writing from the themes of my life

Origami swan on deck

I‘ve mentioned that I tend to bog myself down in perfectionism. And by that I don’t mean that I suffer from being too perfect – haha, no. I mean that I suffer from being too worried about the little things, and from being too hard on myself when I fail to attain some idealized conception of what each little thing ought to look like. Being overly conscious of the details is a double edged sword: sometimes it produces great results; other times it leads to paralysis. The bad news is that I still find myself paralyzed too often. The good news is that I was recently able to use this one of my character flaws as theme fodder for an exemplar I wrote to share with students as they worked on a mini-book writing project.

We studied mythic story structure as part of an abridged Synthesis Project that took about three weeks and wrapped up the year. Essentially, most students collaboratively wrote a long short story or short novella of eleven chapters based on Christopher Vogler‘s template of the following universal story pattern, (based in part on Joseph Campbell‘s works):

mythic story structure

A few students opted to write their mini-books on their own. The rest worked in groups of two to five, collaborating on the same stories. A group of three, for example, would discuss and agree upon their hero, mentor and shadow characters, and then they would create a brief overall outline of their story. Next each member would write a chapter a day, first discussing and agreeing upon what sorts of things must be included in that chapter. If Brad, Jennifer and Angelina are in a group, they plan their story’s Chapter One and then they each write a version of that chapter. These chapter drafts are posted on blogs (which I set up using kidblog.org). The next day, group members read each other’s chapters and vote for which version they like the best. Let’s say Angelina wins this vote. She then does a rewrite of the chapter, including the best portions of Brad’s and Jennifer’s versions, combining them into a cohesive whole. Meanwhile, Brad and Jennifer start working on their Chapter Two drafts, which they all discuss first. This way everybody writes the same amount, I can grade each writer’s work individually, and yet the collective work of the group should be better than the sum of its parts.

Students who worked solo simply skipped the rewriting step (doing only revising and editing instead). Pairs had a few options, but most pairs decided that the winning writer would do a rewrite and a new chapter draft. The project was somewhat self-differentiating in that the lower students naturally wrote less for each chapter and the higher students wrote a great deal more. The minimum was about a half a page per day for some of the ELL and SPED students. Advanced students wrote up to six or seven pages per day.

After the first week, we settled into a routine:

1. Students read each other’s previous day’s work.
2. Students read about what the next chapter should entail.
3. I shared the next chapter in my story, corresponding to the chapter they were about to write (I stayed one day ahead of them).
4. We discussed how what I wrote met the criteria of mythic story structure that we’d studied.
5. Students worked in their groups, filling out a worksheet and discussing what would go into their next chapters.
6. Students worked individually, silently writing their chapters.

Finally, I pointed my students to lulu.com and smashwords.com for publishing options. If their parents okay it (I don’t know how many have gone or will go this route), they can post their stories for traditional and e-book self publishing.

The story that I wrote and shared with the kids to illustrate the process I titled Pure Gold. I have posted it on smashwords.com as a free downloadable e-book. The description I provided to the site is this: “Christine Gold is a perfectionist, a high school freshman who excels both in academics and gymnastics. Her perfect world begins to unravel when her dad accidentally sends her a strange text message meant for someone else. Unable to resist investigating what her father is up to, Christine finds herself the target of those who intend to keep her in the dark… forever.”

Telling a story about a girl who wants to be valedictorian and win a gymnastics scholarship, who thinks her family is basically perfect until she discovers that her dad may be having an affair and/or may be involved in some even nastier business, allowed me to explore the theme of perfectionism and how a person who chases illusions is bound to become disillusioned eventually. If you read the story, you’ll see that Christine comes to accept and even embrace imperfection.

I think this is one of the key elements that draws writers to writing and readers to reading: learning about themselves through the exploration of theme. Some characters we relate to because they do what we might do. Others serve as cautionary characters, warning signs pointing out paths we’d be better off avoiding.

I’m thankful for this process that nurtures sustained introspection. Though I’m pretty sure I will never vanquish perfectionism, writing about characters who struggle with flaws with which I struggle helps to give me perspective that makes navigating life’s twists and turns a bit easier. I hope it helps my students do just the same.

Unexpectedly, this collaborative mini-book project – and, incidentally, this is the first time I’ve attempted such a thing in a regular classroom setting (as opposed to via the extracurricular Synthesis Project group) – has turned out to be a trial run for next school year. The other day I was told by one of our school’s assistant principals that next year I will teach a class based entirely on the Synthesis Project. I feel very lucky and grateful for the opportunity.

Now I only need to make sure I pull it off perfectly!

(Photo by: nurd grrl)

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