One of my “side jobs” is teaching creative writing to children. This summer I’ve been teaching a workshop of sorts to children, ages 7 to 9. Although I’m paid to nurture these budding writers, I’ve found the best reward for teaching creative writing to children is not monetary. These kids are filled with raw talent, and I think they inspire me far more than I inspire them. What a gift it is for me to see inside their minds, to see their inner muses unleashed.
As a boring, old and dare I say cynical adult, I don’t always notice the small details in life. When my girls and I venture out on nature walks, for instance, I look for big things like the clambering the snapping turtle we recently observed along the shoreline of a nearby pond. But my little ones, they see it all: The tiny trail of ants marching along a fence line, the fragments of mica flickering in the sunlight, plain leaves I trample upon without so much as a second glance…Children are incredibly attuned to sensory details. Maybe that’s why they make such good writers – if only we’re able to overlook their misspellings and the rules of grammar and logic they’re constantly breaking.
Even the children who have a hard time with writing according to their moms are eager to weave words together to tell a story when they’re encouraged to create rather than to follow a set of strict rules for writing (I detest the five paragraph essay; I see its purpose, but it’s just so confining). Most children are just waiting to let their pencils fly across the paper to create a story or a poem, or even a crazy, creative cluster that begins with the word “night” and somehow spawns words like pizza, fairy, and birthday. We just have to let them create and put aside our expectations for what a story ought to look (or sound) like. There’s a time and place for teaching structure, grammar, syntax, and spelling, but every child also needs time to just write whatever comes into his or her mind.
I’m often surprised by what these children come up with. Sometimes when I hear the details they include in their stories like “the ocean foam lapped on my ankles like whipped cream,” “the fish was as small as a flaxseed,” or “the earthy smell after the rain fills the air, and I’m reminded of my mom’s garden,” I forget my oldest student is only 9.
Recently, we discussed the hallmark of good writing is to show not tell. As a prewriting group exercise, I wrote the following statement on a dry erase board: “Grandma was beautiful for many reasons.” I then asked the children to imagine a beautiful grandma. I pointed out that “beautiful” wasn’t simply referring to physical attributes but also to how a person reveals love and truth. Likewise, I told them they could create a mental image of their own grandma or of a fictional one. There were no rules. After they brainstormed for a bit, we went around the room, and each child shared a detail of their “beautiful grandma.”
This is what the children came up with:
Grandma is beautiful for many reasons. She has glossy, white hair that reminds me of silver strands. She has a comfortable smell that always reminds me of the comfortable way she lives. Simply. She lives simply. And her kitchen always smells of cinnamon or like an apple pile right out of the oven.
She has sparkly, blue eyes that are always smiling. Her smile is so welcoming – like the smile God will wear when he welcomes me to heaven.
She’s the warmest person I’ve ever known – it’s like she carries the sunshine in her soul.
And her voice? It’s like a bell. It always rings true.
She’s wrinkled, too, like a Sharpei puppy.
Oh, but she’s beautiful. Truly, truly beautiful.
Lovely, isn’t it? I should note that all my students are currently girls (hence, the silvery strands of hair and puppy references), but I’ve taught boys as well, and they, too, come up with colorful details.
So let your children write. Hand them a pencil (or pen or even a keyboard) and tell them that for today the only rule is that you must write. And when they share their art with you, put your adult world view aside, talk less and listen more.