Each time I visit one of the local schools to talk to the kids about writing, I pull out my high-heeled shoes and dress up, casting aside my normal attire of faded jeans and T-shirt, to present a professional appearance. I don’t have a prepared program or speech, just a few props and more than twenty years of experience to bring to the youth.
On my most recent visit, I faced an uphill battle. Because it was a half-day of school that Friday and my program was just before lunch, the last activity of the day, some of the kids were restless. Add to that the fact that some students were enjoying a movie while this bunch ñ about 100 students ñ were listening to me talk about writing instead.
When first asked to come to school to talk about writing, I had to sit down and put into words what it is I do as a writer. I had to analyze my own methods and in doing so, I found out many things about my writing process and myself.
The first prop I always bring out is a small skeleton, nicknamed “Skelly” by my own kids. Skelly began life as a Halloween decoration and at about two feet tall is just right for toting along to school. I use Skelly to illustrate my point that writing begins with what I call the “bare bones”. That may be a basic idea, an outline, or the simple framework of the story inside my mind but it starts out very basic.
I explain that as I build a story, I add to those bare bones until I create a fully fleshed out tale. My characters emerge from flat nothing to seemingly living, breathing folk with a personality all their own.
When Skelly comes out of the briefcase, I begin to see the first sparkle in those young eyes. I’ve presented the program for students from third grade through late middle school but all kids are interested when you bring out bones or so it seems.
Then I explain that if a skeleton is the basis for a story, that plot is the next element. Plot, I tell them, is the driver if the story is a vehicle. We talk about plots of popular books that I hope most of the students have read and then we do a hands-on exercise that teachers find stimulating.
We build a story together. I choose a student from the group and I gather suggestions for his or her character name. Next, taking prompts from the audience, we choose a situation and a location. Step by step, we take the story from the bare bones into a creative, interesting tale and then, just as the kids have reached a fever pitch of excitement, I stop.
I explain that any one of them could write a story, that they just have, and that if each one were to go home and write a story, each one would be different. And, I tell the kids that they have just become writers.
The last phase is questions and answers. As the questions fly at me, I field everything from how old I am (something that I don’t mind sharing; apparently I am old enough not to be vain about my age), what I write, where I write, and what I did at the same approximate age. A few students always own up to writing a little at home and often one or two will tell me about a family member who had something published.
On my most recent engagement, a young girl told me that her grandmother had two poems published in a magazine but that the grandmother was not really a writer. I assured her that Grandma was indeed a writer and moved on to the next question.
After the program, all four teachers involved thanked me and one teacher dubbed my speech “awesome”. Some of the students gathered around to ask further questions and to tell me tidbits about their lives.
Teachers tell me that my talks inspire the kids, at least for a while, and that it often motivates students who just didn’t want to write at all.
I enjoy it and if even one student grows up to be a writer because he or she was inspired by what I said or what I taught, then I feel that is the best success story of all!
Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy lives and writes in a small town in the Missouri Ozarks. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, from Catholic Digest and Country Woman to Coyote Wild and The Evergreen Review. She is a member of the Missouri Writers Guild and the Ozark Writers League. When she isn’t writing, she’s reading or working in the yard outside.