Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Beginnings and, for the first time, endings

One of my first books for Scholastic was 5-Minute Daily Practice: Writing:

Yes, that title—and that cover—don’t scream “Must-have”!

(I'd named it something else and I remember not knowing they'd changed the title until I got my author copies.)

It’s a book of story prompts
—tools intended to motivate writers (especially ones who may struggle to come up with an idea).

For example:

Just as my dad was about to light a fire, something flew out of our chimney and into the family room...
That’s obviously a one-liner but some in the book go on for a few short paragraphs:
Is My Underwear Showing?

I’m not embarrassed if somebody sees my underwear. For example, I don’t mind when someone sees a pair in the laundry or on my floor. I’m only embarrassed if somebody sees my underwear on me.

One day, everyone saw my underwear on me.

We had an assembly in the cafeteria. A very funny rock band was singing about American history. In between the songs, they would call up volunteers to act out famous events.

I didn’t want to be called, which of course meant that I was. The band wanted my help in a skit about the Boston Tea Party, the night when patriots dressed as Native Americans and dumped cases of tea into Boston Harbor to protest British taxes. I was a patriot, and my job was to bend over, pick up a “crate” (there weren’t really crates on stage, but we pretended), throw it into the water, then repeat.

As I did this, I didn’t feel that my pants were a little too loose. After I threw my fifth or sixth crate, I turned to pick up another when suddenly there was a huge laugh from the audience because...
Whether the prompt is short or longer, it’s up to the student to complete the story.

My mom didn’t believe in coloring books. She wanted her kids to confront a blank page and create something from nothing. It’s a philosophy I have adopted with my kids, though, at times, I do allow them to color within the lines.

Story prompts are to writing as coloring books are to art. So I was hesitant to write this book. I didn’t want to compromise my inherited principle.

I decided I’d do it, but with a twist: some of the story prompts are not story openings but rather story
endings. Therefore, instead of continuing after the dot dot dot, the writer will write up until the dot dot dot.

For example:

...We decided to paint the tree house again—but this time, any other color besides red.

...After that, Jack said he was through accepting dares.
I’ve not heard of another book (before or since) that has done this. While it doesn’t compare with a blank page, it is a kind of exercise that kids presumably haven't seen, so I told myself that made it okay. Because of this quirky feature, I still mention the book in writing workshops today.

Both kinds of prompt require imagination. And both call upon skills in areas of reading comprehension, cause and effect, and inference.

But the story endings seem more like mysteries to be solved, don’t they?

With a beginning, you can go in most any direction. That’s great for fostering creativity. With an ending, you can, too, but you always have to end up with the ending. That’s great for what seems like deductive reasoning.

Maybe I’m over-analyzing (and if so, badly), but perhaps someone out there can better articulate how the mind works differently when writing into an ending as opposed to writing after a beginning.

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