I almost forgot that I owe you my monthly update. I can just see you bouncing in your seat right now.
Thanks for indulging me. These posts keep me sticking to my goals.
You may remember that my plan is to use the first three chapters to write about what each of my three kids have taught me about writing. I’ve shifted my ideas with each kid, and these reflections form a sort of nutshell history of how I went from a classroom model of teaching writing to something completely different.
The big lesson I learned from Lulu was the importance of helping a child develop a voice as a writer.
When I first began taking writing classes as an adult, I was always baffled when instructors used the term voice. How could an auditory term have anything to do with the written word? Clearly it was an important term: not only did all of my instructors use it; every one of my writing books had a chapter on voice (or sometimes one on style, which seemed essentially the same thing.)
Definitions of voice differ, depending on which writer you’re reading, but I came to understand voice as having personality and style on the page (or screen). In What A Writer Needs, a book for writing teachers, Ralph Fletcher offers this helpful definition: “When I talk about voice, I mean written words that carry with them the sense that someone has actually written them. Not a committee, not a computer: a single human being. Writing with voice has the same quirky cadence that makes human speech so impossible to resist listening to.”
I rarely took dictation from H, except when he was very young–before age six or so. With Lulu I began to do it more regularly, but I always felt a little guilty about it. I felt like she probably ought to be writing herself. But when she was eight, she dictated a story that started to set me straight on all that.
This time L. took a character from literature, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, and dictated her own, original chapter in Cleary’s style. At the time L. had been reading the Ramona series–the first series of longer chapter books which she’d slurped down on her own–and listening to audiobook versions of the stories in her room. L. gave Ramona her own grandmother’s real-life experience of putting hand dishwashing liquid into the dishwasher, only to have it foam out in billows all over the kitchen floor.
Here’s how L.’s story, titled Oh Ramona, begins:
Ramona Quimby walked in through the back door.
“How was kindergarten?” her mother asked, in a tired voice.
“It was fine, except I gave Davy one of my worm rings and he said, ‘Yuck!’ and threw it back at me.”
“Oh Ramona,” Mrs. Quimby said.
“Will you read me a story, Mama?”
“Oh Ramona, I’ve got a headache and look at all those dishes I’ve got to put in the dishwasher.” She groaned as she pointed towards the sink full of dishes. “I’m going to lie down in the bedroom. You go play and stay out of mischief!”
Mrs. Quimby walked into the bedroom. Ramona looked from the kitchen to the bedroom and back to the kitchen.
“I can help Mama by putting all the dishes in the dishwasher and running it!” Ramona tiptoed into the kitchen, and as quietly as she could, began to load the dishwasher with the dishes. Ramona knew that her mother used soap in the dishwasher, so she climbed up and got the bottle of soap down from the counter. Ramona filled the dishwasher tray with soap. “Maybe I should put some more in, ’cause these dishes are really dirty.”
Of course, soon bubbles are oozing across the kitchen floor, and instantly Ramona is putting on rain gear to scoop up “bubble snow”, placing foam “whipped cream” on plates for a bubble feast, and having a “foam war” with her buddy, Howie. I was astounded as L. dictated this passage to me over the course of a few days, and I said so, something along the lines of, “You sound just like Beverly Cleary!” Which she did. Cleary’s style is all there: the weariness in Mrs. Quimby’s “Oh Ramona”; the worm ring detail; the way Ramona talks to herself; and, of course, her boundless, imaginative mischief.
I knew from my writing books that professional writers often start out by mimicking their heroes. Annie Dillard’s words bear Thoreau’s whispers; Michael Cunningham let Virginia Woolf’s ghost guide his pen. Michael Chabon writes about how, as a boy, he modeled his comic book club newsletter on the editorial pages of Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee. “I wrote it in breathless homage, rich in exclamation points, to Lee’s prose style, that intoxicating smartass amalgam of Oscar Levant, Walter Winchell, Mad magazine and thirty-year-old U.S. Army slang.” This, often, is how writers learn their craft. L. was learning by imitating her own master–and she was able to do so because I took the time to take dictation from her. I’m certain that she couldn’t have adopted the nuances of Cleary’s style if she’d had to do the writing herself. She was still struggling with basic spelling at that that point; content took a backseat to form when she wrote on her own.
The Ramona story in particular was enough to convince me to continue taking dictation from L. as long as she wanted it. I was an aspiring writer myself, still striving to find my own voice as an essayist. I knew how hard it could be to write in a consistent style–to balance humor and insight, story and analysis. I knew how hard it was to be captivating on a page. Even back then, I sensed that helping L. develop her own voice mattered far more than worrying over whether she knew how to start sentences with capitals, or punctuate contractions, or spell sufficiently for her age.
Kids. They wear me out sometimes, ’til I’m ready to collapse on my bed like Mrs. Quimby. But I learn from them every day. Every day.
Next month: what I learned about writing from Mr. T, the kid who never does anything the way you’re supposed to.