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Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Most Misunderstood Advice for Young Writers

"Write what you know."

Young writers hear this adage often from well-meaning teachers.

But while their intentions are good, adults fail to mention to students that often countless hours of research may be needed to inform good writing, whether that writing be nonfiction, historical fiction, or science fiction.

Author Chris Barton recently tweeted about a Hornbook essay by Laurie Halse Anderson wherein Anderson describes the research undertaken to write her Revolutionary War-era novel Forge. In Tasting the Past, Anderson shares how she literally placed herself into primitive conditions in order to experience first-hand the physical hardships of the troops at Valley Forge. She concludes that essay with:

Is it possible to write historical fiction based only on the reading of primary sources? Of course it is. But for me, walking in the footsteps of people from the past adds vibrancy to their words. It’s one thing to read about a fire, quite another to smell the smoke and hear the wood pop and sizzle.

Doesn't sound like writing what you know.

Or does it?

Is it possible that "write what you know" is actually legitimate, yet entirely misunderstood, advice? Maybe those who first shared that adage meant to say, "Know it, by first finding it and experiencing it, and then write it."

I enjoyed the once-in-a-lifetime honor of hearing Jane Yolen speak about her classic The Devil's Arithmetic. She described how she became so immersed in research on the Holocaust that she suffered nightmares; she truly experienced the time travel effect portrayed in the novel. (Yolen added that while many deride the use of time travel in fiction, it's a device that effectively serves to place children into the shoes of those who lived in the past. I agree whole-heartedly).

Yet I'm still not comfortable saying, "Write what you know," as I feel I'm limiting students to rather pedestrian topics. But I might start saying, "If you don't know it, don't write it. Not yet. Not until you've researched it, digested it, perhaps even lived it."

That probably won't fit on a bumper sticker quite as nicely, but it seems to make sense.

So what does this mean to us as teachers of reading and writing?

1) We should encourage reading in a wide variety of genres. This will allow students to "write what they know," with some confidence that they actually know something!

Recently, for example, I assigned students a persuasive writing prompt. Not the usual "students should wear uniforms" bit, but a topic that instead required some research. Each student was assigned a predator, and told it was their job to convince the directors of the Hunters of the Wild Lands (HOWL) Museum that this particular animal deserved recognition in one of the museum's exhibits.

The project involved a good deal of fact finding, since students didn't readily know the characteristics or habits of the sixty-three separate hunters assigned. They soon discovered that sorting interesting facts from relevant facts was a challenge, as was dealing with conflicting information from various websites.

In the end, every student agreed that this was some of their best writing, since it was supported by facts rather than opinions.

2) We should engage students in author studies. Many authors led fascinating lives that informed and inspired their writing. Could Gary Paulsen had written Dogsong or Hatchet as convincingly had he not experienced dog sledding and outdoor survival for himself?

Other authors provide models for students through their research habits. Lois Lowry, for example, spent untold hours researching the Holocaust to write Number the Stars. According the Glencoe Literature Library Study Guide for Number the Stars, Lowry's editor mentioned that the author made too many references to the Nazi's shining black boots in her narrative. Lowry considered removing some of the references until, just soon after, she met a Dutch woman who had lost her mother to the Nazis. "The woman, just a toddler at the time of the Holocaust, remembered only one detail about the soldiers who took her mother away—their boots."

Lowry insisted on keeping the passages, stating:

If any reviewer should call attention to the overuse of that image—none ever has—I would simply tell them that those high shiny boots had trampled on several million childhoods and I was sorry I hadn’t had several million more pages on which to mention that.

3) We should do our own homework when it comes to research. When teaching the Holocaust, I'm often asked by students, "But why didn't the Jews resist? Why didn't they fight back?" The books themselves provide many explanations. Many Jews didn't resist because at first they believed they were simply being relocated. Others felt that if they cooperated, they would be treated fairly and humanely. Some dared not resist for the harm it would bring their loved ones. They felt that if they could withstand each horrific step along the way, they could survive. Still others simply feared the Nazi uniforms and guns.

Just when students seem satisfied with these explanations, they're surprised to hear me say, "But some did resist." I then share some stories from Ann Byers Courageous Teen Resisters: Primary Sources from the Holocaust. This title, one of four from Enslow Publisher's True Stories of Teens in the Holocaust series, describes how individuals and groups fought back, sometimes subtly, sometimes violently, but always at great risk to themselves and their loved ones. Students are amazed to learn that children their age took action in the face of certain death.

4) We should supplement our content area instruction with nonfiction reading selections. I vividly recall a fourth grade social studies text which encouraged students to "Write a journal entry of a soldier at Valley Forge. Describe the hardships you've endured." Unfortunately, the textbook itself had provided just one paragraph on this topic! How often do we similarly ask students to harvest ideas from their minds, when we haven't given them opportunity to sow the seeds?

Do you know of an author who has truly "lived" their writing? How do you push your students to write beyond what they know? What opportunities do you allow for students to write about their own feelings and experiences, about those things that make them unique? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

6 comments:

DJL said...

I had always thought that the saying "Write what you know" implied that you must experience something before you can truly write on it. The problem I had with this understanding, however, was in speculative fiction, particularly fantasy. I love reading fantasy and writing a novel within the genre has always been a dream of mine. But unless it is urban fantasy, how does a writer experience something of the fantastic?

I suppose there is research in creating works such as the Lord of the Rings or the Dragonriders of Pern. But figuring out what the authors researched in the writing process is the key. And for something as incredible as the Lord of the Rings, I would find it hard to believe Tolkien didn't do his research rather thoroughly.

In the vein of having students read a wide range of genres, perhaps having them write a story within each genre would help them understand the elements that goes into creating the written word. While difficult, I do think it helps them in honing their writing skills, and it was something that I wish had been taught in my writing classes.

Excellent post, Keith, and I hope your students will benefit from your means of reading/writing instruction.

Keith Schoch said...

See? YOU got the right meaning of the advice! But I've seen teachers (myself included!) assign students to writing about their limited scope of experience, rather than branching out to learn about other topics. It's obvious that Rowling knows her mythology and her Latin, and C.S. Lewis was certainly informed by theology. But lots of what Tolkien rolled out was pretty new and scary stuff! Some familiar motifs, for sure, but so many original creatures and environments. He certainly had quite a task to keep all of his own characters and details intact.

The Book Chook said...

I wrote a column for a children's literature magazine about this point. Many kids (ok, mostly boys!) haven't experienced war, yet love to write stories about battles and blasts and bombs. If they're writing from the point of view of a soldier who has just been struck by a bullet, I suggest they think back to a time when they felt bad pain. Maybe they broke their arm. What happened immediately after the break? How did their body react? What did their senses become aware of and where eg nausea, cold sweat etc. Using mentor texts will show so many examples of where writers engage our emotions and feelings by giving sensory details. They show us what's going on, rather than telling us the bare facts.

Write what you know is good advice I believe, so long as we explain it the way you have Keith. But I also like "write your passion". Your kids took off on the battle aspect between predators, attempting to prove the dominance of their choice, keen to establish supremacy in beast power! Superb example of the teacher knowing his kids well, and choosing a topic that would resonate with them.

Natalee said...

This is a fabulous essay. Thank you! Lots to think about.

Keith Schoch said...

Funny that you mention writing about war, because that was me when I was younger! I have to admit, I did read lots of books on the topic and looked at lots of pictures, so I probably had an abnormal grasp of the topic (nowadays a kid like me would be seen by the school psychologist).

I like your idea of having students tap into past experiences and feelings to inform their writing.

Have a link to that column?

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