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!




Wonderful Writing

The girls in both my Thursday and Friday classes were wonderful students and made the initial session of Inkreadable Kids a joy to teach. The ones who were writers already, like my Friday student took the idea of the hook and ran with it. And even the ones who were less familiar didn’t ask many questions. “We’ve got it.” ruled the lessons from beginning to the rising action, the climax, and beyond. It was a great first session and kids are nothing if not willing to listen to ideas. Remember the fourth student who was a no-show to our first class? She ended up coming to our rising action class. She’d missed the first because she’d been ill. As I lead them through the concepts, I saw that the kids were starting to form connections. Our newest edition fit right in and picked up the story in the middle very easily.

I also tried something different for this go round. As they wrote, they asked me to read a story that I had checked out of the library. I originally intended to read the story and have them identify the parts. But they were so adamant that they wanted to get writing, that I just read it. Leaving the climax for the following week. Their own writing did not suffer in the least. In fact, it seemed that they became inspired to write faster and that the ideas flowed naturally. That class was all about the rising action of a story. The events that get the reader to the main event. I talked about the definition of rising action and what it does, the theme, aka the deeper meaning to a story, got more detailed about the plot of a story and introduced the idea of pacing.

Like any good teacher, and I’ve known plenty, I decided to teach the third student the beginning of the story after the class ended. In my one on one with her, I was surprised to see the same traits that I had growing up. She’s super smart, very funny, and very talented. And she’s got a rather dark sense of the absurd. She is writing a story about a humble musician who takes three risks to go to a masquerade ball.  It’s turning into quite an adventure and has subterfuge in it. It’s very exciting.

Remember last week’s “Hook, Line, and Stuck”? Well, it was a fluke apparently. My nine year-old thought faster than she wrote. So being the super supportive person that I am, I offered to write for her. I assure you the ideas were all her own. I was just her personal dictation device, with the added benefit that I know how to spell. She sent me to Haiti on a ship with two sets of parents, two bffs (don’t worry this abbreviation will get into the OED soon enough I am sure), and one cheerful captain, aka Emma the sidekick’s grandpa. Then she sent the protagonist’s Dad to work, the other parents to a hotel to get settled, and our dynamic duo to explore the island with Gramps.

Hook, Line, and Stuck

Wait. Don’t go. You read that correctly. But, you’ll say, what kind of writer are you? It’s hook, line, and sinker, you’ll grumble. And of course, you’d be right. But Poetic License is also a thing, and I am taking some here. My creative writing workshops for kids started, as I mentioned previously with the power of the girl writer. My first class was two girls from WIS and one from Murch, a DC public school.

I had set up my classroom and walked downstairs to meet the girls in the lobby to show them the way. Alas, there were only two girls waiting.  The third student was a no-show. It’s ok because the two students I had more than compensated for the lack of the third Thursday student. I came up with a small lesson plan for the beginning of a story, which I vetted with Madeline who assured me that all the concepts made sense. I talked about introducing the characters and giving them a personality and a backstory, setting up other characters in their world. Next up was the introduction of the conflict, where I talked about the protagonist and the antagonist. Of course, kids aren’t going to understand that concept, until you call them good guy and bad guy. That particular lesson caused a bit of incredulity on the students’ part when I started talking about Harry Potter/Voldemort, and Percy Jackson and just about everyone. “You’ve read them? You’re old.” was the general consensus. I read them, and between you and me, they are way more fun than books for grown-ups. I talked about point of view, and the general consensus was that the third person was the easiest to write.  Next came how to start a story and we went through action, dialogue, narration, and description. The last concept was the Hook. That thing that grabs the reader, pulls them into your story and makes them want to read more. It can be a question, use of descriptive words, or leaving the story a mystery. I asked if anything was confusing and whether there were questions. Apparently, I was pretty clear and all the kids were on the same page because they piped up and said, “No questions, we got it.  You want us to write a hook to a story. What story?”

