To Shape a Story

I didn’t have a story. I discovered this when I looked at what I had written, at what I had thought was a finished book. I had a series of stand-alone vignettes about the classrooms that had made me into a teacher. I liked the scenes I had written. They seemed to me like pearls on a string. But now I could see that my manuscript wasn’t a story, not yet.

Stories have shapes, I learned as I read books and listened to podcasts and attended more writers’ conferences. They have beginnings and middles and ends with a character who wants something and problems that stand in the way. I studied what I had never heard before—plot points and pinch points, six-stage structures and emotional arcs.

I read other people’s memoirs. I examined their overall structures, but I also read scene-by-scene. How did each scene contribute to the big story? What made dialogue sound natural? How did writers bring characters to life? What made the language fresh? What kept me turning the pages?

When I went back to my manuscript, I could see it for what it was—a mass of raw material.

“There’s a lot to play with here,” my critiquer had written, “but you don’t really play with it.”

It seemed more like work than play, but I set out to find the core of the story and to chisel away the excess. I crafted my words to show places and points of view and perspectives of time. I cut more words. And then more.

Gradually I saw a story emerge. At least I thought I did.

(more to come)

What’s This Story About?

It’s not every day you complete a life goal, and for a week after I wrote the last chapter of my memoir, I woke each morning with the euphoric thought that I had written a book. I read it again, adding commas and deleting words. I made sure sentences made sense and cut clichés. I polished each page of the manuscript until I was sure it sparkled.

And then, just to be sure my work was good, I sent my memoir to a friend of a friend, who had written a memoir and found a publisher.

“Could you read this for me?” I wrote to her. “And tell me if it’s ready to send to a publisher?”

And then I waited, a little anxious, but mostly confident of how she’d respond—with a few suggestions on how to improve and a recommendation to submit the manuscript to a publisher.

But her suggestions were not few. And the recommendation wasn’t anywhere in her email.

Instead, she asked questions like this:

  • What is this story about?
  • What are your themes? Your goals?
  • In each scene, what did you see and feel and hear?

And she made some statements I didn’t want to read, statements like this:

  • Your manuscript is still in rough draft form.
  • There’s a lot to play with here. But you don’t really play with it.
  • Some of this text reads like a research paper or work of journalism.
  • Any writing you keep needs to be subordinated to the theme.
  • The opening chapters lagged a little for me, and they must be grabbers.
  • Make us care, and then give us a thread to hang on to.

I closed the email and took a long walk.

(More later)

How to Begin a Book

To write a book, I had to begin. But how?

Just start writing. This is what they said at the writers’ conference, what my author son told me, and what I read in my growing collection of books about how to write.

So I started . . . And my writing took me back. I was, once again, in first grade at Yoder School, where work seemed like play as I learned with Amish and Mennonite classmates and where I decided to become a teacher one day. As I wrote, I relived the shock of moving from a Mennonite community to the rustbelt city of Flint, Michigan, where paddles hung in classrooms, where you read the third-grade reader, even if sixth grade books fit you better, and where I wondered how I’d ever learn to be a good teacher if I didn’t have one.

I wrote about my excitement when someone offered to pay my way to Lancaster Mennonite High School for my senior year of high school. Finally, I had thought, I’ll be back with my people. Only, when I got there, I didn’t feel at home anymore.

I wrote about how in all my classes along the way—through elementary and junior high and high school and then a community college and a university, I had kept looking for a glimpse of Yoder School, hoping to find a learning so full of wonder that I couldn’t tell whether I was working or playing.

My pages filled as I wrote about how I had finally found this liveliness of learning again, at Antioch College, a haven for philosophers, artists, and left-over hippies in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

When I finished that first long draft, I realized that I understood my thirty years in the classroom in a fuller way. I could see more of why I taught as I had.

And, I thought, I have nearly completed my book.

(More later)

A Book Has To Be About Something

Now that I was retired, I had time to fulfill a childhood dream—to write a book and publish it. Only I didn’t know what to write. I created a new document on my laptop and stared at the blank page.

“You can do this,” I told myself.

And I remembered back to elementary school where I won first prizes in writing competitions and to high school when I once received a $25 check for an article I wrote for a magazine and to college when professors had told me I should pursue writing in a serious way.

Only I couldn’t write.

So I went to a writing conference where I learned about the five values of art and writing tools like Scrivener. At the conference were bloggers and authors of books and poets, who all talked about voice. And I left that conference with one conclusion—I didn’t have a voice.

But then I took a road trip with my son, who knows how to write books and get them published. He asked me about the writing conference, and I told him what I had discovered at the conference—that I didn’t have a voice.

“What do you know, Mom?” he asked.

Not much, I thought. I went to school and then I taught school. I’ve spent my life in the classroom.

And from that idea, a possibility emerged—what if I were to write a memoir about my education, a teacher looking back on the classrooms that formed me?

I had, after all, a unique repertoire of schooling. I had gone to school, for example, with the Amish in the mountains of western Pennsylvania and with the city kids in the rustbelt city of Flint, Michigan, and with the hippies at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

How did this disparate education later influence my teaching?

(more to come)


I Taught for Decades . . . But I Didn’t Write a Book

On my tenth birthday, I set a goal—to publish a book before I died. Only I never got around to it. I went to college, had babies, taught school for three decades, wrote curriculum, volunteered at church, ran a music camp, and served on the library board. But I didn’t write a book.

