The other day, as if by magic, when it was still pitch black outside, before anyone in the household stirred, writing ideas floated across my eyelids without my thinking at all. I had just gotten done beating myself up for not writing enough recently. I rushed to my desk to jot them down on paper, lest they disappear as suddenly as they arrived.
Samira Ahmed and Adib Khorram, writers of books for young people, know that this is sometimes how writing goes.
“Whether they’re putting pen to page or at their computer or out on a walk, a writer is always writing,” Adib told me earlier this week. “If they’re on the subway, they’re writing. The subconscious mind is at work on writing even if we are not physically composing. And it’s important to have that space to do it.”
How can we carry this belief into the K-8 classrooms where I work, I thought, just as I grappled here alongside two other kidlit creators. How can we give our students the grace I finally gave myself?
LENGTHEN THE BEGINNING OF WRITING PROCESS
Teachers of writing know that brainstorming and organizing thoughts is an important first step of the writing process, no matter the age of students. Idea-generating and thinking through the various ways a story can go is often where we spend more than one class period. There’s a difference between ‘covering’ curriculum and actually ‘teaching’ it, and the difference resides in having time to practice, try and fail.
Samira Ahmed, author of many books for young people, including Amira & Hamza, Ms. Marvel and the upcoming Hollow Fires, has a special way of handling this phase – that she learned through personal trial and error. She calls it her “treatment,” where she writes a little vignette about a character or a scene to determine if she believes the story has staying power.
“It doesn’t cover the whole arc of the novel but it’s a way for me to explore the world and the character a little, and decide if it’s a story that will have legs,” Samira told me, when I picked her brain about the process. “I like having that as a springboard into the novel.”
Sometimes those stories make it into her final books and sometimes they don’t, but spending time getting to know the characters gives her confidence to move forward happily in the writing process.
“When we allow creativity in the early part of the process – brainstorming and forming the idea, and letting kids approach it without judgement,” Samira, who is also a former ELA teacher, said, “we can give kids confidence as we have to streamline and get into the more structured part of writing.”
We know too that every student composer is different. Some students might lean heavily on oral rehearsal, others might desperately need to partner-share, and still others might need to scribble and sketch across a notebook. There are endless possibilities for how a writer gets their thoughts out, particularly in those initial stages. They might launch from an image. A map. A collage. A world they imagine. A character they really want to bring to life. For Samira, stories almost always begin with a character and conflict. She tends to write initial ideas in a notebook labeled Seeds.
“It is Important for kids to have some freedom with it, especially for the fledgling creation part of the process,” Samira said, underscoring growth mindset in writing especially. “It’s not going to be a direct route. You can falter. You have to be able to stand up, dust yourself off and create a new path. I’m not going to allow myself to be stymied because I stumbled.”
Samira’s latest YA novel, Hollow Fires, comes out in May.
MARINATING IN REVISION AND FEEDBACK
Adib Khorram, author of Darius the Great and its sequel, Seven Special Somethings and the upcoming Kiss and Tell, says his favorite part of the writing process is revision, because that is where his stories really take shape and shine. Of course, this is where I often struggle with students in the classroom, where students seem to feel ‘done’ without working through the piece some more.
“I get to discover what the story is truly about in revision,” Adib said. “For me a first draft is like dumping out all the pieces of a Lego set. You maybe sort them. But revision is when you build the set itself. Drafting is when you see all the pieces you have. Revision is when you get rid of the pieces you don’t need and hopefully turn the rest into something good.”
And then we discussed writerly feedback: the work of a teacher, peer partners and editors.
We know there is emotionality to the process– that writing can feel vulnerable and raw. I have often said writing publicly makes me feel naked on the page. Samira mentioned the trust that must be present for first readers especially; that people closest to us often give us the most useful feedback. Only after confidence is built might we share with a wider circle. Both authors shared that the most useful feedback often comes in the form of questions.
“An editor might say, this is what I’m getting from the scene, is that what you’re trying to do? Have you considered how these two sequences reflect each other?” Adib said. “And questions really help young writers engage their problem solving and their imagination and it usually leads to a stronger story than if someone hands you the solution.”
These conversations with Adib and Samira sent me into a spiral of thinking that I immediately shared with teachers I work alongside in Chicago schools. Sometimes, in the frenzy of life, when we’re conferring, we have pre-determined moves in mind. We already have ideas for where we want students to go. So we vowed to slow some parts. And ask more questions. Together we generated a list – just on post-its, nothing cumbersome- to remind us that kids will always lead us.
- What were you trying to do or say here?
- What happens next? Then? After that?
- What did you want your readers to learn here?
“To write is to carve a piece of your heart and offer it to someone else and have someone point out the flaws in it,” Adib said. “We’re sometimes assuming it’s an essay and the curriculum says they have to learn how to revise. But we don’t consider how the whole thing feels.”
Writers need time to digest feedback and wallow. When Adib receives feedback from his editor, for example, he lays on the ground and stares at the ceiling, accepting and internalizing the commentary and questions that he described as a “form of rejection.” He sets a timer and gives himself the space.
“You can’t rush it,” Adib said. “That’s not how art works. You’re being creative. You’re making art. That process needs time.”
Adib’s writing notebook, where he collects ideas. His newest book comes out in March.