Creative Writing Formulas for Teachers

Teaching Writing  /   /  By William Rubel, Editor
Stone Soup Magazine
November/December 2016

I recommend this blog post, What Kids Have Taught Me About Writing, by children’s book author Kathleen McCleary. Those of us who read a lot of writing by children produced in schools — and I certainly speak for the staff here at Stone Soup — get tired of reading writing by children that is so obviously constrained by creative writing formulas. “Stop!”  I sometimes want to shout, “can’t you ask children to write something that means something to them?”

At Stone Soup we are very focused on personal experiences — writing from the heart.  Not being teachers ourselves I think we probably make the mistake of discounting the value of creative writing formulas.

What Kathleen McCleary talks about in her blog post is the constructive use of writing games. She mentions the “ahah moment” creative writing game by way of one  example. As the “ahah moment” fits in with my own bias towards writing based on experience I actually find her description of a fill-in-the-blank project the most challenging to my own thinking. And, the most inspiring.

On the face of it, what could be more dull? “Once upon a time _______. And every day ________ ……” but then, the example Kathllen offers is a story that does, indeed, take one’s breath away. A writing class taught by a novelist is probably not quite the same as one taught by you or me. It is impossible to know what inspiration Kathleen herself brings to her students in the way she framed the assignments. But what I take from her post is that if you can free up children’s creativity, if you can tap into their deep imaginative layers, then the game becomes a challenge, like the strict sonnet form in poetry. When one masters the formula (rather than be mastered by it)  brilliant literature is the outcome. What Kathleen McCleary sees as the wonder of it is what all of us who are closely involved with children’s creativity see, whether it is in the realm of writing or art or music, when the stars align for children they seem to effortlessly create material that most adults would have to struggle for.

This, then, from Kathleen McCleary’s blog, Writer Unboxed.

Simple can be powerful. One of the exercises I do with kids is 7-sentence story, in which I ask them to write a story by filling in these blanks: “Once upon a time____. And every day____. Until one day____. And because of that____. And because of that____. Until finally____. And ever since____.” Last summer, a quiet, 14-year-old boy wrote this story, in less than 10 minutes:

“Once upon a time, the sun fell in love with the moon. And every day she chased him across the sky but he always slipped just out of sight and set as she rose. Until one day she caught up to him in what the humans called an ‘eclipse’ but she called a ‘miracle.’ And because of that, she discovered that she and the moon could not ever stay in the sky at the same time, except for eclipses. And because of that, every day she felt lonely and sad as the moon set and she rose. Until finally an eclipse came again and she and the moon met once more. And ever since she has been hoping and waiting for another so they may be together again.”

It gives me goose bumps every time I read it. It makes me want to be a better writer. It makes me grateful I get to work with young people.

William Rubel, Editor
About the Author

In 1973, I was twenty years old, teaching children's art classes at my college, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and came up with the idea that the best way to encourage children to write was to introduce them to the best writing by their peers. Stone Soup grew out of that idea. Along with co-editor Gerry Mandel, I have continued to edit and publish Stone Soup for all these years. I am also a culinary historian. I write about traditional foodways. My book, "The Magic of Fire," is about hearth cooking. My book, "Bread, a global history," speaks for itself. I am currently writing a 130,000-word bread history for a University Press. I publish articles on gardening and traditional foodways at Mother Earth News. I also publish on wild mushrooms and other food-related subjects.

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