They’d hit the nail on the head and were quicker on the uptake than I was. Luckily, I had found a sort of story generator called Story Starters at that was a slot machine and generated random prompts with different genres like mystery and sci-fi. You also got to pick the grade you’re in and I thought that was a nice touch. I also gave a couple of prompts that I came up with on my own. One student used the random prompt generator and the other used one of my prompts.

It was a great experience for me as well. What would have happened if I had been encouraged to translate my love of reading into a love of writing? I can see you’re all nodding your heads thoughtfully. But wait, you mutter, where’s the stuck part of the erroneous cliche?

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten. The next class I had was more of a tutoring session than a class. You see, I only had one student sign up for that class. She was a 9-year-old who was a precocious as they come. She was also a WISKid and so we bonded.  When given the option for a prompt, she chose the Scrambler option from Story Starters. It was a learning experience for me as well, as I hadn’t chosen the Scrambler option while I researched. So, we did it together. What emerged was so nonsensical, we looked at each other and simultaneously chorused “Next!”.  So we spun the wheel again, so to speak, and we are now engaged in an adventure about a girl who sails on a ship with a cheerful captain, who discovers a secret waterfall. A bit complicated, no? But intrepid she is so she decided to stick with it.

For this student, I became more involved in the writing process, as almost immediately, she said: “I’m kinda stuck.” So I started by asking her questions about her main character, who it turned out was named Annabeth. My young budding writer had a love of all things Rick Riordan, hence the character name. Since I do as well, we were off to a good start. Through question and answer, we gave her a best friend sidekick, a dad who was sailing for work to Haiti and set up the problem. It turns out that our heroine is afraid of storms and losing her dad. Kids come up with some very grown-up ideas.

What happens next, you ask? You’ll have to wait for the next Inkreadable Installment to find out.

The Challenge

Setting up Inkreadable Kids was the easy part. How I got my students proved to be a stumbling block that for a time I could not get my head around.  But the problem resolved itself in due course. Remember my rather posh private high school with the egalitarian leanings? They stepped up and I started stepping into the world of education. It turns out that reunions are wonderful for getting ideas and some very concrete support. Back in 2014, Tina Thuermer was the alumnae relations coordinator for WIS, but I remembered her as the awesome Theory of Knowledge instructor who taught me how to question. well question, I did. But my questions were circular and I couldn’t break the circle. So I called Tina and we had a brainstorming session.

In the years since I had left WIS so much had changed. The posh part of the posh private school had come to pass: they had a gym, a real theatre department, and their winter gatherings (Read alumnae boastfests) were catered. WIS had arrived. How did this help Inkreadable Kids, you ask? They also had a parent newsletter that allowed people to advertise services and such. With Tina’s encouragement, that’s exactly what I did. And it turned out, there was interest. I started getting email inquiries from parents within a week.  They asked me all sorts of questions: syllabus, class structure, but most intriguing for the parents was how was I going to apply peer critique.

I believe that when you write, and allow others to read it, you give them a glimpse into you innermost thoughts, feelings, fears, and desires. Sure, the writer may disguise those things within the confines of a story but they are very real to the writer and exposing yourself to critique is the hardest thing a writer can do. But it can be done, and more importantly, in an environment where it is safe to do so. Questions are frame in a positive way. There was to be no “I like…” and “I don’t like”. Instead, “Here’s what’s working”, “I want to see more of…”.

The parents were excited, and and it turned out so were the kids. The first class was a glorious exercise in the power of the girl writer. On the edge of your seat to see what happened? Stay tuned, that’s the next Inkreadable installment.

