I have guided my two daughters—starting at about age nine—through Writing Practice. In both cases, my girls had graduated from chapter books to Harry Potter. Each was at the time steeped in weekly exercises for spelling, capitalization, punctuation. Each was heading into the season of independent school admissions, which would include a writing test. And each daughter wanted to spend time with me.
So I pulled them into something that was precious in my life. We whipped out our notebooks and fast-writing pens, grabbed a topic from thin air, set the timer, and wrote. And when the timer went off, we read our writing out loud.
I learned a lot about the mechanics of writing in elementary and secondary school. Mrs. Salisbury got me hooked on spelling bees. Mrs. Fiske, who wore her ginger-colored hair in a tight flip, walked us through the ins and outs of the paragraph. Mrs. Rhodes cried in class—overcome by the beauty of imagination—while reading The Hobbit out loud to us. But somehow I managed to get through twelve years without knowing how to simply compose.
And so it only seemed right that what took me until my late 30s/early 40s to figure out, thanks to the help of Natalie Goldberg and Writing Down the Bones, should become an early and natural skill for my girls. Like riding a bike or swimming.
How it works
- Start with three of the basic rules of Writing Practice–Keep your hand moving; Don’t cross out; Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. These three are tangible. Any kid can understand them. In fact, they will be music to a child’s ear. I don’t cover the other three rules of Writing Practice, which are: Lose control; Don’t think; Go for the jugular. These ones are, in my opinion, meant for us adults, who try to be in control at all times, analyze our way through most everything, and are inhibited. Kids don’t need to be told to lose control. (By the way, I also have never had to say, “You’re free to write the worst shit in America,” as Natalie does. Children don’t seem to worry about lousy writing at this age, even though they already tend to denigrate their art ability. My theory is that they never write in school; thus, they have no basis of comparison. Not so with art.)
- Pick a topic that is easy to understand. It should be tangible, something like “Pickles” or “Socks.” The other day, I figured my youngest and I could use a recent topic from this blog, so I threw it out for consideration: I write because… “What does that mean?” my daughter asked. After trying a few times to explain how each of us might choose to write for different reasons, I went with something simpler. Apparently, she’s not in a place of needing to understand why she writes; she writes for the sake of writing.
- Start with five minutes and work your way up. This was a precaution I took thinking that my daughters might get bored after five minutes, plus it was a gentle start to a new concept. However, we quickly worked our way to ten-minute stints.
- When it comes time to read out loud, remind your child that we’re going to each listen to one another with full attention, otherwise you might find her scanning her page. Also, the first time we read, I took the lead. Again, that was probably an unnecessary precaution, as neither daughter hesitated to jump in when after subsequent topics I asked if they wanted to read first.
- Do Writing Practice with one kid at a time, at least to start. This is one-on-one time. Having someone else there—even a sibling—might change the dynamic. There will be no trying to impress, no worrying about someone being better. Moms are safe. Plus, it’s an easy way to bond.
- When your kid questions the part about Spelling—and, believe me, she will—tell her that she’ll continue to learn how to spell in school and by reading books, but that this practice is mainly for learning how to write, write, write. Spelling is important, but spelling will come in its own time.
- Be aware that your own writing might go in almost any direction if you, too, are following the rules of Writing Practice. I try not to temper my writing, and consequently I have written my politics and at times my petty minutiae. You can always pass on reading, but doing so might send the message that not reading is an easy out.
- Get your kid her own notebook and fast-writing pen, and encourage her to write on her own in this same way whenever she feels like it. Kids this age know what it means to practice, perhaps for sports or music, so instill the idea while it makes sense. And when she comes ’round and suggests, “Mom, can we do Writing Practice now?” be ready to pull out your notebook and see Beginner’s Mind in action.
Here are the Writing Practices (spelling errors corrected) that my youngest daughter and I did two weekends ago. Our topic was “Fall,” and we wrote for ten minutes.
Fall is when the leaves all fall to the ground. I like to jump into big piles of leaves. When the leaves start falling they change colors and they also crunch under your feet. Why is fall called fall? Maybe because leaves are falling. Another word for fall is autumn so I’m not sure why it’s called fall or autumn. The names have nothing in common. I also like sitting and watching the leaves fall off the trees. Sometimes all the leaves are a pain when you need to clean them up out of the pond and off the porch. Sonia likes fall I think because she has an excuse to stay inside. Otis and Rafie like to be inside too so they are happy when fall and winter come around. We have a lot of leaves to rake up so I’m happy because I want to jump in a big pile.
The trees outside the window make sure I know it is fall. They reach out over the window, and the sun shines behind them, shining through them, like light in a stained glass window. The colors are luminous, yellow shades and fading green shades. Even the dead tan leaves are beautiful, dangling in sparkling sunlight before letting go.
This morning I dress in a teal turtleneck sweater that I’ve had for ages, it seems. It’s too short from too many dryings, and it doesn’t keep my belly warm. Still, I head out to the corral with purpose, first holding my arms tight to try to keep the cold from hitting my core. But then I open up, drop my arms and swing them by my sides, in a sort of angry woman march. Except I’m not angry. I’m exuberant. It is cool but not cold. It’s early and the fall air feels new and fresh and good for me.
Dooley is waiting for me at the back gate. It’s a long walk down the service road, and the path is covered with leaves that have fallen from the trees that stretch like canopy over the path. Dooley is hungry for apples and grass and liberation. He will give a neigh and kick and run in a controlled run of his when I let him out.
I think all creatures must love fall. It is the best of times. The sun rises early now that we’ve set back the clocks, and even though it sets early, too, that feels right. Like it’s only natural that we would settle into our cozy homes, stews bubbling on the stove or a chicken roasting in the oven, and wait until it’s time to go to sleep.
Fall is also a time to prepare for the cold of winter. It’s a time to become more productive, less distracted by the never-ending light of summer. Yesterday I worked on my paintings for hours. I am finally becoming satisfied with Bush. He looks more real, red face and all, than he’d looked before. His eyes are scary, as you’d expect the eyes of someone like him to be. And his face has those plains to it that they have, a sharp face, pointy nose, pointy ears, straight lines for a mouth. He is an ugly man, as is Cheney and now Rove. Why is it that our lives get placed in the hands of such ugly men?
Postscript: It is natural that parents want to guide our children, and usually in a more heavy-handed way than we might guide our friends or adult family members. When doing Writing Practice with your child, refrain from critiquing what she writes. Writing Practice is raw; it is not a final product. There is no good, no bad. It is what it is.
If you’d like to give your child feedback, use recall to do so. After she reads, recall a phrase or section of her writing, letting her know that those parts stood out to you. Try to do so without assigning value, such as, “I loved the part about …” If you can show your child how to provide input without labeling the input, you’ll also be role modeling how to listen deeply. It’s a wonderful skill to have.