chapter-a-month challenge: april

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.

learning to play guitarThey learn from us. We learn from them.

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.

10 comments… add one
  • Barrie May 11, 2010 @ 12:48

    Love the Chapter-a-month challenge: so inspiring (there I go again!) to read about your experiences writing with your kids. These posts (and many others, of course) keep me going and gently nudge me to continue taking dictation with Audie, as I am often tempted to just take a nap like Mrs. Quimby, even though it means paying in mountains of soap foam later.

    • patricia May 11, 2010 @ 21:18

      These posts inspire me too, to write with Mr. T. Sometimes it’s easier to just put it off. It’s only in retrospect that I see how every little writing session helps to make a writer.

      Naps are good too, though, when you can get away with them.

  • Angela May 12, 2010 @ 2:02

    Loving the chapter-a-month. And a great reminder to dig out our notebooks (they’ve been buried for a while) and take some dictation. I always love seeing their little minds at work.

    • patricia May 12, 2010 @ 18:34

      And I love hearing about their little minds at work. So don’t forget to come back and share!

  • Just Peaches May 12, 2010 @ 6:24

    First up, let me say I love that picture of Lulu – the wind in her hair, the guitar in her lap, her focus. She’s the picture of youth.

    And now a ramble on “voice”. At the risk of sounding schizophrenic, I realize I have many voices. My husband always remarks that he knows when I’m on the phone with my sister because my voice changes. Its true. It does – my intonation, my expression and cadence changes when I speak to her. No sane person could listen that voice for very long. We talk quickly, anticipating words, interrupting and punctuating with laughter. When the kids were little we told them to use their “indoor voice” rather than their “outdoor voice”. It seems to me that the problem with finding a “voice” when writing is finding which voice is most appropriate to use given your audience and your space.

    But I think finding a voice is even more complicated than determining ones audience and choosing the voice that speaks to it. When we say that someone has found their “voice” it means that they have found the courage to speak their truth about whatever their passion is (yes, even if it is chapter-a-month). Ultimately a successful writer understands its audience and is able to speak their truth without alienating the reader. Its a bit of a tightrope act if you ask me.

    I love your voice Patricia. In your posts and in your comments on other blogs I hear humour, encouragement and compassion. That’s the voice of a good mother.

    • patricia May 13, 2010 @ 7:20

      You bring up a few important points about voice, Peaches. Particularly that a writer’s voice has a lot to do with understanding his or her audience, and also his or her ability to write with confidence and passion.

      I think many of us made it through a public school education without developing either of these skills. I know I did! So much time is spent teaching older kids to write “academic” papers–which is a very focused, not-necessarily-practical skill. Yet being able to write to a particular audience with confidence and clarity is an incredibly useful skill for life. (Not to put down public schooling, or schooling otherwise. I know through my work with the Bay Area Writing Project and the larger National Writing Project that there are progressive teachers of writing out there. Still, it’s getting harder and harder for them to teach as they want to in this era of testing and standardization.)

      I think it’s fairly simple to help a child develop a unique, captivating writing voice. Encouraging them to write about what they’re already passionate about is a big help. As is doing whatever it takes to make writing enjoyable rather than frustrating or tedious–even if that means taking dictation for them for a few years.

      But what a gift to help our kids find “the courage to speak their truth about whatever their passion is”! It’s something they’ll rely on all their lives.

      Thank you for the very kind words about my own writing voice. It means an awful lot.

  • Just Peaches May 13, 2010 @ 8:09

    One more thought on voice (sorry Patricia, but you do get me thinking!)

    To write creatively, a writer also has to imagine the characters’ voices. Lulu demonstrates this so adeptly in Oh Ramona. I think great creative writers also have to be great observers don’t you?

    • patricia May 14, 2010 @ 8:42

      Great writers are definitely great observers. Yes. And great listeners too, in the case of dialogue.

      It’s interesting: in the teen writer’s workshop I facilitate, the kids and I comment often on how some of them are especially adept at dialogue. (These are particularly auditory kids, I think.) Others are gifted at detail; others at humor. And so on.

      Which is true of professional writers as well. Most have wide-ranging writing talents, but usually they are especially gifted at some particular aspects of writing.

      What kids really need is a sense of what they’re good at. Sure, they’ll want to work at all parts of their writing, but it’s such a help for them to know what they do well, so they can make the most of it in their writing.

      So glad that I get you thinking. That’s the ultimate compliment!

  • Kristin May 17, 2010 @ 21:51

    L’s dictation is pure proof! Well done Lulu. I just saw that you’ve left me a comment while I’ve been catching up and reading your wonderful posts for awhile now. And now poof! I’m off to bed.

    • patricia May 17, 2010 @ 22:40

      Yes, we were leaving each other comments at the same time! Kind of like a tea party, but without tea, and without interaction. Ha.

      It’s so fun to read stuff that they wrote (or dictated) long ago. I can just hear Lulu’s eight-year-old voice when I read it.

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