Writers, Start Your Engines: A Mid-Leap Dispatch

Last month, I described my plans and worries for the new risk I’m taking with a familiar course: a mini fiction workshop in my IB English class. Last week we finished reading our mentor texts, stories from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck, and now students are in the middle of some independent work time for writing and a group podcast. We’ve almost landed on the other side of our leap, but we’re not there yet. Here’s what’s been happening “mid-leap.” 

Francine Prose? Students say Francine “Nos”

While I found Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer to be a useful and engaging text during graduate school, I realized two weeks ago that students weren’t absorbing much of her guidance. I think that pairing our new Adichie stories with Prose’s book, which alludes to and uses excerpts from many short stories and novels that might be unfamiliar to students, created an input overload. Students couldn’t see the patterns and techniques that Prose identified because they were too busy trying to comprehend our Adichie stories AND the excerpts that Prose quotes. After a lukewarm reaction to Prose’s analysis of Jane Austen’s characterization, we decided to look for another craft text. 

When one book closes, an email newsletter opens…

That new craft text turned out to be “On the Many Different Engines That Power a Short Story” by Lincoln Michel for Lit Hub, a piece that dropped into my digital lap about 30 minutes before I really needed it. (Ah, the frustrating and delightful serendipity of the best teaching tools!) 

In the essay, Michel explains how short story conventions like plot, character, form, and word choice can function as engines that power a story’s creation. These “engines” can be revved throughout the writing process to help writers restart a stalled story. If you haven’t read the essay yet, I encourage you to stop reading this post, click on the link above, and check it out. Then come back here….

 

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…Glad you’re back!

I read Michel’s piece on a day when I had scheduled some brainstorming time for my classes, so I was especially excited to see that the essay includes a few writing exercises. I tested Michel’s language engine exercise (borrowed from his former professor, Rebecca Curtis) on my own and was so thrilled by how it revved my own writing that I tried it with students. Here are the basic steps:

 

  • Write one sentence that could start (or be a part) of a story

 

Pandora knew the alarm would sound the minute she touched the painting, but she reached forward with her good hand and grazed her fingertips over the tiny, shining peaks of midnight blue anyway. 

 

  • Circle 2 or 3 key words of the sentence 

 

touch, alarm, painting, blue

 

  • Make a list of 10-20 words you associate with the key words

 

Connection, fear, art, sadness, love, security, brushstroke, clouds, sensation, waking, emotion, ocean, sharp, siren, visual, stars, intimacy, bells, distance, Van Gogh, velvet, frames, danger, delicate

  • Write a story where each sentence uses a word from the list of 10-20 words. 

She needed a stronger connection to the painting. Seeing it wasn’t enough–there was too much distance between her eyes and the canvas. She wanted the intimacy Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Chapel, to be so close to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” that she could step inside. 

She tried to dip her finger into one of the swirling clouds like she was tasting batter for a cake, and immediately, the security claxons sounded. She bit her nail. How to explain this?…

While step #4 might seem confining, it was freeing for me. Having to use a word from my list in each sentence propelled my story forward. (And if your classes are practicing literary analysis right now, this could be a great exercise for thinking about motifs and how they emerge!)

I shared Michel’s language engine exercise with seniors in class and they launched into drafting. Some students had a lot to write, but I could tell that others were still feeling lost. How could I help them to feel more confident?

Well, you could ask them…

It has been tough to carve out a lot of writing or planning time, so I used a Google survey as a digital conference of sorts. Last week, I asked students to share:

  • their concerns about the project
  • their plans for their stories
  • their suggestions for how I could help them with their story planning or writing
  • their resource wish-lists
  • a sentence or two from their drafts

The results were a little surprising. As I read through students’ responses I saw more than one question about the “proper” or “right” way to write a story; students were looking for an outline they could follow and were clearly worried about something going wrong. They also seemed to be struggling to connect Adichie’s stories with the stories they could write–they had variety! They were our mentor texts! 

Writers, start your engines! 

With my students’ questions and concerns in mind, I returned to Michel’s essay and tried to turn it into a map the would lead students from the stories we read to the stories they will write. 

First, I created a handout with a brief explanation of five of the “engines” Lincoln Michel describes: plot, character, form, language, and situation (the section on “situation” is inspired by Stephen King’s process). 

Then, I found an excerpt from one of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s stories that could have been jumpstarted by that engine.

Finally, I added a writing exercise students could use to “rev” the engine. 

To see how one page turned out, check out the image below. 

Screen Shot 2019-11-08 at 8.58.00 AM

I’m pretty proud of my handout, but when we gathered for our most recent writing day, most students seemed ready to jump into their writing. As a result, I didn’t do much direct instruction with our new resource, but I distributed it and anticipate referring to it during writing conferences and when writers’ stories stall. At the very least, I know it will change how I approach a writing study like this one in the future! 

Our most persistent antagonist on this new journey is time–I’m asking a lot of my students to be writing a short story AND completing a group project–but I have tried to assure them that our goal isn’t to write a perfect short story; rather, the writing process is what is most important here. How will they understand Adichie’s stories differently after writing a story themselves? 

As our writing deadline approaches, I look forward to reading students answers to that question along with varied, compelling, and earnestly crafted stories they create!

Have any tried and true writing engine-revving exercises? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman.

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