Teleportation, fairies, and bean-loving cats

How the heck do we help kids write stories?

My students love writing stories, and many of them will happily work on their stories for weeks or months or even years. (Others write them in one sitting, which is also respectable. I hear that Munro Leaf wrote The Story of Ferdinand in an afternoon.) Some illustrate them, some write chapters, some write them in one long run-on paragraph. Some kids finish their stories, some edit them, some publish them on Amazon, some just adventure in their imaginary worlds for a while and get some of it down on paper.

What I have to say about all this is awesome.

What is our role in all of it?

Yes, there are things we can teach kids about narrative structures, or dialogue, or writing deeper characters, or moving action forward. But I also think that if kids are enthralled in their stories, have a sense of agency and ownership with them, and aren’t stuck, then the most important thing adults can do is to just encourage them.

Unless kids want more craft tools, I think just giving them the space and latitude to write their stories is the most useful thing we can do. So what if nothing happens except conversations among magical girls who always agree with each other. So what if the story has a car accident, a crime ring, teen love drama, mysterious messages, orphans AND time travel. This isn’t the era of critiquing how a story should be – there isn’t only one kind of enjoyable story anyhow. If the writer is happy and writing, everything is as if should be and we should leave well enough alone. I don’t even usually push copy editing unless the writer wants it, as correcting long pieces tends to be more daunting than productive, and is a great way to make kids write short things.

The results aren’t the point

When I was eight, I wrote half of a story about a chicken who gets left at the beach (cleverly titled, with some tuna can inspiration, Chicken by the Sea). The next year I wrote a story about a witch who tries to kill fairies because she feels left out and really wants to be their friend. After that came a story that was a blatant rip-off of Heidi, only there were two kids visiting their goatherd grandfather in the Alps so it was totally original. Regardless, that alpine cottage was a very happy place in an otherwise miserable classroom. My seventh grade fiction was about a girl disguised as a boy whose experience of settling the Northwest was like the Oregon Trail game crossed with Jerry Springer. Eighth grade was an urban Rapunzel story where a streetwise boy who looked like Christian Slater visited the narrator by climbing her fire escape. Then came the moody vignette of the girl playing cello in the park while crows flew in the wind around her.

None of these were promising. Very few of them got finished. Probably for the best. But they were spaces I could practice managing characters and description and longer narrative threads. They were places I could digest the world. And they were hours of dreamy happy creativity, not to mention pages and pages of words. They were an apprenticeship in fiction, and practice for having a writing practice.

And the novel I’ve been working on most recently (my third) is about two characters I first wrote about when I was fifteen, who at that point mostly just stared at each other over a fence while the boy mowed his lawn. So you never know.