Monday, September 30, 2013

Elements of Story and what I learned

Lots of kids like to write stories. But sometimes those stories go on forever, or they’re super short,  or they're sort of...not really stories, or they’re all the same, or whatever. So it’s worth it to try to stretch kid writers by taking a look at the elements that typically go into stories, and to let them experiment with those elements. 

Lest you reject this as too much like yucky fourth grade language arts requirements, let me make a case for learning the elements of story. They are a good thing to understand as a reader, as well as a writer. Stories typically have a common structure. Once you know the pattern and can recognize it in a variety of contexts, you can start building (filling) a reservoir of models to support a critical stance. Kids can start seeing it in their own lives. They can start seeing it in commercials, start understanding how advertisers use it to hook us. They can appreciate its complexities in literature and film. And see and appreciate when authors and filmmakers deviate from the structure. Not that any of this is necessary, but it makes life richer and more interesting. 

Background Information (Just the facts, ma’am.)
I Googled “elements of story” to check my facts, and it turns out that there are conflicting opinions as to what, exactly, the elements are. Everyone seems to agree on setting, characters, and conflict or problem, but after that it all falls apart. Some people say that plot is an element, others break out exposition, rising action, climax and resolution, still others include climax and resolution in the plot but drop everything else, and even other others skip plot altogether and go with theme.

Keeping in mind that one of the goals is to write a story, I’m going to go with 
  1. setting (where and when)
  2. characters (who)
  3. conflict or problem (what/why)
  4. rising action, or steps toward solving the problem (how)
  5. climax
  6. resolution

Even though the last three all go under the umbrella of plot (maybe even the last four, since the conflict is what drives the plot), it makes sense to me to think of them separately to make sure they all get recognized in the story.

These elements are pretty self-explanatory, and it shouldn’t be tough to present them directly and go through, say, a fairy tale or a fable, to make sure your writer can recognize them. 

Two elements, conflict and climax, can get a little knotty. I think it’s worth examining the complications, so if you don’t mind the detour, skip to the end. If you first want to know how to do something with your writer/reader, just keep reading. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

If a tree a new quote of the week!

If I am sitting outside a Starbucks using their free wi-fi but haven't bought anything to eat or drink, is it stealing?

What if I am sitting inside the Starbucks?

And now, the quote:

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint on the broken glass.
--Anton Chekhov

And with that, he shows-not-tells, beautifully, why "show-not-tell" is so effective. The broken glass, especially. Love that.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Thank you, Joan

Dear Joan, 
What can I say today but thank you?  There is such a lot to thank you for. 

Thank you, first, for the always open door of your classroom, Room 119. Thank you for showing us what great teaching looks like. For leading discussions from a student desk. For getting students out of their desks and on their feet. For introducing them not just to John Steinbeck, William Shakespeare, and Franz Kafka, but also to Ella Fitzgerald, Edward Hopper, and Diego Rivera. 

You were a master of your craft, but you worked tirelessly to improve both your practice and your profession--and you brought us with you. You got us to conferences and seminars which inspired us and moved our practice forward--and still you could see more for us. Many of us led our first teacher in-service workshops, presented our first seminars, and published our first journal articles with your encouragement and your guidance. 

We spent hours with you in 119, working on a piece of writing, defining the purpose, refining the tone. “Let’s just poke at it a little,” you used to say. When I write, I feel you sitting next to me. I hear your voice in my ear. 

But you were more than just a visionary teacher and 119 was more than just a classroom. It was also a refuge. 119 was a place where students and colleagues could trust you with their stories, their lives. Broken hearts, broken families, hard-won successes and hard choices--you allowed all of that messiness in and walked through it with us.

You taught us how stick up for ourselves, how to ask for what we wanted, how to manage difficult people: “Just throw some love at them,” you said once. You taught us how to throw parties. How to snap asparagus, mince garlic, chiffonade basil. How to play poker. How to smuggle tequila into Shoreline Amphitheater. How to chat up an art gallery owner. How to apologize to an angry girlfriend and then where to take her out for dinner. 

You were right about so much. You always knew you were right, even when you were wrong. Thank you for laughing with us and for allowing us our victory dances when you did made a mistake. You must have known we couldn’t help it--it was like tripping over a diamond. 

Thank you for exhorting us to Be. Nice. “Do you know what that means?” you asked a teenager about to drop a spitball into the mouth of his sleeping friend, “It’s not just about treating others the way you want to be treated. It’s about treating others the way they want to be treated. Be. Nice.” 

Be Nice is why you were our fairy godmother. Thank you for conjuring up exactly what we needed, even if it wasn’t always what we’d asked for. A bouquet of sunflowers. A lesson plan. A bag of trail mix for a ravenous pregnant woman. A therapist recommendation. A phone call. A hug. Thank you, Joan.

Thank you for making a family out of what could have been just a loosely-knit group of friends and colleagues, teachers and students. Thank you for wedding and baby showers, for Everybody’s Birthday Party, for Derby Day, for Oktoberfest. Thank you for adopting me and countless others, and making each of us feel like your favorite godchild or your favorite cousin. Thank you, Joan, for truly seeing each one of us, and for embracing us with boundless generosity and joy. 

You taught us that in a proper thank you note, one must give a gift to the recipient of the note. The gift should be a glimpse of one’s life--so that the reader can enter into it. So here it is. I am standing at the podium in Memorial Church at Stanford in front of a crowd of people, a place I never thought I would be. I am wearing a brand new black dress, and I’m worried about smudging my eye makeup. The afternoon sun streams through the stained glass, and I can see the sky, blindingly blue, through the windows flanking the organ. The dome above is all light and angels. It’s beautiful.

