frank:  The Diary, the Life, the Afterlife by Francine Prose.
YA Fiction:  Purple Heart by Patricia McCormack, Comfort by Joyce Moyer Hostetter,

Mary Ann

No comments: