Active Reading

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

For years I used to tutor high school students, teaching them how to recognize the elements of a good piece of writing and to duplicate it in their own work. Recently, a friend of mine, who now teaches third grade, asked me about strategies to help her much younger students do the same. Now, third grade is a different ball of wax than high school, where you expect that kids mostly have the basics down. But over the years, I’ve found that even in high school, not all kids do have the basics, and so it helps to understand how to develop writing skills from the ground up. There’s grammar and spelling, of course, but writing is more than mechanics, it’s also organization, a thinking skill that requires you to put ideas in an order that makes sense. And while I’ve often found that teachers excel at teaching mechanics, many struggle nearly as much as the rest of the world does with structure. It’s just so murky, isn’t it? What is it, anyway? The order of the sentences? Of the paragraphs? And does that really matter, after all? Isn’t it style that makes a good piece of writing? Or beautiful sentences?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because I’m the last person to think style doesn’t matter. And beautiful sentences make my day. But the truth is, without a sound structure, a piece of writing fails, no matter how beautiful its sentences. After all, you’re trying to tell a story, and stories do have a shape, in the end. So turns out structure isn’t really that murky, if you actually know what it is. Even young kids are great at spotting the elements of a good story if they have a bit of a lesson in how stories work. And the best way to show them that, I think, is to illustrate how stories work for them. So when my friend asked me for advice, the first thing I told her was to teach her students to be active readers.

You often hear people say that if you want to be a good writer, you’ve got to read a lot. That’s true, but it’s more than just reading. The best writing lessons come out of thinking about what the writer is doing, how the story works. My friend went back to class and told her students that stories make us ask questions we want to see answered; they make us curious, and give us a reason to keep reading, so that we can get our questions answered. The writer’s job is to make us ask the right questions. She then began reading the wonderful story Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, by William Steig, to her third grade. (Fun fact – this book was banned in some places because in its animal world, the pigs were the policemen.) Immediately, the kids began to be aware of their questions, and to articulate them. Sylvester is turned into a stone! What’s going to happen to him? How will his parents react? Will anyone find him? Will he be a big rock forever? Now, William Steig is doing what great writers always do — filling his readers with the urgent need to get the answers to questions they never thought of before they opened his book. I mean, really, how often do kids go around thinking about the fate of a donkey turned into a rock? And so they keep turning pages until they get a satisfactory answer to what’s going to happen to poor Sylvester.

What’s wonderful about this process is that though readers always do have questions about what’s happening next, a character’s motivations, and the like, they rarely articulate these, and so don’t get the benefit of realizing that questions are exactly what drive a reader to read. Understanding that, though, is the key to writing anything someone else will want to read.

A side benefit of this technique is that the entire third grade got excited and involved in the daily reading. Next step will be to see if they can start to produce questions of their own to explore in writing. I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

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Spears and Bags

women of vision cover

Recently I reread a favorite essay, Ursula LeGuin’s The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction. I have a copy of it in a compilation of essays by women science fiction writers, Women of Vision (1988, St. Martin’s Press, edited by Denise Dupont). In it, LeGuin argues that too many story writers labor under the impression that the story has one kind of “right” structure – a very male structure that resembles a spear. It’s the story of the Hero, his hunt, his quest, his adventure, and it zooms forward from conflict to climax and then it’s over. That story, and the human being it puts at its center, the male conqueror, for a long time made her feel like a very peripheral part of the human race, as she puts it, “extremely defective as a human being or not human at all.” Stories, after all, create the norm, and if we see ourselves as comfortable in the dominant story, we’re normal, and if we don’t, we’re not. Thinking about this, she proposed a different kind of story, in which story structure becomes, not a spear, but a carrier-bag, a basket where ideas and relationships and events get stored, and brought home, and searched for meaning:

A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.

A novel, then, can have conflict, but it will have it along with plenty of other things, including, she notes, harmony.

From the moment I read it, years ago, this essay struck me as a brilliant reimagining of not only story structure, but our cultural story as well. I’m a big fan of both kinds of stories – both the spear structure (who doesn’t like a good adventure?) and the carrier-bag structure. My favorite kinds of writing merge the two, because I like to see something happen in a book, some obstacle overcome, but I’m not a huge fan of the traditional hero, too uncomplicated, too single-focus to be real. I like thoughtful characters, who think their way through life. The best people I know do that in reality, why shouldn’t books mirror that kind of person? Action stars don’t much interest me, I’m always second guessing them in my head (would they really do that and not be considered psychotic in real life?) or wondering about their families, the people left at home. Or thinking, after the spectacular explosion that ends everything, about the people who were just walking by and got caught up in it, and what happened to their husband or wife, waiting at home for them to joke over supper, or take a walk in the park? And what happened to them all, not just tomorrow, when the medals get passed out, but ten years from now, when other things have claimed people’s attention. What’s life like, in other words, beyond the moment we see? Maybe this is why LeGuin’s essay resonated with me so, and still does.