Amidst this beauty, I imagine being back at your house with you on your deck, watching a piece of light filter through the leaves of the trees you loved so much, listening to you tell me about something that makes your heart sing. I wish we could be all together again, Joan. 

Maybe we are. Not in the way that we wish, but here together all the same.

Thank you for loving us, Joan. We love you, we miss you, and once again, with all our hearts, we thank you.

A return. And some thoughts on the writing process

I thought at the end of August that I was back, but it turns out I was not. One would think that the modest goal I set for myself of one writing-related quote per week, plus maybe a poem, would not be too much to ask, especially since my kids are now both at public school. But it was.

On the other hand, once I returned from points east, I got swept up in--consumed by--preparations for Joan's memorial services and with writing a eulogy for her. Which meant that I spent hours drafting and revising my remarks for Joan's "official" memorial service.

Some of the best writing teachers in the Bay Area were going to be in attendance--people whose books I've read, people who have shaped my own philosophy on the teaching of writing. Plus a whole mess of Joan's smart friends and family, several of my former colleagues--brilliant English teachers all--some exceptionally bright (much brighter than I) former students, and of course her amazing husband--all of whom loved Joan and her legacy in a way that only she could inspire...loved her somethin' fierce.

No pressure.

So here's the Writing Process protocol:
1. pre-write
2. draft
3. revise
4. publish

Step 3 actually gets repeated over and over and over until you're at deadline and you have to go to step 4 or you'll be fired, embarrassed, or have points taken off your grade.

Step I: Prewriting
Actually I did about a week of pre-pre-writing. Just thought about it. Had some interesting ideas for organizing principles: maybe center the piece around her classroom, which was an extension of her. Maybe use her phrase, "What's the so what?" (What does it all really mean in the end?) as a metaphor for her very meaningful life. Sentences percolated.

Okay, on to true pre-writing. Put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard in my case.

Lots of writing teachers and programs suggest starting with a mind map.
courtesy of
I've never trusted mind maps, because I need to dump everything out of the bag before I start sorting it. I can't do words and phrases because I start "hearing" sentences and stories. Also drawing takes too long. Maybe it would be different if I were writing something with a pre-determined structure. An evaluation or a request or a story or something.

So no mind maps. Usually I go with freewriting--just writing whatever comes to mind, and then using the best/favorite ideas as a launchpad for a more finished piece.

Freewriting over a period of about a week got me several stories, some interesting organizing principles, some great sentences, and nothing compelling. Three pages (single spaced!) of nothing. Just a lot of words that sounded good together but had no emotional power.

Step II: Draft
I grouped sentences with similar themes together, took out redundancies, and still nothing.

I Googled "how to write a eulogy" to see if I was missing something. But most websites said the obvious. Some articles suggested purpose: to remember the deceased, to offer a personal perspective on the deceased, to praise the deceased, to "brighten an otherwise dark time".
Others made suggestions: go beyond biographical information. think of fond memories, collect stories, describe what you loved about the decased, list the things the deceased loved to do, insightful things the deceased said. Well, duh.

The problem with Joan is that there was so much information. So many stories, so many quirky expressions, so much personality. Hence the three pages.

I spent almost a week spinning my wheels, just adding to my three pages.

Finally, a good friend said to me, "Write from the heart." Which is a cliche, and which so many of those eulogy writing websites had already told me. But hearing it from my friend, who was heartbroken along with me and who trusted me, felt different.

So I took a look inside my heart, as it were. What's in there? When I think about Joan, when I read what I've written, what do I feel that I need to tell people? I thought.

And just like that, I knew. I needed to thank her.

Ta-daa. The organizing principle and the emotional core. Everything fell into place (sort of). It was miraculous.

Step III: Revising
Drafting was just a matter of picking my favorite bits and re-framing them as paragraphs of a thank-you letter. Easy-peasy. On to revising, which involved

  1. Choosing what order to put the favorite bits in.
  2. Re-arranging them.
  3. Adding a story.
  4. Taking the story out.
  5. Taking a field trip to the church to see what it looked like so that I could accurately describe it in the eulogy.
  6. Calling my best friend, reading it to her, and listening hard to what she liked and what she had questions about. 
  7. Deleting a few sentences.
  8. More re-arranging.
  9. And some more.
  10. Another story added and deleted.
  11. Reading it to Tad.
  12. Keep this paragraph? Take it out? Keep it? Take it out?
  13. How about this word? Keep it? Change it? Keep it? Change it? ad nauseum.

Sorry to make that list so long, but that's what it was like. Every time I thought I was done, I thought of a new way to change and possibly improve it. One of the favorite things anyone has ever said to me was a friend who I had asked to speak at Joan's high school memorial. She texted me the night before, saying, "I can't stop revising." So true. It's like picking at a scab.

Step IV: Publish
I stepped up to the podium with a eulogy that was easily twice as long as the other speakers' eulogies. It was 100 words longer than Robert Muldoon's eulogy for Seamus Heaney, which I had read and done a word count of earlier in the week (590 words). I spoke too softly for the mic and got a lot of whiny feedback for the first couple of paragraphs. According to Tad, I spoke too softly throughout, and he had to strain to hear me. Oh, well.

But it was still great. I made people cry, reportedly. I know I made them laugh. I was proud of the piece, and I think Joan would have been, too.

All this to say that the writing process is a messy one, and not the neat little 4-step package that writing teachers (myself included) often try to teach. Pre-writing and drafting, especially, are idiosyncratic processes, and don't work in the same ways for most people. Gotta try to remember that.