Do you know a lot of kids who like to write?
No, I don’t, either. I know a few. But even the kids who like to write don’t tend to like writing ASSIGNMENTS.
I’ve used the same curriculum with all four of my kids. And just about every September, writing assignment number one features the dreaded memoir.
My kids are sick to death of writing memoirs.
They protest that they’ve run out of memoir topics. No, they don’t want to write about their summer vacation trip. No, they don’t want to write about their hobbies and sports. They’ve done all of those. They are bored. More importantly, and more disturbingly…
…they are bored with THEMSELVES.
Last year, I skipped a lot of composition exercises because I couldn’t get the girls enthused about them, and they had done the same or similar exercises so many, many times before. The great thing and the bad thing about homeschooling, of course, is that there are so many things you could be studying–if you drop one subject you will just fill the void with three or four more. And that’s what we did last year.
But this is (according to the rest of America) our last year of middle school, so I am somewhat anxious that we have some practice this year with typical written formats. So when the dreaded memoir surfaced (sure enough, it was unit one, lesson one), I insisted that we work on it.
This year’s example for memoir writing is Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. Here’s a Project Gutenberg version.
I think it is potentially hazardous to ask students to read Mark Twain’s work as an example of memoir. First of all, his use of dialect, while brilliant, is beyond what most of us can pull off on paper. He had a remarkable ear and powers of observation second to none. Second, those were exciting times. I think many American students are going to read about navigating the Mississippi in a riverboat and throw up their hands in defeat because life in America today just “isn’t that exciting.”
If this sounds familiar to you, hang on for a second. There’s another way to look at this.
I don’t think it’s a good idea to point to Life on the Mississippi and say, “Here, kids, this is what a memoir looks like.”
What’s more helpful is this: “Here, kids, this is what reading a great memoir FEELS like.”
It’s all about learning to use all the tools that you have in your arsenal. Dialogue, pacing, tone–how do you communicate your experience and feelings to your reader?
The honest truth is this…that some of us are going to be better at manipulating these tools than others. I can pick up the same baseball bat as anyone else, but wielding it is a different matter. I can’t hit a ball no matter how you throw it, whereas some people can magically make contact with the ball every time. But I know I definitely CAN get better. And becoming a better writer has two parts. First, you need decent tools. So make sure you know the component parts of good writing. And second, you have to make those tools serve you. You have something to say. You need to practice using your tools so that you succeed at telling your story.
If your kid is bored with this assignment, she needs to choose a story she wants to tell, and work on making it exciting. Ask her to think about what makes any story exciting. The same tools will keep cropping up–dialogue, pacing, tone. Story arc. Tension. These are Hollywood tools. And yes, they belong in your writing.
More next time…after we all draft the Fall 2015 memoir. Mom will draft a memoir as well, just to be fair. We’ll all work at creating something exciting for the reader. It’ll be fun. I’m guessing that this will be the last opportunity that I have to work with my girls on the dreaded memoir. Phew–but I’ll miss it.
Image courtesy of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s digitization project, Documenting the American South.