A few weeks after I retired, I thought again of my goal. So I searched through my bookshelves. And I found the book my parents had given me when I turned ten—Someday You’ll Write.

Elizabeth Yates had written this book for her daughter, who wanted to write . . . and for me,  I had been convinced when I was ten.

yatesI thumbed through the pages remembering the advice I had read so long ago:

  • Write something every day. . . whether you feel like it or not.
  • As a squirrel has to work hard with a nut to get the meat out of it, so does a writer with an idea.
  • Ideas may come to you out of the blue and in the oddest moments, so jot them down for future exploration.

I recalled how smart I had felt reading Yates’s analysis of the opening lines of Little Women and Peter Pan and Charlotte’s Web.

And I read again the poem Elizabeth Yates had been taught by her English teacher.

The written word should be

Clean as a bone,
Clear as light,
Firm as a stone,
Two words are not so good,
As one.

I’m going to write like that one day, I had told myself those decades ago—clean and clear and firm and with one word when I don’t need two.

I remembered all this as I stood in front of the bookcase holding Yate’s book from the long-ago birthday. Now in my sixties, I had more decades behind me, I knew, than ahead of me.

So I took a breath and asked myself a question, “Are you going to try to do this, or not?”

(More later.)

How My Teachers Taught Me to Teach

When I was student teaching, my supervisor said something that startled me.

“What forms how you work with students—more than the education courses you’ve taken and more than your student teaching—are the classrooms of your childhood.

And then I started thinking. Ever since first grade, I had watched teachers. I’ll do that when I teach, I’d tell myself. I’ll bring out the mettle in students like Miss Bordeaux, and show I care, like Mr. Pollard. I’ll set water on fire, like Mr. Jenkins and scatter mind puzzles around the edges of the room like Mrs. Parsons. I’ll start class with math riddles, like Mr. Parker, and give students words to live by, like Mr. Wooten. I want to teach like Mr. Deaton so that when the bell rings, students can’t believe class is already over.

But other times I’d think, when I’m a teacher, I won’t do that. Mrs. Russ, in third grade, dismissed each student every day one of two ways: with a swat (if we were bad) or a piece of candy (if we were good). Though I couldn’t articulate my thoughts about this, I could tell it was wrong. And as a teacher, I have tried to be different from Mrs. Russ—to recognize the complexity of student behavior.

This watching of teachers continued in college. One morning, headed for an exam, I stopped in confusion in the driveway. Our car was missing, stolen, we discovered. So I took a city bus to class, arriving ten minutes late.

“Yeah, sure!” said Dr. Cline, and refused to let me start the exam.

And with those words, Dr. Cline set in me a proclivity toward believing students.

“You have an educational biography,” my student teaching supervisor had told me. “Unlike most professionals, you’ve already spent well over a decade in the setting of your new work.”

So take advantage of this, he had urged me. Think about the teachers you admired and the teachers who frustrated you. Learn from them.

Now that I’m old and retired, some of my former students are teaching. I hope some of them sometimes say, I’ll do what Mrs. Swartz did. And I’m sure they also think, well, I sure won’t do it that way!

Yo-Yoing Through Middle School

A middle school kid can come in two versions. Take Chris, for example, from my first year of teaching. I was never sure which version of Chris would show up for class on any given day. Would he be a young adult? Or a little kid? Chris wore his emotional age on his face each day, and I could measure it with a five-second look.

Some days, it was all about Chris—what he thought, what he felt, and what he wanted to do. On those days he’d stomp right over the needs of other kids to get his own met.

But the next day, the grown-up version of Chris would come to class. This Chris would keep his emotions from escalating, control his impulses, and care about what others needed.

It was like I taught two students in one body. These differences in Chris discombobulated me, and I wasn’t sure how to respond to him. But gradually I learned to keep my balance with Chris and other yo-yo kids. Here are some concepts that helped me.

  • Expect that painful steps backward will follow forward leaps in emotional growth. For middle school kids, emotional growth is rarely linear. Valleys follow peaks. If you expect linear growth, you will be disappointed. Middle school kids sit, after all, on the precipice of childhood and adulthood.
  • Use a retractable leash. With retractable leashes, dogs can roam much further than on a standard leash. But their owners have the option to lock a leash to a shorter length when necessary. Middle school kids need freedom to explore further afield, but they also need the safety of a short leash when their decisions begin to affect their long-term well being.
  • Spotlight the grown-up moments. When students hit the bottom, remind them about the times they helped someone or made an astute comment in class or stood up for justice or showed restraint. Catch them at the high point and then send them messages: This is who you are. That’s a Chris-like thing to do. I see how you are contributing.
  • Sympathize with setbacks. “You know, just the other day I lost my temper,” I liked to say to a guilty student. “And I felt rotten about it. But I’m going to try again to control my temper.” This gave students courage to try again. It gave them hope that growing up was within their realm.

Adolescence is tough—a time of social anxiety, physical change, and growing awareness that life is hard. It’s no wonder that some kids cope by fluctuating their emotional ages. Teachers of these students need deftness and agility. But the spinning and the zinging are fun when you catch the rhythm.