Dude, You Are Not Alone
A few years ago we took our kids to Lubec, Maine, where we have a camp on a tidal river. At ten p.m. on a clear autumn night, my sixteen-year-old son, Robert, was sitting by a campfire near the water’s edge with two of his buddies Thomas and Greg. When I happened to walk nearby, I expected to find them yukking it up, so I was surprised to hear nothing but the crackling flames. I saw that each of them had directed a flashlight beam down at a book splayed open on his lap. What were they doing? Moving closer, I could see that the books were notebooks.
They were writing. On a beautiful September evening, those guys spent almost an hour writing quietly in their notebooks.
Some people consider writing to be little more than boring nerd work. Wrong! Written words pack a punch. If you ask a question you might get blown off, but it’s a lot less likely you’ll get ignored (by a teacher or a girl you like) when you put questions or thoughts in writing. Writing demands a reaction—and usually gets it.
But writing is not just about power; it’s about fun. Lately I’ve been working on a collection of Pointless Stories. This morning I was writing one titled “The Boy Who Swallowed a Parenthesis.” The main character is a kid named Bobb-With-Two-B’s Barnwell. Sure, it’s a goofy idea, but I’m having a blast writing it. Who cares if it ever gets published? I’m doing it for me.
If you’re like most guys, you actually do like to write, even if you don’t advertise this fact. You enjoy how it feels to create a potion of words, drawings, and symbols. You love letting your imagination romp like a wild stallion in whatever direction it wants. You have favorite tools—a laptop, notebook, sketchbook, favorite pen—and maybe even your own “writing place.”
So far so good. But in school certain things conspire to dampen your enthusiasm:
For many guys, school writing can really stink. A fifth-grader named Brandon explained it to me like this:
In school we always have to write nonfiction, realistic stuff like what really happened. We aren’t allowed to include guns—not even if the character is a policeman. I wish we could write about what we really think and feel. I wish we could write things like real hard fiction with people dropping from helicopters, maybe a baby being carried away and tipping off a cliff, hitting a chipmunk. There is no actual fiction in school. We always have to make it like a true story.
Does any of this ring true? If it does, take heart. Although you may feel isolated, you’re not alone. I have surveyed guys around the country, and many feel the same. They feel that too many teachers simply don’t get the writing of boys.
One area where boy writers consistently get shot down in school is when they attempt to include violence, weapons, or warfare in their writing. (I explore this idea in chapter 4.) In Michigan I met a first-grader named Steven who had written a poem he was eager to share with me.
I feel like I am hunting a very victorious plant, a weed.
I circle it. I study it. I watch its every move.
I always take it by the roots.
My weapon is a shovel.
Weeds come up way ahead of the other plants.
I shall pull up every one I see and
put it in a very dry place without any dirt.
I will defeat these weeds
even if it will take my entire life!
I liked Steven’s poem. Wait, strike that—I LOVED it! Six years old, and this kid is already a strong writer. Steven was proud of his weed poem. He looked forward to having it published in the class anthology and sharing it at the author’s celebration being held at his school.
But because of one word, Steven’s poem was not allowed to be displayed on the wall or included in the class anthology. Can you find that dangerous, dreadful, despicable word? (Hint: Check the fourth line.)
Steven’s school had a no-tolerance policy regarding violence and weapons. That’s fine, but in this case the policy was enforced so rigidly that even the written word weapon was considered too dangerous and had to be banned.
When I first heard about what happened to Steven and his weed poem, I wanted to burst out laughing, except I quickly realized it isn’t funny. It’s tragic. The result: one more boy writer censored and silenced.
Many guys like to take chances. It’s part of our DNA. But often when guys take chances in their writing and push the limits of what is allowed in school—WHAM!—they run into a buzz saw and get knocked down by the powers that be.
But take heart, my fellow word-warriors. We have lost some battles, but the war is not over. Reinforcements are coming. A movement has sprung up aimed at appreciating guys as writers and as readers, and I’m proud to be part of that movement. We’re working hard to revamp classrooms in order to make them friendlier to the kind of topics guys like to write about, and the ways we like to express ourselves on paper. A number of factors have gone into the creation of some positive changes, including
Have you ever picked up a baseball and really studied it? An official baseball has exactly 108 double stitches. The “sweet spot” on a baseball is located on the area of leather directly between the stitched seams. Well, there’s a sweet spot in writing, too. Before I tell you what it is, I’ll say what it’s NOT—it’s not writing for punishment, not doing formulaic writing or five-paragraph essays, and definitely not stick-to-the-prompt test practice (ugh).
The sweet spot in writing is when you’re so totally involved in what you’re writing that you lose track of time and forget where you are. I know when my sons have found their sweet spot because they’re writing fast and loose, maybe IM’ing on the computer or scribbling in a notebook, laughing, reading out loud, sharing with each other or with someone online, or maybe so focused they’re oblivious to everything around them. It’s when you’re so lost writing a story about a hot summer day that you get surprised when you look up and see snow falling outside your window.
I’ve published forty-one books, and I’m not done yet. I wrote this book to help guys who want to become better writers. The stronger you are as a writer, the more you’ll enjoy it. Earning a high grade for an essay is wonderful. It’s a kick to get a poem or story published in a magazine or online site. But those are external rewards. I’m more interested in the inside game of writing. My purpose isn’t so much to help you with your school writing (although it may) but to help you with the real writing you do when you’re locked in, lost in your imagination, when you’re mixing words and sentences like some kind of mad scientist or word architect trying to construct a city of words.
I’ll talk about the kinds of things guys typically like to write about: spoofs, humor, sports, blood, farts, giant monsters tearing down the city, and a few serious subjects, too. You’ll find lots of examples from young writers and lots of drawings from guy writers like yourselves. In most cases these drawings came from their writing notebooks. Creating these drawings helped these writers tell the story they wanted to tell. You’ll also find interviews with a few guy writers whose books you might have read (or at least heard of). Each chapter includes practical advice, tips, and strategies designed to help you lift your writing to the next level so you can grow into the kind of writer you want to be.
Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Fletcher