The Bee

Like Zeus, Inkreadable Kids was born on the sun drenched island of Crete, at the beginning of my trip. When I conceived the idea to teach creative writing to kids, it was unformed. More of a “maybe I should” rather than an “I am going to”. But the idea didn’t go away. In fact, it started buzzing through my brain like the most annoying of bees flying hither and yon. It caused no end of trouble, on my vacation. Here I was, on vacation, trying to have a good time, and all I started thinking about was how to make the idea a reality. This bee wasn’t dying or getting angry, no matter how much I tried to swat it away. I decided to talk to the closest thing I had to an expert. Was it someone in business, you ask?, A writer, maybe?, Come on, it has to be a teacher, you mutter. No, I had none of those people. I had something better. I had a Madeline. What is a Madeline, you ask? A new robot? A computer? Madeline  is none of things. Madeline is a friend, a very good friend, who was doing exactly what I wanted to do. Except she was doing it far away in Accra, Ghana. I contacted Madeline and told her what I wanted to do. True to form, Madeline was nothing but encouraging. And so the round of what ifs began. I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say, that with time and Madeline’s advice,  the idea solidified into a syllabus that revolved around the elements of a short story.  It would be a five week course that met once a week for an hour and looked like this:

Week One: Exposition

Week Two: Rising Action

Week Three: Climax

Week Four: Declining Action and The End

Week Five: Publish and Present

Our last class would be where I presented each kid with their story in book form and we invited family to hear the stories read out by the authors. The class was geared to 8-12 year olds because I figured that in order to learn how to write the kids first needed to know how to read.

I wasn’t idle on the business side of things either. So far the checklist was:

Who I’m Teaching: Check

What I’m Teaching: Check

How I’m Teaching: Check

Why I’m Teaching: Check

One problem remained: the where and when. The when was easier than the where. When turned out to be Thursday and Friday afternoons from 4-6 pm. Where was a bit of a challenge, but ended up being easier than I expected. The manager of the community center near my work was willing to give me the space for free. There were A LOT of hoops to jump through: like two security checks, and setting up a limited liability company. Once all of that was done I was the proud owner of Inkreadable, LLC. Now the fun could really begin.

My “Make a difference”

I went to a posh private school, which  to be honest, at the time, was not very posh at all. We had no gym and were bused to the Boys and Girls club to play at their facility. Most of my friends’ parents worked at the World Bank. We were all bright, and let’s face it, a bit full of ourselves. But we were all teenagers, and who isn’t full of themselves then? The school instilled in all of us a need to make a difference. And so it began. For some, it was the idealism of the non profit world. For others, it was the realm of science and looking for cures for all kinds of ills. And then there was me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had the same idealism and the same drive but didn’t know where I fit in. I got to university and discovered that, as much as   I loved physics, it didn’t love me back. So I got a degree in international relations. True to my contrary nature, I then went and got an MBA. I thought that my idealistic soul would flourish, but again something held me back. I don’t know if it was cowardice, or low self esteem or what but I couldn’t find my way.
Then, I discovered writing. I came late to writing. Unlike some people, I had not been writing for years. I joined The Writer’s Way, a positive reinforcement writer’s group in 2002. A few of us tried to splinter into a critique based group but it never caught on and fizzled quickly. Writing took a back seat to other considerations and I didn’t pick it back up until I decided in 2011 to move to Edinburgh, Scotland. Just like that. On a whim. And a Greek passport. While there I joined a writers group called The Edinburgh Creative Writers Club. It was a great group of people and I made a ton of new friends. I also ended up leading the ECW. Sadly, Edinburgh didn’t have much in the way of permanent jobs, so back I came to the States. But I came back with purpose. Using the skills I gained in Edinburgh, I created my own group, The Washington Creative Writers Club. A year and three months into leading this writers group and doing some of my own writing, I still felt something was missing.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2013, during a chance conversation with my family, while on vacation in Greece, that I found it. My “make a difference”. How was I going to make what I loved doing into something I could live on? An idea gradually took hold. Before I left for Greece, I had started a second writers group, the “Fast and Dirty writers” that met and wrote from prompts that I found online or made up myself. The name is not in the least indicative of what we wrote but rather how we wrote it. Fast and dirty in the sense that there was no planning. As for the other meaning of “dirty”, nothing to see here folks, move along. I wondered if I could use this idea of prompted writing to make a living. I discovered that with a bit of tweaking I could turn the model that I use at both WCW and Fast and Dirty, into something that I could get anyone but primarily kids interested in. So there it was. My “make a difference”.  Teaching kids to love writing as much as I do. How, you ask?  That’s up next. Stay tuned.