What shall I show you? Shall I show you the woman, staring at a computer screen, embedded in a sea of interview notes? Shall I show you the blank face of the monitor, staring back at her? Shall I show you instead young faces, many dotted with the badges of adolescence, some tan, some freckled, chattering and grinning? Shall I show you the dynamics of character and plot, played out as the teens pass through their morning exercises in movement and dance? Shall I show you the boy, in lotus position, grinning as his classmates count out crunches in grunts all around him? Shall I show you the couple, tracing the steps of the salsa, lips murmuring the count while their worried eyes watch their feet and the room? Shall I show you another couple, hips swaying, spinning with all the bold color of the dance? Or shall I show you the group that has given up on the salsa, and instead clusters at the back of the room, voices rising over the music, like magpies on a wire?
When I began writing professionally, I saw the occasional essay bemoaning the ease with which writing ceases to be fun once a paycheck is involved. Intellectually, I knew that obligation often robs us of our joy. But, I had waited so long to write; I love writing; it would (yes, you can complete the sentence) never happen to me.
Fortunately (from the perspective of my bank account), this has been an obligation-heavy few months. Reality and I have always had a somewhat uneasy co-existence. I earn my living through fact, yet my brain creates stories from nearly every experience. But, since the world has been spectacularly reluctant to feed me for flights of fancy, my bread, butter, and magic beans come from sorting through piles of cold, unyielding evidence.
Caitlin prefers to work with facts. She will happily devour the literary contents of someone else’s imagination, but she prefers the work generated from her own hand to have its feet solidly planted in consistency and logic. The uncertainty of a blank page unsettles her.
Her class’s return to 8th grade following winter break commenced with a block on creative writing – short stories, specifically. The timing was impeccable. My imagination had been feeling the cold hand of winter; words were looking less and less friendly by the day. On a whim, one morning, I emailed Caitlin’s teacher to ask if there was any way I could help with the writing block.
Despite the aforementioned lack of editorial enthusiasm regarding my fiction, I still believe in my stories. Sure, the catty critic inside my head jabbed me with a couple of needles – What can someone who can’t even get her own stories published teach about fiction – but, if I were in the habit of listening to her, I’d have been found, decaying in the fetal position under a blanket years ago.
The teacher invited me into the classroom last week to teach a couple of lessons on the elements of fiction. Day One covered character, plot, and conflict. I had typed out my lesson days in advance, with lots of writerly quotations and excerpts from my own work. But, arriving early on Wednesday morning, I accompanied the class over to the multipurpose room for their morning movement. In addition to calisthenics, the class is practicing ballroom dancing in preparation for the ‘big dance’ of their 8th grade year, the Winter Ball.
Character, plot, and even conflict played out in front of me. Each kid’s efforts, movement, or lack thereof described his or her personality exactly. Conflicts, internal and external, played out subtly in the selection of dance partners, in the shifting and changing of action on the dance floor. They were teaching me my own lesson as I watched.
“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”
No, those words were not spoken by an elderly politician complaining about texting, butt-hanging jeans, and the obesity epidemic. Socrates said them somewhere around 400 B.C.
I’ve seen rude and/or apathetic teens, but I’ve also encountered more than a reasonable share of rude, lazy, apathetic, and intellectually-stunted adults. I’ve never bought into the theory that the upcoming generation shows the incipient demise of society. But, even if I had bought into the generational trope, Caitlin’s class would have shaken that conviction.
Okay, yes, there is a basket for cell phones and electronics in the classroom, and it seems to get fuller by the month. Yes, these kids tease and joke with teachers and parents. They chatter instead of, and during exercise, and well, I suspect that Socrates take on food derived from watching a horde of adolescents descend upon the early version of a pepperoni pizza like locusts.
However, if their teacher is tyrannized, he hides it well. The class did indeed stand as I was introduced (despite the fact that many of them have known me since they were seven or eight.) And forget the stereotype of the bored, rude teen.
For every question I asked or point I made, hands flew up and the room buzzed. Sure, I had to bring them back from the neverland of chatter, but they weren’t talking about shopping or game scores. The chatter was more along the lines of “Oh, that’s like in such-and-such book.” “Oh! Did you see XXXX movie, where the guy did YYYY? That was totally man vs. himself.”
I don’t know for sure what the kids took away from my couple of mornings with them. I hope that, if nothing else, something will have seeped into their heads that causes them to look at their books, movies, and video games with new eyes. Maybe some of them will decide that this story thing is fun. Maybe some will learn that if you get stuck when writing, you can just blow up a goat. Maybe they were bored out of their skulls but too polite to show me.
But I know what I learned from them. I took away memories such as a young man saying, with no trace of self-consciousness, “That’s like in Sense and Sensibility” when we talked about mis-direction. I will remember the almost unanimous looks of confusion when I stated during a discussion of dialogue that they speak differently to their best friends than to classmates with whom they might not be as close. “What do you mean?” they asked. “We’re all close.”
They helped me remember why I write. I write to better understand my own story. I write to show myself the glint of light on broken glass, and to remind myself that others see it too.