Start at the Beginning

Notes from the Writing Life

Poetic Genius

One of the most exciting things about having a new book is being able to develop new assemblies and writing workshops to go with it. The past couple of weeks has been a whirlwind of different kinds of Dangerously Ever After themed events, in bookstores, libraries, faires, festivals, and schools, and I've loved doing all of them, whether it's assemblies, readings, signings, crafts or a combination. But the thing I love most of all is doing writing workshops. After I've spent an hour writing with kids I feel like I've just swallowed a six pack of batteries, but without the indigestion. I'm usually jumping up and down, grabbing people by the elbows and imploring them to just LISTEN for one moment to the pure unadulterated genius of children's imaginations. If you could bottle the stuff, there would never be a dull moment anywhere. My job, as a writing teacher, is usually just to unstopper the bottle. Those weird thoughts you usually have to push aside so you can concentrate on school -- for the next 45 minutes, they get to be front and center.

The beginning of a writing workshop usually involves giving permission. "Can we write in pencil?" Yes. "Can we write in pen?" Yes. "Can we do a rough draft?" Yes. "Can we draw pictures?" Yes. "Can I make stuff up?" Yes. "Can it be funny?" Most emphatically, yes. There are a lot of rules in school, many of them sensible, but I have the privilege of suspending most of them for the time we're together. 

One of the rules I like to suspend is the one about who's "good" at writing, and who isn't. This is an unwritten rule, but most of the kids know it. The kids who are "good" at writing are usually the ones who find the pen-to-paper mechanics easy, the good spellers, the ones with neat handwriting, the ones who feel confident about their opinions. But in a writing workshop, those rules don't apply. Kids with lousy handwriting and absurd spelling can be great writers and so can shy kids and silly kids and kids who have trouble knowing what to say. The rule-breakers usually do just as well -- sometimes better -- than the rule followers, because, as I always tell them, "I like to be surprised."

Last week, a little boy named Jaspre's hand shot up in the air when I asked who in the class hates writing. But by the end of the workshop, he'd written a fabulous story about planting a piece of wood and having it grow into a play structure. Yesterday I got a letter from him. "Dear Ms. Dashka," he wrote. "Thank you for teaching us about making good stories." 

 

 

Because Dangerously Ever After revolves around a mix up between rose seeds and nose seeds, I've been having kids write seed stories and poems. We always begin by writing one as a group. Here's one written by a group of second graders at Francis Scott Key Elementary School in San Francisco last week:

We have a black seed.

It’s round like a circle.

It’s pointy like a porcupine.

It’s the size of an ant.

It wants to be planted in the playground

because

it will grow into a porcupine!

 

And here's one written by a group of fourth graders at Bridgeway Island Elementary School in West Sacramento, California:

 

We have some seeds.

They’re red.

They have little spikes.

They look like mutant pigs with wings.

They can fly.

They have afros.

They’re enormous and skinny.

They smell like week-old hamburger and old-lady perfume.

They smell like skunk spray.

They look like robots.

 

We plant them in the bottom of the swamp.

We plant them in the bottom of people’s throats.

We plant them in the dump.

We plant them on people’s heads.

We plant them on my brother’s back.

Instead of water they need ogre saliva.

 

When they sprout they look like

the globe with a stick figure body and gorilla feet.

They look like little mutant pigs with wings.

They look like sweat with eyeballs.

When they eat paper they double in size.

 

They’re useful for cooking.

They’re useful as abstract pieces of art.

They’re useful for eating.

They’re un-useful because they enslave humanity.

They’re called the Big Bang and they can do anything.

They’re used to burn things down.

They’re used as an antidote to heal spider bites.

They’re used to do your homework and your chores.

They can clone themselves.

They cost $750.000 each.

 

Pure genius, right? 

 

 

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