Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What I've Learned About Novels from Kids

By Kristen House
I fancy myself a pretty great teacher. I don't mean to sound smug, but I've been at the chalkboard (or whiteboard as it may be) for nearly a decade now, and in that time, I've found the inner writer in college students that most teachers would have ignored. It is my passion, this pulling of words from a clammed-up college freshman who is more interested in pretending to sleep or texting his girlfriend than he is in my class.

But I would have never guessed that I would learn so much in my classroom from a group of 18-year-old students. Those kids, the ones who show up surly and under caffeinated each morning, were up for a challenge last semester. What if, I wondered, I asked more of them? Way more. What if I asked them to write every day, over 1,000 words at a time? Would they choke under the pressure? Or would they rise to the occasion? And what if I could rewind their lives to the point in time when they started doubting that they could write a competent sentence, and I gave them the tools to set a big goal, and then meet it?

That's when I developed A Novel Idea, a summer writing course for middle-school and high-school students that will teach them to write a novel in a month. And over the last two months, I've been honored to teach miniature versions of A Novel Idea to 47 classrooms of students. I have been humbled, awed, and shocked by what I've learned from them. Here are the highlights:

· Kids are thirsty for a challenge. They aren't only capable of writing novels in their spare time, they want to!

· They are far more competent than adults ever dreamed. Students as young as 11 years old intuitively know what makes for a good story, how to craft a flawed protagonist, and that a good kiss at the end of a story will bring readers back for more.

· When they're writing a story that matters to them, kids want to learn grammar (gasp!) because they want their characters to sound smart.

· Once the ball is rolling, students would rather jot down an idea for their novel than text a friend. Since the average teenager sends over 3,000 text messages per month, the potential for idea-jotting is staggering!

Lest you think I've forgotten what this means to my sleepy college students, I later met with that group of pioneers at Bongo Java near Belmont where I teach. To my astonishment, several months later they were all still writing. They found a freedom in the daily word count goal, a fluency with their writing that they hadn't felt before, and a level of competency that they'd never experienced. One student told me that the daily writing habit was revolutionary. Another told me it had changed his life. A third had decided change his major and use writing every day as a pastor.

I was humbled.

And what I would say to you is this: write every day. Write when you're tired, when the bills are due, when you're overwhelmed and angry and stressed and completely over your day. Write when you're so full of joy you feel you might burst. Write when it's rainy, when it's sunny, when you're shopping for your supper. Write when you're too sick to think straight. Write when you're bored. Whatever you're doing, just write. The habit is intoxicating, and the product, whether you become a best-selling novelist or a dedicated journal-writer, is something far more precious than you can imagine.

Kristen House is an Adjunct Instructor of Writing at Belmont University, and the Chief Executive Muse of A Novel Idea. She writes fiction every day for hours, even when there isn't anything to write about. Kristen lives in Nashville with her husband, Andrew, sons, Holden and Shephard, and a yippy little dog named Osie.

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