“I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten – happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.”
Every morning when I wake up, I lie in bed reading my email on my iPhone. It’s a gentle way for me to take stock of what’s on my schedule, put out any immediate fires, and get a chuckle from the silly things my friends and students send to me in the middle of the night.
This morning, I woke up to a really uncomfortable email. A parent of an ANI alumna asked to be removed from my mailing list and told me that she wouldn’t be recommending the program because she didn’t think that everyone who puts a volume of words on a page should be called a novelist.
My heart wrenched and my stomach twisted into a knot.
I was offended, hurt, angry: a festering boil of emotion. Immediately, I thought of all the painting classes, piano lessons, baseball leagues, swimming lessons, dance classes, and any number of enrichment activities that kids participate in. Do we not call our little painters artists? Our little sluggers baseball players? Our little dancers ballerinas? My students didn’t write 50,000 word grocery lists, they wrote stories with beginnings, middles and ends. They wrote novels and so deserve the title novelist. They’re not professionals, sure, but who cares? And does that really matter?
And then I started thinking of all the novelists whose books weren’t published before they died. Was John Kennedy Toole not a novelist? What about Steig Larssen? Anne Frank? Just schmucks with pens, I guess, because they were just writing a volume of words. And on that note, I suppose Emily Dickenson wasn’t a poet, either. I had to take a deep breath and walk away from the computer so I wouldn’t reply in true hot-tempered, redheaded fashion.
ANI is not only my business, it’s my passion. And I believe so whole-heartedly in what I’m doing – in what my students are doing – that I’ve bet my life on it. I quit my job, invested my savings, and I devote more time than I probably should teaching kids the value of the written word. Of THEIR written words.
Throughout my journey as an educator, I’ve come up against many people who think my ideas and practices are too hard on kids. I ask too much, I expect too much, I prod too much. I’m a too-much person. And I don’t disagree with them. But my kids, they rise to the occasion. And even the parents of students who don’t finish their novels tell me their kids’ confidence with words is better, their grades improve, and they stress less about assignments.
But what most of my detractors don’t realize about what I do in the classroom is how I support my students outside the classroom. I make myself 100% available to them all day, every day. Even when I was teaching composition to college freshmen and juniors, I gave out my personal phone number and email address. These days, I respond to 3:00am text messages from overwhelmed kids, plot and plan their novels with them, I give them challenges, pep-talks, moral support, high-fives, stern looks, and hugs every single day. I love them like I love my own children, and I make myself just as available to them after the program ends as I did during their time with me in the classroom. I even listen to them when they need a safe place to talk about a divorce or a death or a difficult decision. How many teachers can say that?
I think the personal attention I pay each student is why my feelings were so hurt by this parent’s email today. In fact, this particular student was someone for whom I went above and beyond my usual role of muse-mentor-coach-friend-teacher-guide-confessor. I just can’t imagine not wanting to celebrate the achievements of young writers, especially a young writer who happens to be your child.
When I was in the sixth grade, I went to an awards ceremony for a program called Writers’ Showcase. It was a personal project of a wealthy Nashvillian who created a writing competition open to all Nashville students and awarded cash prizes for the best examples of writing in many categories and age levels. I participated every year, and worked at winning like I now work at making a living.
This particular year, an author handed out the awards. He asked us all to stand and repeat together, “I am a writer.” He called us peers. He said our words were now published in the little Writers’ Showcase anthology and that we had been paid for our work. We were professional writers, and we should be proud of ourselves. I cried. My mom cried. It changed my life.
From that experience, and others like it, I developed my curriculum. I spent years teaching college students, I spent summers teaching reading and writing development to preschoolers, grade-school students, and adults. I honed my people skills, earned advanced degrees in creative writing and kept current on educational best practices.
What I found in the process was astounding.
Each year in my classroom, students’ test scores went up, but their ability to express themselves in writing deteriorated. Their confidence with the written word was damaged because their exposure to writing was limited to short projects that got shorter and fewer each year. The last year I taught, one of my best writers told me he’d never written anything longer than 1,000 words during his entire career in school.
My anecdotal observations were backed up by science, too. While nationally, SAT scores are on the rise, SAT Writing scores are suffering a decline. I wondered if perhaps I could apply the theory of immersion language-learning to writing. If I gave students an opportunity to write volumes and volumes of words, would they start to self-correct their errors? Would they seek out rule of grammar they may not have ever encountered? Could I teach them how to write first and edit later? And would their fear of writing start to wither and die without the constant pressure of grades, anxiety of red-pen mark-ups, and comparative forms of achievement that our test-obsessed culture imposes?
The short answer is yes.
Yes, they do write better at the end of a month-long writing-intensive program. Yes, they do ask many questions about grammar, usage, and punctuation. Yes, they do increase their vocabularies. And more importantly, they gain a confidence with their own use of language. They become fluent communicators.
And beyond the tangible academic achievement, my students learn to reach out for help. They learn to make an allies of their teachers. They learn to ask questions, to research, to manage a big project and see it through to the end. They learn to be self-starters and self-motivators and self-congratulators. They also start to see school writing assignments as opportunities to flex their writing muscles. And instead of writing the minimum required number of words, they write until the project, assignment, or paper has reached its logical ending, wherever that may be.
This is the real Novel Idea: my students learn to trust themselves. They learn to trust each other. And they learn that they’re not alone out there in the world, in a cabin in the woods, scribbling in the dark. The world is full of awkward teenagers struggling to make sense of their adolescence, and writing about those struggles has to be one of the healthiest ways a person can cope with their life.
Last summer, one parent raced toward me with open arms and hugged me just a little bit too long. She told me her daughter had struggled with self-mutilation, but since learning to write long-form fiction and giving herself permission to call herself a novelist, she’d stopped cutting.
That’s enough for me.
Sporty kids have a million opportunities to be part of a group and develop their athleticism. Social kids have even more opportunities to get together and share experiences. Arty kids can find classes galore where they can try out pottery and sculpture and painting and photography and mixed media or whatever their arty hearts desire. But nerdy writer-types, we get the shaft. We’re the oddballs in class, the weirdoes in the hallways, and the geeks waiting for the next ComicCon. I’m not apologetic about creating a program where kids who love words can learn to turn those ideas into a novel. Because watching them learn the parts of a book, and then using those lessons to create the structure, the outline, the shape of their own stories is like watching children discover lightning bugs. Their wonder is overwhelming.
Giving kids permission to see their struggles as part of a story – part of their story – is a gift I’m happy to give over and over again. Even if you don’t like what I call them.
What would you say to this parent? Do you agree with her assessment that calling everybody who “writes a volume of words should not be called a novelist?”