Have you ever wished for conflict?

Growing up, I wished for conflict. Of course, I didn’t call it that. I just thought my life was boring. I’d watch movies and read books drenched in ancient drama, victorian romance, World War devastation, and cold war tension, and think, “I wish my time wasn’t so boring. Nothing interesting ever happens now.” I was nostalgic for a time I’d never experienced. The 90s were so uneventful, in my mind, that I couldn’t imagine anyone from my generation would write anything worth reading.

My all-time favorite teacher—my sixth grade teacher—was the first person to tell me how silly I was for thinking this way.

Our assignment was to write an autobiographical narrative. I marched up to Mr. Neunaber’s desk and said, defiantly, “I have nothing to write. I haven’t lived enough!” What I meant was that I had not yet experienced the kind of drama and conflict and adventure that was required for a good story—autobiographical or otherwise.

My teacher told me that I had lived plenty. “And,” he said,”I’ll prove it in ten questions.” He proceeded to ask me ten questions about myself. Each revealed a unique perspective of mine, an experience I had stored up, or a story that was living inside of me, waiting to be told. I can’t recall exactly what his questions were, but I can remember several of my answers. And I remember how the questions made me feel: relevant and unique. More importantly, though, Mr. Neunaber’s questions took away my excuses—for the rest of my life. Even today, when I whine to myself that I have nothing to write about, I think of my favorite teacher and his questions. And I shut up and write.

Our job in guiding our DeepKids through the writing process is not unlike what Mr. Neunaber did for me in the sixth grade. Only, after having written together for several weeks already, we have tons of material (aka “seedlings) from which start. Oftentimes, our students don’t realize the potential, the inherent conflict, the drama, the adventure, the universal but unique message hiding inside of themselves. All we have to do is make them aware of themselves and encourage them to be courageous enough to share it with the world.

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Here are a few of Mr. Neunaber’s questions (as well as I can remember, anyway):

What’s the most surprising place you’ve been?

 

When you win something or do a good job at something, who do you tell first? Why?

 

What was your favorite thing to do when you were younger? Why don’t you do it anymore?

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What’s your favorite white-knuckle movie scene?

I used to play a lot of poker when I was younger. Smoked my first cigar in my buddy Brad’s garage during the final round of a $20 game of Texas hold ‘em. We usually bought our seats at the table for 10 bucks, but on this night, the buy-in was 20 and I was lucky enough to be one of the last three players left.

I was sitting on a pair of jacks. There was already a jack and two 4’s on the board, so with a full house—or, as a betting man might say, “jacks full of 4’s”—I felt confident enough to make the call. Winning the hand meant a minimum payout of $100—which is quite a lottery for a high school kid. Losing meant I’d go home empty handed.

With a crack of reluctance in my voice, I pushed every chip I had left into the center of the table and made my declaration.

“I’m all in.”

If there’s any advice I can offer you in writing tension into your stories, and in getting your DeepKids to write tension into theirs, it’s this:

Raise the stakes.

Forgive me if I’m oversimplifying here, but good stories are about characters who want something and must overcome conflict to get it. By raising the stakes, we make our character’s chances of getting that something seem less likely.

This can be done several ways:

  • Dialogue
  • Pacing
  • Sentence structure
  • Line breaks
  • Ticking clocks
  • Beating hearts
  • Different colored wires attached to a bomb
  • Cars on the edges of cliffs
  • Raptors in kitchens chasing kids (à la Jurassic Park)

Which brings me to my next point:

A good conversation starter to get your DeepKids thinking about tension is movies. One of my favorites is the Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter—though you might choose a more lighthearted example. Showing a tense movie clip paired with a copy of the script or book works well.

What’s your favorite white-knuckle movie scene? What’s your favorite literary device to use when adding tension? Do you have any good “raised stakes” stories? 

(For those of you wondering, I lost the poker game. Brad hit running aces and beat me aces full.)

What’s the most inspiring prompt you’ve ever been given?

Last week our Operations Manager and Interim Executive Director, Joanna Dasher, started a new blog called 642 Prompts—an idea sparked by a book from The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto called 642 Things to Write About.

Interested, I checked out said blog and book (the first 30 things to write about are posted online) and found one especially inspiring prompt:

A man jumps from the fortieth story of a building. As he’s passing the twenty-eighth floor, he hears a phone ring and regrets that he jumped. Why?

The prompt didn’t have me reaching for the nearest pen and pad of paper, but it did serve as a refreshing reminder that we, being creative writers ourselves, have free rein to come up with imaginative prompts for our students.

This is important because week four is all about encouraging your DeepKids to plant seedlings.

Get creative and come equipped with some interesting and experimental prompts. There’s no such thing as having too many writing prompts or giving your kids too much writing time.

If a prompt fails to strike a chord with them, pitch it. Don’t fold like a cheap suit at their first sign of writer’s block—by all means, push them to overcome the demoralizing blank page!—but know when to throw in the towel. What you deem inventive might actually be pretty uninspiring, and that’s okay.

