Where Have All the Narratives Gone?

In summer I enjoy a number of activities that don’t fit easily into my school year schedule, and one of those is movie-going. The other evening, my 17 year old daughter and I went to see Me Before You. While I had read the book and knew it was unlikely I’d make it through the movie without crying, I was looking forward to seeing the screen adaptation of a story with which I had connected as a reader. We settled into our seats just as the previews began, and I can assure you that writing workshop was the furthest thing from my mind as I sipped my soda and adjusted my eyes to the big screen.

The previews began, and without exception every one showcased a fantasy film. There were talking animals, enormous creatures with super powers, flying humans, trucks that magically flipped in the air and safely leapt over canyons, and galactic wars. Not a single preview was for a film with characters like you and me, living earthly lives with strengths and struggles to which I could relate. Don’t get me wrong, the movies all look highly entertaining, and I am sure they will do well at the box office. But before the movie I’d come to see began, I tucked that observation in the back of my teacher of writers brain.

(Spoiler alert! Skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie yet.)

Fast forward to the following day. Yes the movie was good, and yes I cried. Although I don’t personally know anyone who has suffered a catastrophic injury and chosen death over life, I found the events and characters in the book plausible. The storyline is realistic even though the situation isn’t one most people will ever face. The film is full of ordinary moments woven into an extraordinary story.

As much as I liked the film, I found myself thinking about the previews that all showcased fantasy stories. I wondered why none of them fell into the more familiar genre of realistic fiction. I wondered about the connection between popular films and writing workshop.

One of the things that has surprised me in writing workshops is how challenging personal narrative and realistic fiction writing are for some young writers. They often struggle with generating ideas and learning how to unfold their stories  bit by bit on the page. “I have nothing to write about,” is not an uncommon response when I introduce personal narrative writing in classrooms, even after weeks of story sharing and modeling. Small, everyday moments don’t cut it in young writers’ minds. And when they embark on a realistic fiction unit, I’ve noticed that their stories often veer into action-packed fantasies and their characters inevitably gain superpowers. I’ve heard more than one complain that writing realistic fiction feels limiting.

As I reflected back on the previews at the movie theater, I had an ah-ha moment. Perhaps writing about the small  moments of their lives, and creating realistic story lines with relatable characters in fiction pieces is challenging for our students because so much of what they see and read is not like that. When I think about the “hot” books my students read and share, they are mostly fantasy series. And when I see what is in the theaters, well, it is pretty similar. I think students today are unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortable with the structure, rhythm and feel of stories of ordinary moments brought to life beautifully on the page.

So what does this mean for writing workshop teachers who encourage students to experiment with a variety of genres, including personal narrative and realistic fiction? For starters I think it means that we need to be aware that when our students are stuck, it may well be because they are unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable with these kinds of stories. Recognizing and naming that unfamiliarity is a great place to start.

What else can we do?

  • Make story sharing a part of our classroom culture and routines from the very first day of school.
  • Model, model, model.
  • If your school uses the Responsive Classroom approach, find and incorporate into morning meeting games and activities that highlight the everyday moments of students’ lives.
  • If your students are reading mostly fantasy, choose realistic fiction for read alouds.
  • Connect with authors of realistic fiction and try to schedule Skype sessions with your writers. Inevitably, published writers talk about the seeds for their stories coming from their own experiences.
  • Share pages from your writer’s notebook that show entries inspired from everyday moments in your own life.
  • For those of us who are parents with children still under roof, try to find time during summer to linger over family meals and share stories from the day or way back.

Seeing  Me Before You with my daughter was summer fun. It was also time spent with a story with believable characters facing hard choices. It was a narrative that included ordinary everyday scenes, like an awkward conversation at the dinner table and the opening of a birthday gift that is all wrong and another that is just right. I walked away thinking not just about the film, but about similar small moments in my own life. As teachers of writers we need to fuel and build those sorts of connections with students, now more than ever.