Pentultimate Position and an Engrossing Ending

Penultimate is one of the coolest words in the English language. It’s a bittersweet word, filled with the knowledge of an ending but also the possibility of new beginnings. I know that the girls loved my class, well, because they told me so. But also, I got adult validation as well. Their parents really seemed to like what I taught and the way in which I did it. I think the key to writing, for anyone, is positive validation. The caveat is, that one isn’t going to improve their writing until they know what to fix to make it better. For me as the haphazard writer that I currently am, it means looking at work and thinking about what relationships stick out or resonate with the reader, and which do not. The problem is that most writers aren’t objective about their work, because to them,  it is perfectly clear what they were trying to say. After all, they wrote it. As a writer, it is all too easy to get defensive when receiving critique. Writers, and artists in general, need to have a thick skin. The key is taking that crucial step back and looking at your own work as though you are reading it for the first time.

I think it is even harder when trying to convey these ideas to kids. Remember the childhood axiom “sticks and stones may break my bones. but words will never hurt me?” I can’t tell you how many times I myself heard it as a kid. Unfortunately, while the sentiment is meant to empower, it doesn’t. Words have incredible magic, and that magic can be quite dark. So in talking to my students, I find out that the phrases “Here’s what’s working” and “here’s what’s not” work just as well for them as they do for the adults in my two critique groups.  The structure of the class doesn’t allow for as much critique as positive reinforcement, but that’s to be expected in a class that lasts an hour. Kids are also more likely to write if they are mostly encouraged. That was the case for me, anyway.

I also found that the kids got inspired to write more while I was reading to them from either my own work or a children’s book of some kind. It was very gratifying that my own work had the kids on the edges of their seats. I frustrated one of them whenever I stopped reading to answer a question from one of the others. I found that while my literal reading skills are very good indeed, my kid reading skills are somewhere in the remedial range. I couldn’t figure out if one of the students was having a good time in the class because well, she’s rather like me, very quiet, very reserved, and holds her cards very close to the vest. It turns out that I needn’t have worried. Her parents contacted me and asked if I had plans for classes for returning students. So I put my thinking cap on. Their daughter made a comment that she has notebooks filled with new scenes for stories that have already been written.

In the writing world, we know this as fan fiction. So I offered a choice: we do a course called scene stealers. In that course, we take popular children’s stories and write all new scenes or we take a scene she’s already written and devise an all-new story around the scene. All the while building on the concepts that I taught in the Short Story class. So, for instance, we’d write a scene from a fairy tale focusing on character description. Or add a scene in Little Red Riding Hood that examines the relationship between Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, or the mother that is only briefly mentioned in the story.

The first Short Story Module taught me so much about how kids think and transmit their thoughts both on paper and to their peers.  The lead up to that last class way back in 2014, caught me in a reflective mood, I remember. As I waited at the printers for the stories to be bound, I thought about what the kids had learned about writing, about critiquing, and about each other.   I learned several things about myself as well. I read the girls bits of my novel and it was empowering. They were on the edge of their seats wanting to know what happens next. It was gratifying to me that I write with enough panache that kids like it. Since that’s the age range I am targeting, it galvanized me to write more. It also put to rest all the mental naysaying that I do with regard to both teaching and writing. I know that I can write. I now know that I can instill the love of writing in children. I am amazed at the power of the girl writer. And I know that yes, I can do this.

In the Thursday class, we saved a mom who was a genie, we dealt with the stress of being a girl who loves science and vanquished that stress, plus we won the science fair, and we got a humble musician to take three risks, and avoid his critical wife, to go to a masquerade. On Saturday, in true WIS style, we wrote a story about a cheerful Captain and two young women, who find a secret waterfall, and in the process rebuild earthquake-ravaged Haiti.  The power of these young girls’ imaginations was astounding. Their intellects are big, their imaginations are bigger, and their hearts contain immense courage to stand up and bare their souls, to their parents, to me, and most importantly, to each other. I am in awe.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable Installment. Stay tuned, as always, there is more to come!




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