chapter-a-month challenge: february

I’m a little late, but here’s how I’m doing with my project.

It always feels a little funny sharing a work-in-progress. I read a post from ysolda on her fabulous knitting blog, about her qualms with sharing her designs-in-progress. She does share, saying, “Personally I think it’s pretty interesting to see a project build and gain some insight into the development process.” (And doesn’t the sweater she’s working on look gorgeous? Check out the post with the wrist detail. I want to knit that!)

I’m always fascinated with the creative processes of others. I’m hoping that some of you out there feel the same. If nothing else, if you don’t write yourself, what I share here might help you see what a messy process writing can be. It might help you understand your kids’ frustrations when they write.

Anyway, I don’t have a chapter this month. But I have an awful lot of stuff.

I kept starting new parts, but nothing came together. It was like trying to gather up a ball of bread dough that didn’t have enough moisture. I finally realized what was holding me back.

I had this idea–which I still like–that I wanted to write very short chapters for this book. Break down my ideas into small bits, followed with practical suggestions, so parents could pick up the book and consider one small idea at a time–or they could read several.

But here’s what I realized: I don’t write short. Gee, I’ll bet you’re thinking, no duh. Have you ever seen a short post on this blog? What I’ve always loved about the essay form is that it imitates the thought process. It takes off in unexpected directions, incorporating story, analysis, argument and wonder. It’s a little unwieldy. That’s my style, and I think I need to go with it.

That realization opened up the possibilities for me. Instead of not knowing what to do with those chunks in which I’d written about each of my kids, it occurred to me that each of those sections was part of a bigger idea. With each kid I learned something new about writing with homeschoolers:

  • With H, I learned that the traditional school model of having kids take on their own writing at age six doesn’t work very well.
  • With Lulu, I learned that what’s most important is to find ways to help kids want to write, and to develop their voices as writers.
  • With Mr. T, I learned that homeschoolers can put the previous notions into practice differently. We can use an entirely different model.

Suddenly, I realized that I could write a chapter on each of those ideas, incorporating the sections I’d written about my kids with the newer sections I’d been working on. I could try to carry my readers along my own evolution of thoughts about kids and writing–assuming that many readers might follow a similar evolution–leading them right into the practical ideas that will form most of the book.

And I knew what I needed to do next. It was time for a cut-and-paste session.

cutting and pasting in the back of the car

Cutting up and rearranging my work in the back of the car, while Mr. T was at his wilderness program.

This is one of my favorite techniques for when writing isn’t working. Take what you have, cut it up and play with the order. It’s fun, and it almost always leads to new ideas. If nothing else, it gets you up from your writing chair and moving, which is always helpful.

I helped a homeschooled friend on her college essays this fall. She’d written a nice essay on her love of cycling, but it wasn’t quite capturing her passion. It wasn’t lively enough. I remembered a beautiful poem she’d written in our writer’s workshop, a very sensory, tangible poem about one particular ride. I suggested that she might want to cut up her essay and her poem, and see if she could work them into one. 

Her resulting essay was unique and vivid and wonderful. I hope it helps get her where she wants to go.

At any rate, my own cutting and pasting session was just what I needed. Suddenly all my ideas are coming together, and I have a big, shaggy ball of dough to knead. It needs work, but it’s working.

This month I hope to write a good draft of the chapter on H and the traditional school model of writing (and why it often doesn’t work). I’ll let you know how how it goes.

Most likely at painstaking length.

10 comments… add one
  • Angela Mar 11, 2010 @ 7:44

    I love how you’ve take the “cutting and pasting” of editing and made it physical rather than virtual. I’m getting better at editing on the computer, but when working with something longer than a page or two, I much prefer paper. My method usually involves several colors and lots of numbers. But I can see where this method would work better for something as unwieldy as a chapter/book.

    And I think it will be just the thing for my uber visual boy eventually, too!

    • patricia Mar 11, 2010 @ 8:06

      I do lots of cutting and pasting on the computer, and I also edit with lots of chicken-scratched markings on printed out pages. But there’s something different about being able to see everything at once, and being able to physically move parts around, parts that I might not have thought about putting together before. Sometimes I’ll even cut apart paragraphs that I was sure I should keep together, and interperse something different between them. And usually I’ll discover places that need more writing.

      I don’t use this technique often, but it’s great for times when you feel like you have a lot of good bits, but they just aren’t coming together.

      Something similar that works great for kids, especially if they’re writing on a particular topic: have them jot down random notes after they read, or as the thoughts come to them, on Post-Its. (Or you could write down the notes for them.) Then, when they have lots of ideas down, they can begin to cluster the ideas by stacking related Post-Its together, and then they can order the Post-Its in those stacks, and then put the different stacks into a logical order. Then they can make notes for any parts that seem missing. It’s a tangible, logical way to make an outline. (Instead of those outlines that they forced us to write in high school, before we’d put much thought into our topics. I already know how you feel about those!)

  • melissa s. Mar 11, 2010 @ 9:09

    I love your ball of dough analogy as much as I love getting these little nibbles of information about your book. I really can’t wait for the final feast!

    • patricia Mar 11, 2010 @ 9:21

      Oh dear, it will probably be quite a while before any feast comes together, at the rate I’m going. But I’m working at it! You can’t bake bread without making the dough…

  • Kristin Mar 11, 2010 @ 9:42

    I’ve done “cutting,” but with sections of images described on note cards for a documentary. I move them around the the floor and imagine the sequence of images. I think your plan sounds good and I like how you keep at it; the true sign of a “do-er” and not just a talker.

    • patricia Mar 11, 2010 @ 18:06

      It’s interesting to think of using the same technique with filmmaking. There’s something about being able to move the parts around and look at them, isn’t there?

      I’m either a doer or naively dogged.

  • Just Peaches Mar 11, 2010 @ 11:13

    Your cutting reminds me of my essays back in university. Written in pencil in block letters on graph paper, my essays spread themselves across my bedroom floor. Pre-computer days! (*sigh* I date myself). I think the “kneading” is half the fun of the process. Enjoy.

    • patricia Mar 11, 2010 @ 18:11

      I did most of my college work on typewriters, which dates me too. The guy across the hall from me had an Apple–he was some young genius who had ties with Macintosh. It was the first time I’d ever seen a computer mouse, and I couldn’t wrap my brain around what it did.

      It’s so easy to cut and paste on the computer now, but sometimes it’s great to spread the work across the floor and play with it.

      • Just Peaches Mar 11, 2010 @ 18:26

        I hand-wrote, cut, arranged and then typed. There is no way I could have composed on a typewriter. Gosh I love computers!

      • patricia Mar 11, 2010 @ 18:43

        I did compose at the typewriter! I think I sometimes hand-wrote drafts, but I certainly didn’t revise the way I should have. It was too hard. It always made me crazy when teachers made us turn in rough drafts, because then we had to type the whole thing over again! Insanity!

        I can’t imagine writing polished work without a computer. Just can’t imagine it.

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