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What Kids Have Taught Me About Writing

Flickr Creative Commons: Vassilis [1]
Flickr Creative Commons: Vassilis

As a writer, it can be remarkably helpful to spend time around kids. When I’m not doing my own writing I work with kids ages 8-18 on everything from short stories to college essays, and at least once a week something happens that takes my breath away.

Young kids—eight to eleven-year-olds— who love to write, REALLY love to write. “Writer’s block” is an unknown concept; they’re open about sharing their work; they delight in other’s work; they laugh a lot. Adolescents are trickier. Some are so shy they barely speak during workshop, but then they write vivid, bold, incredible stories. Others can’t wait to tell you how wonderful their writing is, but then their stories are tentative, stilted. They are all incredibly brave. You know how hard it is to share your writing as an adult? How vulnerable it makes you feel to have your soul there on display? Right. Imagine doing that as a 14-year-old.

Here are three of the best lessons I’ve learned about writing from kids:

Don’t be afraid to play. A big part of working with kids is playing writing games. Writopia, the non-profit creative writing organization I work with, has its own games, but you can easily search for “creative writing games” online and find dozens. Playing writing games pushes kids to write scenes and stories and characters outside their usual comfort zones, often with surprising results. I play every game along with the kids, and it’s pushed me outside my comfort zone, too. One student of mine wrote very serious, deeply philosophical fiction. (He’s 13 and reads Albert Camus “for fun.”) One day I had students write down a single “Aha!” moment that could happen to a character (I learned to tell the truth, I understood parents make mistakes) and then write a character and scene leading up to that moment of insight. But first I had the kids swap “Aha!” moments, so they had to write something based on another student’s idea. My very serious student had to create a story leading up to the insight “I stopped believing in Santa Claus,” and wrote a delightful, sharply funny piece about a little boy walking down the stairs expecting to meet “the Fat Man himself” only to run into his father. “This is nothing like what I usually write,” the student kept saying. And he smiled the entire time he was writing.

[pullquote]Playing writing games pushes kids to write scenes and stories and characters outside their usual comfort zones, often with surprising results. I play every game along with the kids, and it’s pushed me outside my comfort zone, too.[/pullquote]

Find the unexpected. I see a lot of “fan fiction” in my creative writing classes, but I also see kids who take a story or character from another source and turn it inside out in astonishing ways. One boy wrote a novella-length story about Bowser, the villain in the Super Mario games. Only he began with Bowser as a small monster, riding the school bus: “It was the end of a wonderful school day, all the children were happily chatting and making jokes—all, except Bowser. Bowser was ignoring the other children’s chattering and laughing. He was thinking about his day, staring out the window, into the world of thoughts and imagination.” The story went on to trace the ways in which Bowser, a sweet, dreamy little monster, was bullied and scared, until he grew into a villain himself. It was an insightful and sensitive and surprising story and a good reminder to look for the unexpected complexities inside every character.

Simple can be powerful. One of the exercises I do with kids is 7-sentence story, in which I ask them to write a story by filling in these blanks: “Once upon a time____. And every day____. Until one day____. And because of that____. And because of that____. Until finally____. And ever since____.” Last summer, a quiet, 14-year-old boy wrote this story, in less than 10 minutes:

“Once upon a time, the sun fell in love with the moon. And every day she chased him across the sky but he always slipped just out of sight and set as she rose. Until one day she caught up to him in what the humans called an ‘eclipse’ but she called a ‘miracle.’ And because of that, she discovered that she and the moon could not ever stay in the sky at the same time, except for eclipses. And because of that, every day she felt lonely and sad as the moon set and she rose. Until finally an eclipse came again and she and the moon met once more. And ever since she has been hoping and waiting for another so they may be together again.”

It gives me goose bumps every time I read it. It makes me want to be a better writer. It makes me grateful I get to work with young people.

Now gather your words together and go play.

About Kathleen McCleary [2]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.