An awful lot of years ago, when I was a novice writer and speaker (still am?), I was invited to a very “down east,” all but off the map and in the sea school in Pantego, North Carolina. Bob and I love the blue highways and always find it enjoyable to take a map (no GPS back then) and see if we can get where we are going on the backiest backroads possible. Getting lost was always an option, and fun.
The elementary school was a small, traditional, conservative one in a tiny town in the lower piney woods and kudzu-crossed canals of a poor county. I was unsure how folks there made their livings, but supposed it was agriculture, logging, and such.
You can never judge a book by its cover or a school by its exterior. Inside, this school was sweet, kind, gentle, colorful, accommodating. Sometimes, a low-key, down-home, “you’re not a celebrity, you’re our friend” school visit is the very best kind.
Even though the children had read my Carole Marsh Mysteries and wanted to hear about those, the teachers seemed very, very eager for me to primarily talk about writing: the inspiration, the process, the uses of good writing. I was glad to share. I have a short list of “reasons you want to learn to write” —the main one being so you can write a letter of complaint and get what you want: refund, new product, apology, whatever. Kids like that idea.
The visit was fine and we returned home. In just a few days, I received an almost frantic letter from a couple of the teachers. It was accompanied by a manuscript, one written by a fourth-grade girl whom I actually recalled meeting during my time there.
Their lengthy letter begged me to review the manuscript and advise them how to “handle” this possibly talented young writer. They expressed many concerns, seemed at a loss and confused, and I was truly puzzled by the rather cryptic letter.
Until I read the manuscript.
The young girl, as I recall, was small, quiet and shy. A clearly poor African-American child (as was much of the student body), I could still tell from her wise, inquisitive eyes that she was listening and very curious during my talk, though she never asked a question.
You have to understand that I have a somewhat different take on teaching kids to write. It may be a little more mainstream now, but somehow, I sort of doubt it. I won’t elaborate, but one of my key instructions to kids is to write from their heads and their hearts, that each of us has a story, and our story is unique. It is not wrong. It is not bad. It is not less because we don’t think we know how to write, it is not lessened by poor grammar or misspelled words, which we can fix later. Seek the voice deep inside you and let it out.
Alas, I have to add a footnote that their teachers may not welcome or appreciate such writing, nor may their parents. But “real” writing is not about getting a good grade. It is about the willingness (I should say desperate need) to share the story that is inside you, that is you.
My personal definition of writing is that it is the “excruciating ecstasy of transforming gray matter to black type,” but that sounds boring. I prefer the famous old, “Writing’s easy; just take a knife and open a vein.” I do not share these definitions with elementary school students.
You speak, some listen, some heed, but geez: I never expected such a young child to take me so much to heart. Her very long manuscript was scrawled neatly across pages and pages and pages of notebook paper. It was real, raw, honest, open, heartbreaking; a vein had been opened. No doubt it was her real story, yes, the kind I said a teacher might not appreciate, and in this instance, certainly not a parent.
I don’t feel I have to elaborate for you to get the picture. At least this child was fortunate that her teachers instantly realized that she had a real gift, perhaps a great gift, a natural talent remarkable, indeed. However, as they said, “Our job is also to teach grammar, spelling, etc. But we feel we should not correct her work. Are we right?” Honestly, I could literally feel their hand-wringing, and with good cause.
There was nothing “right” in the girl’s manuscript, at least not in the traditional, elementary school, “We’re learning to write” meaning. But there was everything right…no, not right: powerful, beautiful, compelling, and more in her writing. She did not need to learn to be a writer—she was a writer. If that wasn’t blood and brain on the paper, then I had never read real writing.
I returned the manuscript untouched, just to emphasize my response that they were indeed correct: Don’t change a word! They’d also asked me to write the girl a short note of encouragement. I gladly did. The length of my letter was longer than her manuscript, and still, I felt inept to convey anything of worth to this most worthy young writer. How to explain that her writing was perfect just the way it was?
It was years before I had an answer. When the book The Color Purple came out, I had only to read the opening paragraph to know what I had wanted to tell the girl, show the girl: a kind of writing never before seen. No, I’m not trying to say the girl was that famous author. But I can say that she could have been. In fact, her manuscript may have even been better, more exceptional, more purple than Purple? But who’s to say.
I never learned what happen to this young girl. Did she grow up to be a writer? Did she grow up at all? All I know is that an outback crossroads brought my heart to the doorstep of her head and heart. Our roads converged in a piney woods; I was the better for it. I can only pray she was.