When I was in graduate school, I was lucky enough to take a lot of classes with Lucy Calkins, who would become my mentor, advisor, boss, and guide for more than a decade of my professional life.
I remember an aha moment during one of my first classes with her when I realized that there was a difference between narrative storytelling–and summarizing. That night, Lucy used the book Shortcut by Donald Crews as an example of a “small moment” that had been told in great detail, stretched out bit by bit. I’ve seen her use a zillion different examples since then, but none sticks in my memory so vividly as Shortcut. I still turn to this book often as a mentor text when I’m teaching narrative writing to any grade level.
Until that night in class I had spent most of my writing career struggling to find my voice. I never liked the way my writing sounded and I could never get a story onto the page very easily. Learning how to “zoom in on one moment” and then stretch it out, telling it bit-by-bit, one tiny microstep at a time was a game-changer for me. It instantly made me a better writer–and a better teacher.
I strongly believe, and have experienced in the many classrooms I work with, that personal narrative writing can also be a game changer for students learning to write. In personal narrative writing:
a) students are writing about what they know best–their own lives
b) they learn that their own lives are worth writing about
c) they learn essentials of writing in detail that are much harder to grasp in other genres
d) narrative writing overlaps with conversation, making it more familiar and a good entry point into all kinds of writing
e) personal narratives, stories, build a writing community
My list could go on.
More than a decade after my first class with Lucy, I joined the Two Writing Teachers team and am now in my sixth year hosting and participating in the Slice of Life Story Challenge. The mission of this month long writing challenge is for teachers of writing to write a story every day of the month. It is my favorite part of being a TWT coauthor.
I love reading the stories that teachers share during this challenging. The stories our community shares often make me laugh out loud, move me to tears, provoke deep thinking, and give me the sense that we are all in this together, teaching writing and learning to be better writers ourselves.
But… Some of the posts I read are not always stories. Some of the posts I personally write are not exactly stories either. In a month long challenge, there are bound to be days when we grasp for something, anything to write about. It is inevitable that on any given day, some of us write what I call a “band-aid.”
Band-aids, as I see them, are a way to get some writing on the page when you’ve got writers block. A band-aid is quick fix to a bigger writing problem. There’s nothing wrong at all with a band-aid, as long as it’s temporary, not a long-term solution. Lists and acrostic poems are examples of band-aids. Freewriting (stream-of-consciousness), a summary of my day, sharing a quote– those are also band-aids.
It’s not just during the Slice of Life Story Challenge that some of us resort to band-aids. Sometimes, as a consultant, I visit classrooms where teachers believe that writing stories will be too challenging for their students, so they resort to band-aids in the classroom as well. Instead of giving time and space for their students to draw or write an approximation of a story, they too often ask their students to make acrostics, make lists, or write to prompts.
In March, the real challenge isn’t just to write every day for thirty-one days. The REAL challenge is to write a story every day. If you’ve found yourself relying on band-aids more often than not, here a few strategies to get you back to sharing stories, instead of not-stories.
ZOOM IN ON A SMALL MOMENT
Remember a time you had a strong feeling, or a very specific problem, and then tell it bit-by-bit. Resist the urge to summarize. Zoom in on the exact moment that something happened, and then replay it in slow motion in your mind. Tell it aloud, and then write it down the way you told it, bit-by-bit.
USE TRANSITION WORDS
Using, or at least thinking “First, then, next, last” is a helpful way to steer yourself back to a story instead of summarizing or listing. Even if your final post turns out to jump forward in time, or flash back, starting out by thinking about the exact order that things happened can help you tell a story.
TELL YOUR STORIES ALOUD
The car and the shower are my two places where I actually get most of my writing done. I think and even talk out loud about what I plan to write, often rehearsing it multiple times before I sit down at the computer. Then, when I go to create my blog post, most of the work is actually already done.
LET YOUR STORY TAKE A LESS TRADITIONAL FORM
Stories can be told in many forms. They can be told in traditional written form through words. But stories can also take the form of a collection of photos, a poem, a comic, a video, music, and much more. The key is to convey a story–characters, setting, problem, solution (or some variation). This month, I’ve set a goal to create a comic every day. I’m trying (sometimes more successfully than others) to make my comics tell a story–that is, there is still an element of problem and solution, characters, and a setting. I’m new to creating comics, so some days I get there–some days I don’t.
Ultimately, it is the trying that matters. Your own writing, and your students’ writing, might not meet all the criteria or expectations for a great story. But reaching for that goal again and again, instead of resorting day after day to “band-aids” is really what the March Slice of Life Story Challenge is all about. Happy slicing, writing community, we are so glad to be on this adventure with you!