Friday, February 3, 2012

Mentor, Research, & Cubism as Writer

In an effort to continue to provide mentors in the classroom to inspire, support, and shape student writing, I wrote an email to local author Carrie Hagen (we is got him) and asked if she would either chat with  my students through Skype or visit or school.  I had never met Hagen, but learned that she was an NWP Fellow and heard she spoke recently to a group of Fellows at West Chester University--it was worth the shot.

I have learned with technology and social networking that we have access today to people beyond status updates and pictures of the weekend.  We are all able to access authors, musicians, scientists, historians (around the world) and if we would like someone to speak with our students all we have to do is ask.  They may say no just as easily as yes--for teachers it is worth the shot.  I've found more have said yes than no.  My experience with Hagen not only served the purpose of providing a mentor in the classroom (a best writer in the room) but it also inspired me to build a new research unexpected bonus.

Hagen spoke to three of my classes--and we tried something a little different with the author chat.  We included a guided writing activity and a sharing session with a revision of a piece due that day for homework.

For most author chats, I ask the author to speak about a specific topic for 10-15 minutes or so and then open up the floor to student questions.  As long as I prep the students in advance, and give them a chance to write down some questions, they fill the last 30 minutes with terrific questions about writing--situations they face, are confused be, or are curious about.  Otherwise, they struggle and seem to feel on the spot.

A few days in advance, Hagen sent me a couple of pages of drafts from her novel, and then a revision of each.  The drafts included her editor's notes (about content and not grammar).  I copied and distributed them to my students and then read through it with them day before--I wanted them have a familiarity of the content before Hagen arrived the next day.

Since she wrote a nonfiction account of the first kidnapping in America for ransom, Hagen asked the students about their experiences with true crime (novels, television shows, film).  Once they got the feel that her story was true crime, and exciting to research and write, Hagen outlined three must-haves for her writing:

1. read what you want to write
2. write character-driven scenes
3. write most sentences with the S-V close together and close to the front of the sentences

Read what you want to write:  It answers question--how do you do it?  where do you start?  how do you organize it?  Hagen shared a passage about serial killer H.H. Holmes from Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City and how that style of writing inspires her.  It is nonfiction...but it is creative!  Nonfiction can be really exciting true content and still leave so much room for you to exercise your creative muscles.  We make so many decisions when we write, we can't but be creative.  The difference is in what you know--it has to be based in fact.  You have to read, research, ask questions, and stand in the places you write of.  Writing nonfiction is an experience and the more you read it the better chance you have to write your own powerful and moving story.

Write character-driven scenes: this was interesting because Hagen's scene in our hands was driven by a character she did not want to take over the story.  The difference in her draft and her revision was that she explained more about his job as a detective in 1874 and how many policemen moonlighted as detectives, and were often corrupt.  This still provided a scene built around a character, but we didn't get too personal as a reader--we learned something about him, but not so in depth that we connected to him rather than someone more important to the core of the story.

Write with S-V: While the students had their own copies of the scene and highlights and pens out, I projected a copy of the page onto the Smartboard.  Identifying the subject and verb in each sentence with the class, Hagen led us through a paragraph --we highlighted each.  She pointed out how most sentences had the S-V close together, and only one or two allowed for a variation in this structure.  This promoted clarity, the active voice, and kept the action moving.

We then revised a sentence of Hagen's from the novel:

Somewhere along these muddy streets lurked a man who he believed could identify the kidnappers.

While encouraging them to remove anything they wanted from the sentence, Hagen invited the students to change the subject or verb, but retain the message of the sentence.

Some revisions:

A kidnapper lurked in the street.
A kidnapper haunted these muddy streets.
A shadow lurked in the man, a kidnapper.

Afterwards, we had the students pull out their own writing to share with the class.  A revision of a draft of an extended metaphor was due in class. Asking for volunteers, students were willing to share in the presence of an author at about the same rate on a typical day--some were eager, others not so much.  Hagen praised each for a turn of a phrase, an image, or an idea--it was good to see the students receive the positive feedback from someone other than me.  I love anything we can do as educators to raise their image of themselves in their own eyes.

Overall, the discussion served as a great bridge for me into research, journalism, and creative nonfiction.  When Hagen shared that nonfiction answers our desire as human beings for the WHAT and the WHY, I found inspiration for an upcoming research unit and lesson.

She said to learn what happened takes time...takes research...we have to collect fragments (some more clear than others) but once you find enough pieces, a picture begins to form...the WHAT, more or less, is clearly plotted on a timeline.  (Good, focused, use of library time.  Pick something in our community, a topic of interest, something historical, and find a change--find out what happened.)

The why, Hagen countered, is more difficult--it takes a while to think about.  And the more you draft and write about the why (or what you think the why could be) the clearer it becomes.  You don't really know what your writing is about until it is all written down.  (Good use of writing workshop time buttressed by our research.)

In this respect the writing process is like Cubism--take a topic, find its pieces, and reassemble them.  As writers we can never truly reassemble pieces of research into the entire truth, the entire picture.  The picture we write is always influenced by what we bring to the exercise: our wants, fears, and prejudices.   

I think the extended metaphor that writing a research essay, or creative nonfiction, or journalism is Cubism brought me to a 1923 self portrait by Dali.  This image will serve as opening discussion piece to bring in what my students learned from Hagen and then carry it forward to what we are about to do as writers: find pieces and reassemble them.

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