Two weeks ago we showed you an opinion piece in the New York Times by Claire Needell Hollander, who says children should be reading more great literature in school. Claire was kind enough to write the following piece for us, arguing the flipside: that children should be taught to write creatively. – Eds.
Years ago in a creative writing class I was a teaching, a student of mine, a fourteen year old eighth grader—we’ll call him J—wrote a narrative about playing in the snow in Central Park with his mother, his stepfather, and his natural father, all of whom were dead. “Itʼs not really Central Park,” he told me. “Itʼs more like heaven.”
The next week, in the same class, all hell broke loose at Jʼs table. J had apparently been muttering disturbing things under his breath. The student next to him finally erupted. “Ms. Hollander, J is talking some crazy shit!” The boy stood back from the table, seeming truly alarmed by Jʼs utterances. I expected that J had said something threatening or crude to the other kid. J could be pretty off the hook. Once, when I asked him where a particular student was, J said to me, “probably in the bathroom jerking off.”
I sat down with the boys to find out what was happening. What J had said was: I know Iʼm going to die real soon. The other boy was understandably upset.
The core of Jʼs daily reality was mortality—his own, and that of those close to him. For him the imagined place, the place that couldnʼt be, was the mundane: Central Park in winter with a family that no longer existed, if it ever had in any real sense.
Is it important that a teacher know this about J? Sure. It is even more important for J to express that reality, to articulate a story that is particular to him, that is not mainstream, not “typical” in any way. Writing his story didnʼt assuage his fears. Rather, it made his extraordinarily bad fortune more real. It called attention to the extremity of his experience.
Great fiction, as well as rudimentary efforts like Jʼs, helps us to grapple with the extremes of human experience. These may be internal experiences, like the emotional despair and alienation of Kafka. Or they may be interpersonal experiences, like the realization every young woman faces, and relives in Austen, that there is someone out there demonic enough not to reciprocate her feelings of abject devotion. When kids pick up the pen or laptop to really write, they discover what their stories are. They discover their greatest hope, the cause of their despair, the story that makes their heart beat out of their chest.
Once the story is out and the heart is racing, you have a student who is primed to learn. He is going to correct his punctuation. He is going to care about word choice. He is going to organize his narrative into paragraphs. He is going to care about his craft. He wants to be understood, and there is no greater motivation for learning.
Kidsʼ stories might not be compelling or complex. Sometimes they write about superheroes and include pages of battle scenes that are incomprehensible, derivative, and insanely dull. There may be eighteen pages about a crush some girl has in which the climax is a walk to the lunchroom. Kids hit false notes, attempt to shock, imitate movies and television, and create thinly veiled characters based on friends and, worse, enemies.
You can safeguard against some of this by introducing mentor texts that are moving and stylistically accessible: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Itʼs Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. (This last one you have to keep behind your desk because they steal it.) By introducing these stories you can help them to recognize authenticity in themselves and others. This is what fiction does, and what poor attempts at fiction fail to do. I know this from writing bad fiction, and reading some. But feeling that youʼve hit the right note, that something you are saying may resonate in the mind of another, is a reason to write well, to want to write well. To be understood.
Distinguishing between a story that resonates and one that feels false or manipulative is a kind of spontaneous analysis that feels innate, and adult readers often take it for granted. But applying it to written language is far from innate, and we need to foster that ability in the very young. It takes practice, it takes freedom, it takes courage, and it takes time. But if a kid begins to think he can do it—really capture some perfectly authenticated thought in writing—he will thirst for it. He wonʼt just read books, he will need them. He wonʼt just write, he will be a writer.
– Claire Needell Hollander