Keep moving forward. Keep prompting. Keep their pencils pressed to the page.

In 1942, a guy named Alex Faickney Osborn published How to Think Up, in which he presented a technique called “brainstorming.” His method included four general rules, which are great to add to your Culture Circle this week:

  1. Focus on quantity
  2. Withhold criticism
  3. Welcome unusual ideas
  4. Combine and improve ideas

Now, I don’t aim to discredit the father of brainstorming, but the one thing I think he’s missing is, “encourage imperfection.”

As you work with your kids through the seed planting and brainstorming process, don’t say, “It’s okay if these seedlings aren’t perfect, we have three weeks of revision coming up.”

It should be more than okay. It should be encouraged and expected. Make sure your DeepKids feel empowered to have imperfect writing samples and, as my grandpa likes to say, “If you’re gonna make mistakes, might as well make ‘em at 100 miles an hour.”

Lastly, I’ll leave you with wise words from William Faulkner, which sort of double as a tagline on Jo’s new blog:

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”

What’s the most inspiring prompt you’ve ever been given? How do you foster a good ol’ brainstorming session? What’s your favorite place to find prompts? What valuable resources or blogs have you stumbled upon lately? 

What’s your favorite figure of speech?

Even though most academics don’t consider Wikipedia a reliable source—a tertiary source, yes, but certainly not widely accepted as “citable” on research papers—I would encourage you to jot down your favorite figure of speech and look it up on Wikipedia. It’s a good exercise because most figures of speech also have very literal meanings.

That’s what I did and I learned a lot about blue moons.

In a literal sense, a blue moon is the second full moon in a month, or the fourth full moon in a season, which only happens once every two or three years.

Here’s how it works:

One lunation is 29.53 days. A solar year is 365.25 days, or 12.37 lunations. We only have 12 months in a calendar year, typically with one full moon per month, but because each calendar year contains about 11 days more than the number of days in 12 lunar cycles—I guess because of the extra .37 days per lunation, but I’m not really sure—the loose change adds up, giving us an extra full moon from time to time, which we call a blue moon, and thus the figure of speech “once in a blue moon.” [1] (We do have the occasional moon that is literally tinged blue, but that has nothing to do with lunations or time. It’s usually caused by volcanic eruptions or 1,000 acre bonfires. [2])

But, I digress.

Talking to your DeepKids about figurative language is fun. If you want to feel old, lead off the discussion with “Waterfalls” by TLC. They’ll get that TLC isn’t warning us to avoid chasing actual waterfalls, and this helps distinguish literal from figurative, but they most likely won’t have heard of TLC, which is depressing.

But it’s exercises like this that make figurative language one of my favorite lessons. The discussions are rich, the prompts are fun and there’s even a really cheesy rap song about it called “Wordplay.”

I want to focus mostly on the writing prompt though—specifically the “found objects” prompt because it’s a popular one and it works really well when done right.

Here’s the prompt as explained on the Writing Fellows resources page:

Bring an assortment of strange and random objects to the workshop. Pick items with different textures, shapes, sizes—you want to bring things that can be easily described using the details they just learned about the week before. (Broken objects work really well: a watch that can’t tell time, a coffee mug without a handle.) Ask students to select an object that represents an aspect of their personality or their lives, and to write sentences describing how their life/personality is like the object they selected.

The best advice I can give you when using this prompt is to select your random objects carefully. Shallow, cliche objects are going to yield shallow, cliche writing samples from your kids. If you bring in jewelry, for example, odds are you’ll get a piece about your DeepKid being pretty and nice and beautiful. Another item I haven’t had a lot of luck with is padlocks, which produce stories about “having secrets” and “being guarded.” This is a little deeper than being pretty and nice, but it’s not easy to expand on.

Don’t pick an item because it’s easy to assume where your DeepKids will go with it. That is, don’t pick predictable things. If you pick up an object, like, say, a blank canvas, you shouldn’t immediately start listing ways your DeepKids might be able to relate to it. Instead, pick items that puzzle you. Items that intrigue you. Items that make you wonder how, or if, your kids will be able to relate to it at all, and then let them surprise you with their responses.

Objects I’ve used in the past that worked really well include old blueprints, broken light bulbs, broken watches, an old tin matchbox, shells and rocks, a piece of broken china and a mason jar full of washers, nails and screws.

What’s your favorite figure of speech? What’s your favorite type of figurative language? What random objects would you choose for this prompt?

[1] “Blue Moon.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2013.

[2] Same as above. Please don’t tell Neil deGrasse Tyson, or anyone in academia.

What’s your go-to conversation continuer?

When I’m listening to someone tell a story, one of my favorite things to throw into the conversation is, “Tell me more about that.”

It’s easy, open-ended and doesn’t kill the storyteller’s vibe.

This is especially great with kids because they make surprising leaps when given the right amount of latitude in their responses. As listeners and readers, we often want to ask specific questions—“What color was his car?”—and run the risk of getting plain answers—“His car was black.”

You open the door to a bigger room when you say, “Tell me more about his car.”

