Thursday, April 3, 2014

Alumni Voices: Bill Kennedy

I have learned one important fact in the last ten years of teaching Creative Writing to a range of students from 7 to 93. The lesson plan is basically the same. I also have the great benefit of being married to Mary K., a retired k-5 teacher whose favorite subjects are reading and creative writing. She is my first reader.

At this year’s North Dakota State Reading convention, I have three breakout sessions over two days and have spent the last few weeks writing, testing and rewriting a new 50 minute lesson plan. My main objective is to have the teachers attending the breakout, experience being part of a community of readers and writers by writing and sharing a story.

This is not the formal lesson plan. It is a framework that is amenable to the needs of the participants. It is a compilation of many workshops I have attended, Hamline’s MFAC program, and teaching creative writing from 3rd graders to seniors.

I talk about the importance of being a good reader in order to be a good writer. Have you read Kate DiCamillo’s new book, Flora and Ulysses? Reading it as a writer is akin to sitting in on a writing workshop taught by Kate. Read Mordicai Gerstein’s latest picture book, The First Drawing, to see where we all started telling stories.

Next is a three step process that I learned from Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) a number of years ago.

1. Walk
2. Sit/Write
3. Share.

The walking and sitting are fairly easy. The writing gets a little more difficult. The hardest part for many people is sharing.

We start with silence. Remember, no collaboration, and the only way to find your own voice is not to hear other voices, especially the one Natalie calls the “Monkey” on your shoulder that says everything you write is “Terrible.” He, or she, also throws all kinds of distractions at you. We need to knock that Monkey off our shoulder, give ourselves permission to write the story in our heart. Write as fast as we can. Don’t worry about spelling, handwriting, syntax, paragraphs, punctuation. That comes later.
Think a bit about what comes before words, reading and writing. Memories, actions, and emotions lead to stories, then words, reading and writing. A little boy pushes a toy truck across the sidewalk. He tells you “Got all the bricks I need for the street,” and smiles up at you. A little girl holds a baby doll and says, “Don’t cry.” She has a tear in her eye.

As writers, we need to go to that place before words to tell our stories.

Walk:  Slowly, quietly, no talking, look at your feet as they hit the floor, roll from heel to toe, step forward. Let emotion take you someplace, to some event that changed your life. Robert Olen Butler calls it the white-hot zone you don’t want to enter. Writers need to go there.

Sit:  Write quickly. Let it pour out from your heart, across your shoulder, down your arm, through your pen or pencil, onto the paper.

Share: Read what you have written to your first reader, your reading group, or in an emergency, read to your dog.

This is the community we build as writers and readers.

As a teacher, imagine giving your class a lesson on writing and sharing. Tell them what your favorite books are and what you learned about the importance of reading, writing and sharing. Tell them that every voice is special.

As they write, you write a few sentences. Then ask, “Who wants to share?” Be ready to share your own writing. Especially if there is silence.

Be part of the community of readers and writers. 

Bill is a July 2009 graduate of the MFAC program. He lives in Jamestown, North Dakota. His first middle grade novel, Tramp, was published this month by North Star Press.


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