For National Teachers’ Day, May 8

At forty-five, dumbfounded and dismayed, I thought, “This guy expects me to write in the first five minutes of a class designed to help me improve my students’ writing? He has to be kidding!”

The instructor, a six-foot man burdened with unreasonable expectations and a teddy-bear body, introduced himself as Neil then announced we had five minutes to write a description of a time we were unhappy with a parent. “After that, you’ll all share what you wrote,” he said and beamed at us as though we’d be thrilled by the opportunity.

As my classmates scribbled away as if they were hell-bent on winning a Pulitzer, I wasted three minutes feeling put-upon before squeezing out four sentences. “It was a hot day in August. My mother and I were working in the garden. She was tired and disappointed by my behavior; and I was being belligerent because I thought she was picking on me.”

Neil then told us to reread our writing and circle each verb of being we’d used. For those of us a bit fuzzy about the verbs in question, he turned to the board and wrote “is, be, am, are, was, were, been, being.”

I smiled smugly as I circled six of the verbs; then Neil said, “Now, I want you to rewrite your piece without using the verbs you circled. Keep your situation, but get rid of every verb of being you can. You’ll probably have to add details and think of livelier verbs. It’s an interesting task, like a puzzle. I think you’ll enjoy solving it and the results you’ll get.”

Oh.

The assignment intrigued me; so I willingly went to work and felt pleased with the result: “My mother and I pulled weeds in our vegetable garden under a hot August sun. Mom, tired from a new baby and canning peaches all day in a hot kitchen, looked at me with disappointment. But I continued to complain, “Why do I have to weed the garden? You expect me to work for free while Bob and Carolyn go earn money for themselves hoeing sugar beets. I hate doing their work.”

Next, Neil asked us to read both drafts to one another. In every case, the version written without verbs of being allowed our listeners to better visualize the characters, actions and emotions in our writing.

So, of course, that night when we did our homework assignment, a description of a childhood illness or accident, we over-reacted. Reading to one another the next day, we realized we’d written rambling sentences stuffed with excessive verbs and overblown details. Verbs of being couldn’t be found, but neither could simplicity, ease of reading or a clear story line.

The teacher we now trusted next led a three-pronged class discussion about the traditional belief of moderation in all things, the effective use of verbs of being and the understanding that any writing technique can became problematic when overdone.

During two fifty-minute classes, an extraordinary teacher had strengthened my writing and informed my teaching without assigning a worksheet or delivering a lecture.

Neil died recently. When I heard, I remembered telling him on the last day of class how his meaningful instruction had changed me as a writer and a teacher; and then I remembered the way  he beamed —  as though he had been thrilled by the opportunity.

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Sound Advice?

Most of my writing workshop instructors etched write what you know on their foreheads. I believed them. Stephen King didn’t. Nor did the authors of Harry Potter, Cold Mountain, The Lord of the Flies and The Hobbit. So, unsure of the general applicability of the advice, I hesitated to share it with my students. Then Nathan Englander, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for literature, addressed my incomplete understanding of the concept, resolved my conflict and informed my teaching:

“Write what you know isn’t about events. It’s about emotions. Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? Did you want that Atari 2600 so bad you might have killed for it? If so, it doesn’t matter whether your story takes place in Long Island or on Mars – if you’re writing what you know, readers will feel it.”

Often, young writers in my classroom clutched their pencils and wore pained expressions as they struggled with an assignment; so I’d help them discover any knowledge, experience or emotional involvement they had with the topic. I used a technique I first tried with 4th graders who had to write about farm animals during a practice for district-wide testing. Some of my students lived on a farm. Many did not.

I wrote the topic on the board and added key words for my connections to it: “When I think about the assignment, farm animals, I remember visiting my uncle. His dark, smelly coop full of squawking chickens scared me. I picture horses running in a field and think of how I wanted one when I was your age. I also remember a talking cow on a TV commercial that made me laugh.

I told them I now had three ideas I knew I could write about and added, “I think I’ll write about cows. They still make me laugh. Can you tell me some funny things about cows I could use in my writing?” I heard about mooing cows, stubborn cows, drooling cows, cow patties, bucking cows and flies on cows. When Dix bellowed, “Yeah, and teats on cows,” I decided to move the lesson along: “Thanks for helping me. I have lots of ideas about cows for my writing.”

Next, I asked them to tell me about other farm animals and how they felt about them. I accepted and probed their responses before giving them time to write. They created vivid and lively stories, so we assembled them in a class book, which they read and reread all year. On occasion, I thumbed through it as well and always read my cow story.

As I continued to use the association technique, I noticed age and environment impacted the connections students made. When rural elementary children in Utah brainstormed ideas on the topic of light, they quickly offered sun, moon, stars, sunset, birthday candles, and Christmas tree lights. The first connections made by junior high students in Carson City, Nevada, included traffic lights, head lights, casino lights, and lighting a cigarette.

But, always, the best writing resulted when I asked my young writers how they felt about the associations they offered and why.

Soon, I, too, had write what you know etched on my forehead.

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Seventh-grader Dean allowed me to use his connections to the topic January in teacher workshops. His resulting piece was rated advanced on the district assessment. Can you guess what he wrote about?

The Creative Process  

Rhett once told me he wrote better with his cat nearby.

Rhett claimed he wrote better with his cat nearby.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Rhett, a freshman teetering on the edge of both manhood and writing excellence, we examined his response to the latest writing assignment: a one-paragraph description of a vivid moment experienced in the past month. He’d chosen to write about the final seconds before he pushed off for his first run on a black-diamond ski trail. As I read his words, I wished he’d written more —an unusual experience for an English teacher correcting papers.

As we finished talking about his piece, Rhett said, “Mrs. Bohart, how important is the stuff you teach us about how to get an idea to write about and develop it? I don’t do any of those things. I just decide what to write about and then write and rewrite until I think it’s good.”

Well, that was an eye-opener.

Rhett’s words motivated me to read about the processes involved in creating — whether it’s planning a vegetable garden, tatting a lace edging, making music, taking photographs, designing buildings, drawing cartoons, or decorating a home.

As I read, I learned the creative process is unique and individual: like bikinis, one size doesn’t fit all. While it helps to learn and practice the basics of any hobby or passion, when we apply everything we’ve learned to create a product, we gradually develop a process that works for us.

I enjoy reading about the practices and techniques of other writers. But knowing an author I admire writes 1000 words a day in the nude while soaking his feet and chewing licorice root doesn’t mean I should do the same.

For example, I never create a detailed plan before writing. I can’t take time to make an outline or jot notes when my head is buzzing with an idea. I’m on fire to write, so I do. Sometimes my fire runs out of fuel by the third paragraph, but usually it blazes along quite nicely.

I also refuse to set a daily goal in order to force myself to write a set amount of time or a specified number of words every day. Sometimes, when I’ve fussed too long over a piece, a paragraph, or a sentence, I walk away from it. Other times, I prefer to continue banging my head against a wall. Either way, I’m not worried about making a quota.

Like Rhett, I’ve individualized my writing process; and I’m glad that, many years ago, I had the wisdom to tell my talented student to take the advice of others only when it made sense and worked for him.

Then, to my dismay, he did just that. He totally ignored my oft-repeated advice to pursue a career in writing so he could dedicate a book to me and choose instead to graduate from college with a degree in business management.