This is important because your second workshop is all about helping your DeepKids expand their ideas with telling details. Be mindful of how you prompt them to keep going.

With that, a quick, relevant, slightly funny anecdote:

One of my DeepKids last semester wrote a story about a girl who was being mean to her at school. At one point she used the comparison “mean as green.” I found this very interesting—more so than if she’d written “mean as a pitbull” or “mean as a shark” or mean as any other animal that’s widely considered aggressive—so I asked the student to tell me more about it.

Her response killed me.

“Mean as green,” she said, “Which I don’t like because it reminds me of my pet turtle that’s about to die because my mom only feeds it raw fish.”

Classic.

Now, I’m not saying you should only prompt your DeepKids with broad questions or that “tell me more” should be your bread and butter. Sometimes this won’t work and you’ll need to use more specific sub-prompts to keep their pencils moving. The key there is to be sure to only ask thoughtful questions. How else can you demand thoughtful answers?

How do you prefer keeping conversations moving? When telling stories, what types of questions keep you writing or talking? How do you draft thoughtful sub-prompts?

What’s it like wearing a school uniform?

I escaped primary school before uniforms were mandated.

Most students in Chatham County’s public schools aren’t so lucky. I can only imagine the toll their uniforms take on self expression. At East Broad every student wears a purple collared shirt with black bottoms and plain shoes. I learned quickly in my first semester as a Writing Fellow that even though these kids are forced to subscribe to very strict dress codes, they still find subtle ways to express their unique sense of style. My favorite was a boy who wore electric blue shoelaces. This was no accident. Each kid had at least one intentional badge of distinction—a bow, a bracelet, a jacket—to set themselves apart from their peers.

This is a great conversation starter with your DeepKids. What’s it like wearing a school uniform? How can you feel original in a room full of people dressed just like you? What’s your style like outside of school?

If you’re still fishing for a week one icebreaker, there you go. Now take a minute and let that marinate by listening to Express Yourself by Charles Wright.

These ideas are important because your first workshop should focus on two things:

1. Getting to know your DeepKids
2. Encouraging them to write about themselves

Both hinge on your kids’ ability to think of themselves as individuals. You can foster this by leading the discussion towards very personal things, like their names or their neighborhoods or the interesting ways they choose to jazz up their school uniforms.

If you go the names or neighborhoods route, there are two great vignettes I like to use from Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street—one titled “My Name“, the other “The House on Mango Street”.

As you talk to the kids about where they’re coming from, show genuine interest in their responses and don’t be afraid to share a little bit about yourself. Developing trust with your DeepKids is huge.

It’s also important to stress how unique our Deep workshops are. Even though they take place in a traditional classroom setting, I like to make sure my Deep kids understand that I’m not a teacher. This isn’t class, these aren’t assignments and I sure as rain am not here to give out letter grades. We’re writers—all of us!— and we’re going to work together over the next few weeks to polish and publish our ideas in a book. So, let’s create a culture where we feel comfortable writing and sharing those ideas.

Consider these questions as you continue preparing for week one:

What makes you unique? What would you add to a school uniform to retain a bit of personal identity? In what environment do you feel most creative? Where do you go to write? What are you most looking forward to learning about your DeepKids?

Seersucker Live—The Read, Write, and New Episode

seersucker

Our friends at Seersucker Live have a patriotastic episode lined up for you this Friday. Your hosts Zach Powers and Christopher Berinato will begin the shenanigans at 7:30 p.m. at The Pirates’ House. The episode will serve as a book release party for James Lough’s This Ain’t No Holiday Inn, and is sure to feature punny humor of the red, white, and blue variety.

Why should you go to this (or any) Seersucker event?

  1. Booze.
  2. Humor. There are puns. There are puns within puns. There are musical puns (by the very talented Brian Dean, and if you’ve never heard someone play the Imperial March or the theme from Jurassic Park on a dime, you’ve never really lived, have you?)
  3. Prizes. There are usually prizes. And games to win said prizes. And absurd rules that don’t always make sense to play said game to win said prizes, and don’t we all love playing games with rules that don’t always make sense to win prizes we didn’t know we wanted or needed? Always.
  4. Literature. They bring literature to Savannah. What other group brought Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) to Savannah for a reading? That’s right, no one. Because these guys are awesome, and persuasive with their writer-wrangling skills.
  5. Community. Met someone involved in Seersucker? Then you met someone involved in Deep. They are former, current, and future (everyone tell Erika Jo to be a Fellow already) Writing Fellows. They have run sound for us, taught workshops for us, and shown support of us since their inception. Let’s support them, and let them entertain us. They’re good at entertaining. Sometimes. Mostly. Mostly sometimes.

And if for no other reason, you’ll find that these folks love literature, humor, poking fun at themselves and others (mostly others), and they like reading literature to you while there is booze aplenty. (As they say, it’s Savannah after all.) And what’s more, this episode takes place inside Georgia’s oldest and building, and that’s literary in itself! The Pirates’ House is rumored to be the setting for Captain Flint’s death in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.