“Telling the Story” by Lois Metzger, author of Change Places with Me
Not long ago I taught an after-school writing workshop at Jefferson Market, my local public library in Greenwich Village, New York City. The class was set up to meet once a week for six weeks, with each week focusing on a different aspect of writing. The idea was that, at the end of six weeks, the students would have completed their own original short stories. I was told the workshop would be for ages 12 to 18.
I worked out a curriculum, the most basic of the basics: Week 1: setting, Week 2: character, Week 3: dialogue, Week 4: voice, Week 5: structure, and Week 6: sharing the stories with everyone else.
The set-up of each class would be as follows: we’d start out talking about, for example, setting. How do you get people to experience a place they’re only reading about? There would then be a brief writing exercise, followed by reading aloud what they’d written (if they felt comfortable doing so). I always had a back-up exercise in case something didn’t go well.
When I showed up my first day, I was greeted by a roomful of nine-year-olds. OMG, I thought, they are like kittens. What am I going to do with my carefully prepared curriculum?
Answer: I didn’t have to change a thing. They understood it all.
For “setting,” they had to describe an identified place using at least three of the five senses, and the rest of us had to guess the place. After some initial self-consciousness and self-doubt (something any writer of any age has at one time or another, or all the time), they came up with vivid descriptions:
I hear thunder rumble in the sky.
Sweet raspberries stain my tongue.
For “character,” they had to come up with “20 Questions” for a person they’d invented, and then answer the questions for that person. Again the self-consciousness and self-doubt snuck up, the worry that they wouldn’t be able to do it or that it would “come out lame” (again, something every writer worries about). After we all came up with a few examples of questions, the answers came more easily and actually told you something about the writer and/or character:
What is your favorite movie? “The Sea and its Mysteries” (made-up movie).
What makes you happy? Skylar has a dog and 7 fish that she loves with all her heart.
For “dialogue,” they teamed up with a partner and wrote a scene between their characters from the week before. At first, they weren’t sure how to begin, so we decided to start with a secret that one of them had, and a story opened up:
“I have a secret that I’m not going to tell you,” Skylar said.
“Well I have a secret too!” Ashley said.
“That’s OK! I know your secrets!!!”
“I’ll find out your secret, Skylar. Actually Madison told me. She said you are really a cat.”
“Wow, cool secret.”
Despite the resurfacing of self-consciousness and self-doubt, I never had to resort to the back-up exercise (a pass-along story, where you hand out pieces of paper with first lines and each person writes the next line before passing it on).
It was Week 4 that I was particularly concerned about: “voice.”
I asked them to think of something that had happened to them; it could be small and insignificant, or life-changing. One kid said, “My dog got lost and we were scared coyotes got him, but he was okay.” Another said, “I had a fight with my best friend.”
I told them that instead of writing down that particular experience in the “I” voice, to use the “she” or “he” voice, explaining that it was called the “third-person voice.”
This was the one time I wasn’t so sure things would go well. The kids would be confused; they wouldn’t know what I was talking about; they would sit staring at the blank page.
What happened totally floored me.
They started writing with no hesitation. And kept going.
Usually, during the “writing” part of the class, I walked around to see if anybody had a question she or he wanted to ask privately, quietly, in a whisper. This time no one signaled me over. I lingered near a couple of kids, asked, “Everything okay?” They motioned for me to go away. “Anybody need help? No? Okay, well, I’m here… you? No? Okay…” Finally I went back to my seat and just sat there.
When it was time to stop writing, they asked for several more minutes. When it came time to read, they all wanted to go first. Usually a few of the shy ones would say, “I’d like to go last” or “next-to-last.”
This exercise had opened the floodgates. Something about writing in the third-person allowed them to treat an actual event as though it had happened to someone else, which silenced the self-criticism. They were simply reporting it:
She saw the brick wall speeding closer to her. Then she saw black. She opened her eyes to find herself laying in the grass of the field. Her friends and a teacher were looking at her from above. She felt a sharp pain in her nose and her forehead was sticky. To see what the stickiness was, she felt her forehead. To her surprise her palm was stained with blood.
Week 5, we talked about “structure”—beginning, middle and end—and some kind of change in at least one character. The kids jotted down ideas for the short stories they would write at home. And a week later, when they read them aloud, they were justifiably proud of these short stories, real stories.
Sometimes when I get stuck, full of self-consciousness and self-doubt that it’ll all come out lame, I bring myself back to the most basic of the basics. I try making descriptions better with more sensory information. I ask my characters questions and let them answer. I create a scene, dialogue only, between two characters who haven’t yet had their own private conversation. If I’m writing in first person, I switch to third-person—the voice that made it so much easier for my nine-year-olds to start writing and not want to stop, even when the time was up.
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About the Book:
But something still feels wrong to Rose. Because until very recently, she was an entirely different person—a person who’s still there inside her, just beneath the thinnest layer of skin.
Amazon | Indiebound | Goodreads
About the Author:
Please visit her website at www.loismetzger.com
and on Facebook and Twitter @MetzgerLois
Also on Goodreads
-- posted by SP Sipal, @HP4Writers