Thursday, June 5, 2008

Learning from Students

My day job is a teacher. Which will mean I may be scanty on the posts for the next few days. It depends on whether I really buckle down and grade those finals, or whether I slack off and play on the internet instead.

The essay question on their test is to interpret a South American poem, "The Window" by Jaime Torres Bodet and explain what that poem is saying about opportunity. Some of the kids really went with it, describing lost opportunities to say goodbye to their grandmother, or creating scenarios of how they thought the poem was talking about lost love (which reminded me more of this poem).

In reading these essays, I could really tell the difference between the kids who were writers and the kids who weren't. I'm not saying anything bad about the kids--it's just some people can write, and others can't. As a teacher, I am perfectly aware that there is a limit to how much I can teach each child about literature and writing--just as their is a limit for each individual child on how much math, or science, or history she can understand. Some people are programmed for certain subjects more than others.

I digress. The difference, at this very early stage in these young writer's life, is personal observation. Some kids were straight to the point, and while their examples were technically correct, they weren't very specific: "I wanted to go to the roller skating rink, but for some reason I decided not to go. Who knows what could have happened?" But others really went in depth. The student worked to make the example real. One wrote about a friend who had a scholarship to study in Spain, but didn't go because he was scared. He talked about the kid's facial expression, the shift from eagerness to cowardice, the way his appearance changed from open and willing to closed and shy as the departure drew nearer. He added real-life detail that made the example come alive.

A writer must do this. A writer must observe life. When the writer then creates a character, the writer must consider what that character would do in real life. A character cannot just progress plot--that makes a story a list. A character must instead have depth, "real" emotions that dictate actions, even poor actions like missing a trip to Spain. A character cannot be simple. In order to create real characters, a writer must have personal observations of real people. It's the details that create reality. Writing without detail is like a blurry photograph--you might be able to tell what the picture is, but you're not going to frame it and hang it on the wall.

Example: In the Percy Jackson series, Percy's mother makes blue-dyed food as a special treat for Percy because it's her little way of rebelling against an oppressive husband who says blue food is impossible. That's a minor detail. Without it, the plot does just fine, the characters develop just fine--it's not needed. But it makes the story so much richer, the characters so much more real.

Striving to develop real characters with real histories, real emotions, real motivations, and real actions makes a richer, better story. Our goal as a writer is to do just that.


PS: A little note about my finals. They're killer. The school allows us 3 hours of testing, and I use all three. The kids have nearly 200 multiple choice, 9 short answers, and an essay...and the questions are all very specific. Sample short answer question: Give an example of a medieval allegory, explaining the symbolic and literal meaning. Or, define the differences between Abrahmic and dharmic religions and explain how these differences influence literature in the East or the West. *insert wicked witch cackle here*
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