This year I started working part time at a local school as a teacher aide. Most days I feel like I am learning more from the job than the kids are. I focus mainly on the children who need extra assistance with their literacy – and that is worthy of several blog posts on its own. This term, however, I was fortunate to be given two hours a week to work with small groups of talented seven and eight year olds to extend their already advanced narrative writing skills (I actually put in three hours a week. Budget and time constraints don’t allow for me to work with all three Grade 2 classes, so I cover the third class for free on my day off – that’s how cool it is).
It struck me that these kids behave very much like a lot of the adult writers I know (except for the heavy drinking part). They make the same mistakes, and exhibit similar character traits. For example:
DO NOT BE DERIVATIVE
In adult horror writing terms, that means: no vampires, no zombies, no werewolves, no ghosts, no fan fiction, no plots lifted straight out of the latest blockbuster movie or best-selling novel. Although, the first four on the list come with a proviso; by all means use them, if you can bring something fresh and new to the trope.
In kid speak, it means: for girls – no princesses, no fairies, no puppies or dogs, no kittens or cats. For boys – no talking cars, no superheroes (copied wholesale or cobbled together Frankenstein-like from existing superheroes), no cartoon or TV characters, no guns unless you can show me how guns are essential to the plot.
One little girl did successfully turn the princess trope on its head while at the same time addressing body issues in her story “The World’s Fattest Princess”. Of course, she doesn’t know she’s done any of that; she’s seven years old. I’m familiar with her predicament from writers’ crit groups, only I don’t have youth to blame, just ignorance.
“Oh, I love the way you’ve explored the themes of identity and loss.”
“I have? Oh, er, I mean…yes, I have!”
In one exercise, I got the kids to write a collaborative story. “Decide on your character, but – I want no princesses, no fairies, no puppies, no kittens…” I counted off the numerous character sins. My all-girl group grimaced in unison, then put their heads together and served up a cave-dwelling Viking dwarf with a magic dragon-summoning whistle. Lesson learned – it’s amazing what you can do when you deny yourself permission to be lazy in your characterization. I hinted to another group that I might change the gender of their character if I felt like it, and they foiled me by creating a half-girl, half-boy robber clown. Hermaphrodites. Cool. Wish I’d thought of that.
THE EDITOR IS ALWAYS RIGHT
I’ll admit it, I argued with an editor once. OK, maybe twice. It’s futile, because the editor has final power and final say over your work. It comes down to, make it how I want it, or I ain’t buying. The kids are happy enough to let me correct spelling and punctuation, but if I try changing anything else, I could have a fight on my hands. I forgot that I was working with small children one week when I took my red pen and sliced through two words in one little girl’s story.
“You don’t need those two words,” I said.
She pouted. She whined. “Awwww…but I really liked those two words!” (Kill all your darlings, sweetheart. Kill all your darlings.)
With the edits I complete in the grown-up world, I don’t get to see the reaction of the author. But I bet it goes similarly. There will be pouts. There will be whines. And there will be choruses of, “Awwww….but I really liked those dialogue tags!”
HAVE FAITH IN YOURSELF
We all have our off days. When the kids spin around on their chairs and stare out the window, when they procrastinate by sharpening their pencil until it could cut glass or by visiting the bathroom five times in an hour, I have to empathise; I know writer’s block when I see it. If you’re a writer, you just have to push on through it.
“This is too hard,” they’ll say, their little heads resting on the desk.
“Yes,” I’ll say, “but it’s not too hard. If it was beyond your abilities, you wouldn’t be in this group.”
With a view to getting them to illustrate their story, I asked one group, “Who is good at drawing?” They all put up their hands. One boy delivered a monologue that in a few seconds described a typical writer’s journey into self-doubt:
“Me! Me! I’m good at drawing! I’m good at drawing everything except bodies and feet. No, actually I’m not very good at drawing people, I can only draw cars…no. I can’t draw anything. I’m useless at drawing.”
What I want to say, but don’t for fear of sounding trite, is: The world won’t always give you the affirmation that you seek when you want it. Believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else will.