"We are living a public life on a global stage, the ones who can express themselves best, will be heard." -Laura Hill, Author The Great Story World Mix-Up, co-creator #whatisschool

Read the books I write with my children.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Why Shared Experience Is Crucial To Creative Writing With Students

by Laura Hill

Recently, I've had the opportunity to be involved in chats regarding the evolution of modern education. The focus of many of these conversations are the changes happening in schools through the introduction of technology, and it's creating a lot of excitement. One idea that keeps resurfacing is the shift in student experience from knowledge acquisition to creative expression of thoughts and ideas.  This got me thinking.

As an author,  illustrator and speaker I am creating for public audiences all the time.  The process never begins with methodology though it often ends there.  It starts with an idea that is followed by an experience. 

In my new book, The Boy Who Cried Sea Monster, I needed to find out what it would feel like to be lost on a deserted beach.  And since I write the series with my daughters Ava and Kayla, who are 8 and 11, we headed out to a remote location called Pirate's Cove with no food or water to find out.

 During our two hour walk we explored the shore noting how the light played on the waves and colored the sand in shallow waters.  We worried about how the tide washed away our path becoming so high we couldn't go back the way we had come. We took pictures of the contours of the cliffs and ran our fingers over the smooth sides of driftwood that had been bleached white in the sun.  

We shivered in icy waters, sand grating between our toes and spread our arms to the wind that whipped over sand dunes rising five stories high to meet the sky.  The smell of salt and brine hung thickly around us and we breathed it in deeply through parched lips, wishing for the relief of a sip of fresh water.  By the time we were done we felt ready to write from the perspective of two children lost in a strange land at the edge of the sea.

Back at the studio we continued our exploration sharing experiences and perspective while sitting at a huge table covered with butcher block paper. This is our "think tank" where we can write, doodle and record all our ideas.  We were surprised to find that each of us had a very different take on what had happened on our walk.  For us that's a good thing as it brings our heroes, Penelope the science girl and Jilly the magic lover, to life in unique ways.

So what's the point?

In my work I do a lot of creative writing with students.  What I often find is they are frozen by the rules of writing, spending more time trying to fit their ideas into a model than letting them flow.  This makes writing hard.

I use many methodologies to loosen students up, creating equalizing shared experiences, that I feel produce richer writing results than culling from memories, which can be very two dimensional like a photograph.  The detail is there but it is not rich.

Achieving a richer experience doesn't have to be a hard thing.  One visiting workshop I like to do in schools involves staging a sour lemon eating contest. If you've never tried to suck on a lemon wedge longer than your friend, let me tell you it's a very powerful experience.  When students write about this experience they all have different points of view.  Some like it, some hate it, but more importantly they begin to describe the experience from their unique perspective.  This is where the creation magic happens!

What I end up with is twenty different students and twenty experiences all with common threads yet completely unique. Students find it is easy to write because there is so much to talk about;  the smell of the lemons, the taste, the texture.  How the brightly colored, sweet smelling fruits were so pleasant until they were popped into the mouth. The student's emotions are fresh; feelings of fear and the exaggeration of the experience of sucking on a  lemon, the feeling of determination to stay the course until the end. 

I help students express their experience using one of several methods presented electronically or in more traditional forms as each adds value and develops different skill sets. The feedback is amazing and students are surprised at how their peers viewed the same experience so differently.

This type of creation from shared experience echoes the mindset of a technologically integrated society working together to create solutions.

When I began writing a very smart agent named Donald Maass told me that you can't convey your thoughts without knowing the details of that which you write about. I learned the same thing as an art student at Parson's School Of Design where the first lesson was to draw what you see, not what you think you see. 

A healthy shift in mindset is a good thing. Technology lets us choose to use our minds to create and to share ideas in exciting new ways.  And though I use technology often in my work I also use pencils, paper and paint just as frequently.  In the end, however we express it, what we can't replace is the experience of "doing" that makes our writing rich and expressive, a point I believe we should think deeply and often about when discussing creative writing with students.  

It's easier to write about a field of flowers covered in dew when you've plunged your hand into a bucket of fresh cut blooms. It's easier and more believable to write a villain when you've stood in his shoes, acting out what he would say and do.  So why would we hand students a blank sheet and ask them to create without giving them the opportunity to explore?  

It's something to think about.

Laura Hill is an author and producer known for helping children find their voice and talents through creative arts and technology. To find out how you can bring her writing programs to your school email Laura Hill or tweet @candylandcaper.