Making Time for Writers

  • Photo of David This article was written in consultation with Ms. Millison’s fifth grade students, with whom I shared my writing process, sought ideas, and received valuable feedback.

    Recently, I was sitting in my orthopedic doctor’s waiting room thumbing through Time magazine’s annual 100 most influential people issue, not an easy thing to do when your visit is due to aching fingers. Thirty or so biographies into the publication, I noticed a dearth of authors on the list. There were countless entertainers and Hollywood-types, a bevy of business tycoons and techies, a smattering of sport superstars, and your predictable hodge-podge of designers, dictators and do-gooders—but not one author.

    Writer, Colson Whitehead, whose book, The Underground Railroad, won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, finally emerged midway through the list. Only two other authors made the venerated class of one hundred—Ava DuVernay and Margaret Atwood.

    In a age when tweets trump tomes (excuse the pun), Youtube usurps the perusal of publications, and short attention spans favor Facebook, I was not surprised, but discouraged, that renowned authors, who take hundreds of pages to carefully craft messages, were denied a few more rungs on Time’s achievement ladder. Have writers lost their power to influence our collective thinking? Are authors not revered celebrities in their own right (or write)? Is powerful writing no longer recognized by the masses?

    As the son and brother of librarians, a nephew of a published author— William Hoffman—whose books detailed life on the west side of St. Paul, Minnesota, shelf reader extraordinaire (my first job was making sure all the books at the Swanson branch public library in Omaha were in the correct order) and shameless devotee of the New York Times Book Review, I have a great admiration for authors and words. As Frank Bruni, Times columnist, recently stated in a book review, “I’m reminded that those who prevail are the ones who tell the most persuasive stories.”

    How about our students? I know most love reading, but what about creating text? Do they view writing as a pleasurable form of artistic-expression? How many aspire to be a writer, follow a favorite author on the internet, send fan letters to authors, or count down the days till a favorite novelist’s new work is released? Do they place authors in the same pantheon of heroes as athletes, rock stars or parents?

    I recently asked a group of Island Park fifth graders to share their thoughts on writing. Most rank it behind reading, math and science in preferred academic subjects. Some viewed it as labor intensive. Several described it as messy, open-ended and a perfectionist’s nemesis. A few do not enjoy having their inner thoughts judged by readers. However, others see writing as a therapeutic, relaxing or a creative endeavor. When I inquired as to why authors don’t share the spotlight with other famous, influential people, one offered this pearl of wisdom: author’s want their books to be famous not themselves.

    My curiosity regarding the state of writing and authors coincides with the roll out of our district’s new writing program, Being a Writer. The program, originating from California and the Center for the Collaborative Classroom, develops solid writing skills and promotes social aspects of the craft. Kindergarteners through fifth graders, with an increase of sophistication, learn about and engage in the writing process from generating ideas through drafting, revising, editing and publishing. They study about and write in different genres including narrative, opinion and expository; they recite and compose poetry. Grammar and spelling skills lessons are scattered throughout daily writing time.

    The social aspect of writing is addressed when students share ideas, offer feedback, and proofread a peer’s paper. After publication, classmates present their writing from an Author’s Chair, where an audience of friends respectfully offers critique. The social dimension of writing is also addressed when we teach children how to write for specific readers and ways to craft persuasive pieces that can affect social change.

    With a solid writing curriculum in place, one that is receiving very positive feedback from the Island Park staff, I am hopeful that our students will develop an appreciation for the craft, feel joy from the writing process, gain clarity in their expression, and experience the power of written words to nurture their soul or affect the world.

    Here are a few things you can do to support your child’s writing development and appreciation for authors:

    • Provide writing opportunities for your child like creating a shopping list, sending a thank you note, or encourage journal or diary entries.
    • Have your child say their sentences, story plots and descriptive passages aloud. Ideas start in the head. If a child can think it and speak it, it is easier to get a thought on the page.
    • While reading to your child, comment on the author’s craft. Point out interesting words and phrases, talk about the original ideas; note how a piece is organized or structured.
    • Model being a writer. Children don’t always view their parents as authors. Write your child a poem, include a creative message in your child’s lunch; share any written work you may have kept from your childhood. Be sure to send the message that writing is a worthwhile activity that needs to be honed like any other skill.
    • Read biographies of famous writers. Many of these biographies are written for even our youngest readers. (For example: J.K. Rowling, Shakespeare, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Martin Luther King Jr., Roald Dahl, E.B. White, Beverly Cleary, and Ray Bradbury)

     Being a Writer includes more ways to support your young writer:

    • Ask your child to read his or her published piece aloud to you. Encourage your child to read the piece in a clear voice.
    • Express interest in and appreciation for your child’s writing by telling him or her what you find interesting about the piece. You might talk about a part you especially like and explain why.
    • Ask your child to describe how he or she arrived at an idea for a piece and what steps were taken from the first draft to final publication.
    • With your child, learn more about the writing habits of a favorite author. Visit author websites or attend book signings at local bookstores or public libraries. Discuss what you learn about how authors work.

    It is probably a pipe dream to imagine that Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential issue for 2018 will have an author on its cover or that the majority of its esteemed seats will be reserved for writers. The good news, however, is that we are developing our own inspired and influential writers at Island Park. Through our modeling, guidance and instruction, our children are scribing indelible words to reflect upon and share with others while leaving their mark on time.

    David Hoffman