Friday, August 5, 2016

Gathering Story Seeds

Summertime.  Iced-tea-sipping, rock-skipping, ice-cream-dripping summertime, when everything and everyone moves at half speed. The leisurely pace allows time to notice lacy tree shadows on a bright green lawn.  To inhale the perfume of fresh-cut grass (smells like watermelon to me.)  Find a shady spot to do a little people watching.

Summer is a time to slow down and observe.

Summer also means the Young Writer's Camps I conduct in June and July. If there is one thing I hope my students take away from their week with me, it's the ability to observe.

"I don't know what to write about," kids complain. I understand.  When I was their age, I thought the Story Fairy delivered characters and plot to "Real Writers" (the published ones) in a neat package. I wrote for thirty years before I realized stories come in dribs and drabs...a bit from here, a bit from there, a sort of mental chemistry I can't explain.

I tell my students that like any living thing, stories come from seeds.  Seeds that the writer has to gather and store (preferably in a notebook.)

What is a story seed? they ask.

Anything you see or hear that makes you go "Hunh?  That makes you ask "What is that? What happened?  Why?"

Discovering a "fairy house" on camp property. How did it get there?

Observing at the park.

My favorite example is the clown I once saw at an Atlanta bus stop.  In the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, a clown in full makeup and costume (clown shoes included!) stood waiting for the bus.  He carried a Macy's shopping bag.  Where was the clown going? Why was he taking the bus?  What was in the Macy's bag?

Another of my favorite observation activities is eavesdropping on total strangers. The odd random comment can rev my imagination like nothing else.

Example: Two teenage girls in a jewelry store.  Salesclerk: "May I help you?"

Girl One:  "Yeah, we're buying a birthday present for a friend."

Girl Two.  "Yeah, but we don't like her very much.  You got something cheap?"

My campers have a daily "homework" assignment: write down five things that make you go "Hunh?" I give each student five index cards. They write one observation per card.  I collect the cards, shuffle through them, then pick the most evocative to share with the group. This weeds out the silly/potentially inappropriate items, and allows the shyest group members to contribute to the discussion.

I don't have to ask for feedback.  Even the quietest group will burst into spontaneous comment, brainstorming the myriad of ways they would use those things in a story. I love watching them add detail and action, building and building until someone shouts, "I've got it!" and starts scratching away in their notebook.  A story is born.

No amount of "explaining" how stories come from the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life illustrates this concept better than young writers discovering this for themselves.

 The camps are over for this summer. My souvenir of those five fun-filled weeks is a notebook of my own observations.  Some of those seeds are already germinating. Some of them are tucked away, literary acorns for a cold, winter day when the brain is dull and the computer screen blank.

The poet Robert Herrick was not talking about harvesting story ideas when he wrote"gather ye rosebuds while ye may," but let's make it our summer slogan.  Gather ye story seeds? Why not?

It's summertime.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


JoAnn Early Macken said...

I love the concept of literary acorns. (Hunh!) Also, "Iced-tea-sipping, rock-skipping, ice-cream-dripping summertime" sounds like the start of a poem.

Carla Killough McClafferty said...

Mary Ann, I enjoyed this post! What a great idea.

Unknown said...

I love your exercise of 5 index cards with observations. This sounds like a great weekend homework idea for my sixth-grade students that they can then put into their writing journal and hopefully one of these seeds will begin to grow! Thanks for this very helpful idea! It's lovely!