Cupcakes and Storytelling

Image courtesy of piyato /"

Image courtesy of piyato /”

Last week my niece, who is in second grade, told her teacher that her aunt is a writer, whereupon her teacher wrote to ask if I would mind coming in to talk to the class. I said I’d love to, but was a little stumped as to what to talk about, since Zebra Forest is not exactly right for second graders, given some of its darker themes. So she asked me to just talk about what it’s like being a writer.

What’s it’s like being a writer. Well, that’s a huge subject, and one I could probably talk about for a month at least, but for second graders, I decided it would be better to talk about what you do as a writer, since that’s at least more concrete and won’t likely bring me to tears of joy and gratitude (not appropriate for a second grade classroom).

First thing I did, though, was pass out cupcakes, because when I looked at the calendar, I realized I was coming in on my niece’s eighth birthday. For me, this was a most happy coincidence, and one that also made the kids especially receptive to my talk, since who doesn’t like cupcakes?

When the cupcake eating was done, I started by asking the class what makes up a story. I got one really great response to the question, when a girl said: A beginning, a middle, and an end.

Yes, definitely!

I also got some answers that spoke more to the writing process than to the content of the story, for example, the kid who said: Brainstorming and editing. (This one was on a poster on the wall, and clearly something their teacher had been stressing, which was nice to see.)

But what I was getting at, and what eventually we talked about, was that a story will have a character and a plot. They knew the word character, not plot, but one person did offer that a story needed to have a problem, which I loved, and which is exactly right. Finally, we talked about how writers use the five senses to bring the story to life. We started out by coming up with a character – a girl named Sarah – and a setting – a farm. Then we began with the sentence “Sarah got up in the morning and went to milk the cows.”

From there, I had them embroider that little bit of narration with what Sarah might have seen in the barn. They came up with a red cow with a sore leg, a horse sleeping in a stall, and a bunch of chickens and their six new eggs.

And so the scene took on something:

Sarah walked into the barn first thing in the morning and saw the red cow standing in the corner, her leg a little lame. The old horse still slept in his stall, and she shooed the chickens away to find they had laid six new eggs, bright as pebbles.

Next the kids thought about what she might have heard in that barn. They had a great list:

The cow mooing;

The horse snoring;

The chickens clucking.

So the scene changed again:

Sarah walked into the barn first thing in the morning and saw the red cow standing in the corner, her leg a little lame, mooing softly. The old horse snored in his stall, and as she shooed the chickens away, they clucked and scattered, revealing six newly laid eggs, bright as pebbles.

From there, of course, we needed to know what Sarah might have smelled, touched, or even tasted. When we’d gathered those bits, we ended with this:

Sarah walked into the barn first thing in the morning and breathed in the scent of fresh hay and old food, the stinky-sweet combination of the pig sty and the barn. She saw the red cow standing in the corner, her leg a little lame, mooing softly. The old horse snored in his stall, and the chickens clucked as she shooed them away, scattering to reveal six new eggs, bright as pebbles. She sat down, fingering the rusty handle of the milk pail. Soon enough, the milk splashed, and she stuck her tongue out to catch a few drops of the warm, sweet spray.

We talked, then, about the difference between a scene like this, packed with the five senses, and our first sentence, which got us into the subject of the old writer’s rule: show, don’t tell. When you show, you feel like you’re in Sarah’s story, experiencing it with her. Of course, you can’t always show. There’s a place for telling, and I asked them what would happen if we decided to do this for every moment of Sarah’s story. What if she were going to go across the country to attend school in the city, where she’d meet a bunch of new friends. Would we want to feel her walking out of the barn, getting ready, going to the train station, buying her ticket, sitting on the train, looking out the window, arriving . . . . Well, no. That would get long and boring. And so the kids began to understand that wonderful balance of scene and narration that makes up a story.

After that, we had questions, some of which were great, including this one:

Do you eat sweet things to get you to think sweet thoughts?

Well . . . I definitely eat sweet things. Let’s leave it at that.

And finally, at the end of the week, my niece arrived with a packet of thank you notes and drawings for me. They were all spectacular, but here’s my favorite line:

“Dear Mrs. Gewirtz, Thank you for the visit. . . . I wish you could visit again. With more cupcakes.”

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