by Ellen Buikema
Much of my career was spent working with young children and they gave me a different way of viewing and understanding the world. Life lessons from children serve as invaluable resources for writing and life.
When dictating stories for me to transcribe, children either spoke at lightning speed or slowly with great deliberation. The fast talkers needed to be patient with me. And they were. Each and every one of them. Patient to a fault.
One pair of fraternal twins, sister and brother, were prolific, creative storytellers. Both spoke at a breakneck pace. Sometimes the duo’s words spilled forth with such speed that they tripped over syllables, making them difficult to understand.
After hearing me ask several times, “Can you please say that again?” they chose a different method to get their stories across—one word at a time with a few “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” beats between words. I found this maddening, but eventually we developed a flow that worked for all of us.
Mutual respect allowed for greater student-teacher patience.
Writing and “building a book” requires a lot of patience.
When composing, whether you are a plotter, pantser, or hybrid writer, lack of patience leads to frustration that can hurl you smack into writer’s block. Having patience with oneself is not easy. Remember that a plethora of great writers took many drafts to get their stories just right. After all, first drafts are awful by definition.
Someone once told me that working with young students was like herding cats. I totally agree!
The attention span of a four-year-old is very short. We’re talking eight to twelve minutes on average-- if they’re interested in the project being presented. Unless you’re well organized with backup plans in case of emergencies, you are toast—burned extra crispy.
I’d planned a fantastic lesson. It flopped big time. I could tell by observing the wiggling bodies sitting on the floor with me. Time to punt. Beside me, sat a bag containing several items of different shapes and sizes. I decide to call it "The Mystery Bag." This went over very well. All forty eyes focused on the teacher holding a large, bumpy brown paper bag on her lap.
I asked the wiggliest student to come over and, without peeking, reach into the bag. “Describe the item for us, just from touching it,” I said. The student holding the hidden item chose each of her classmates in turn, following the customs of our classroom (preventative discipline). The students guessed what they thought the mystery item might be. After every classmate participated, the student pulled the item from the bag. The Mystery Bag activity continued until Circle Time ended.
This activity went over so well that the students continued playing the mystery bag game in small groups during free time.
Achieving your writing goals boosts confidence.
Children notice everything. When sitting on your lap to listen to a story, they may look up your nose and comment upon what they see. There is no such thing as a filter with young children. The social filter doesn’t start until around age seven, thanks to children’s increased capacity for empathy.
Everything a child sees and hears eventually makes its way to school, either with friends or trusted adults. Students write in pictorial form, or dictate stories about things they’ve seen or heard that evoke emotion—both the good and the bad.
My favorite grade school teacher gave us a simple assignment, never graded nor asked about. Find one item on your walk home from school and really look at it in detail. Take time to observe the little things.
I have never forgotten this assignment and have often used it over the years. There is beauty everywhere. Sometimes you need to look a bit closer.
Observation is much more than seeing. When writing scenes, the more senses used, the easier it is for your reader to become part of the story.
Use a cellphone camera, still or video camera, make a note on paper or an App like ColorNote, or an audio recording App like Voice Recorder for future reference. Sense memories are strong, but life is busy and it’s easy to forget.
It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to hurt other people or yourself.
When my students hurt each other’s feelings in the classroom or playground, they were responsible to find a way to make the hurt person feel better. It’s easy to say, “I’m sorry.”
Finding a way to make it better takes thought. Forgiveness was implicit in accepting that gift, whatever it may have been. This didn’t happen overnight, but over time made a huge difference in the way students treated each other.
Mentors can steer you toward new possibilities, challenge you, and expand your imagination, but no one can tell you exactly what your writing process should be. Forgive those that suggest the “right” way. You will develop a system that may borrow from many but become your own.
There will be fantastic days when your writing flows like a bubbly brook. Others are drought days with a blank screen or page. If you lose patience, forgive yourself.
Once our school nurse fell ill and needed to spend time in the hospital. The students made a book for Nurse Rita to help her feel better. Each child received one page to draw a picture, write their names to the best of their ability, and dictate a sentence or two to cheer her.
Rita smiled throughout the book until she found the last page. Then she laughed hard enough to bring tears to her eyes. On the last page was a drawing of an Angry Bird with the caption, Angry Birds will make Nurse Rita feel better.
Humor is instinctive. There is a healing quality to humor. Laughter releases feel-good hormones, and a jolly belly laugh is a good workout.
Find more tidbits about humor in writing on the blog. Writing Humor to Heal Mind and Body
What do you do to kickstart your writing process? What life lessons have you woven into your writing? What writing lessons have you learned from children? Please share them in the comments!
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents, Parenting: A Work in Progress, and The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon, a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are: The Hobo Code (YA historical fiction) and Crystal Memories (YA fantasy).
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