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Thinking with a Child’s Brain

Flickr Creative Commons: Adrian Wallett

Last week, a 10-year-old in one of the creative writing workshops I teach outlined the plot for his next story to me:

A war breaks out between Glue and Tape to determine which is the best adhesive. Gorilla Glue is the leader of the Glue Army, with Super Glue as second-in-command. Glue-sticks are the foot soldiers. The Tape Army is led by Duct Tape, with Packing Tape as colonel and rolls of Scotch Tape as minions. The battle is complicated by the forces of the Resistance, led by Teflon, who is opposed to having anything stick to anything. But Staples have a role to play, too, and may come in and put a definitive end to the war.

How creative and clever is that? The thing I love most about teaching kids is that they constantly surprise me, and open my mind to new ways of thinking about story.

In my creative writing workshops (I teach with writopialab.org), I teach kids the basics, week after week: Figure out your main character’s want or goal, the thing that’s driving the story. What obstacles stand in the way? Is one of the obstacles internal, a personal flaw or weakness of some kind? Will the character obtain the goal or not? What will he/she learn? What will he/she gain and lose by the end of the story?

We play writing games designed to reinforce all these basics, or to unleash new ideas. And week after week, the kids astonish me. There’s the girl writing a novel about Merlin the magician, who has traveled through time and is working as a docent at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. There’s the girl who wrote a story about Dreamcatchers, creatures whose job is to fly into children’s bedrooms each night and capture their dreams to fuel the world (and steal their nightmares to prevent destruction). There’s the boy who wrote a story from the point of view of the humble thimble token in Monopoly, about wanting to be better than the other, flashier tokens.

I play all the writing games with the kids in workshop, and I love the way that playing at writing energizes my own writing work. Here are some ways to flex your own play muscles:

Free associate. Not words, but memories. You can do this with a writing partner, or even a friend. Pick a topic (say, “weddings”) and say the first story/memory that comes to mind. Let your partner say a memory. Then tell another story, based on what your partner said. After two or three rounds, you have a handful of memories (your own and your partner’s) that are good fodder for stories or scenes. One class of mine discussed summer memories and the subject of block parties came up. I wrote a short scene about a woman attending a block party and discovering how much her neighbors knew about her own life and how many secrets they had discovered about each other. It was an intriguing idea that will make its way into the novel I’m working on now.

Play with prompts. Writopia uses its own prompts, but thousands are available online. I love these random first-line generators (“The entrance to the tunnel was his only way out,” “She had enjoyed ten years of being totally irresponsible”) that you can find here: http://writingexercises.co.uk/firstlinegenerator.php [1]. Set a time for 20 minutes and write in response to a prompt.

Play with your own story. Take half an hour to write something completely different generated by your current WIP. Is it told first person? Then write a scene from a third-person POV. Is it written in past tense? Write a scene in present tense. Is your work all told from one character’s POV? Then write a scene from another character’s POV. You’ll be surprised at how this can get you unstuck, or refresh your writing.

How do you play with your own writing? How does it help your work?

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.