Advertisement. Click on the ad for more information.
Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Writing Road Trip

East, or West?

by Lisa Bullard

9_10EastWest

I think road-tripping together should be a requirement for every couple contemplating life partnership. There are few other circumstances that allow you to so quickly learn about how someone navigates through life.

Would you rather plan the whole trip in advance, or just get in the car and drive? Do you stop and ask for directions, or go ahead and get lost? Hotel room or camper? Talk radio or hip hop? Speed limit or speedster? Healthy or unhealthy foods? Good tipper or bad?

Riding together tells me almost everything I need to know about a person.

So does writing together. In fact, one of the quickest tricks I have for getting to know a new group of students is to pose a “would you rather…?” writing prompt for them.

For example, I might prompt: “If you had to choose, would you rather have the power of invisibility, or flight?” Then I’ll ask them to write about their choice for ten minutes. Here’s what I’ve found:

“Invisibility” kids often worry that things are being kept from them, that there are important secrets they don’t know. Sometimes they love being sneaky. Sometimes they want to become invisible to bullies. Invisibility can be about revenge, or power, or compiling information.

“Flight” kids often crave freedom. They sense that they don’t know enough about the world. Sometimes they feel superior. Sometimes they crave escape. Flight can be about expanding their horizons, or seeing a different point of view, or pushing themselves beyond the limits.

In other words, by writing out an answer to this one simple question, students end up telling me an enormous amount about who they are and what they want from the world.

Would you rather go east or west? Think carefully: your answer might tell me more than you could ever guess.

 

Read more...

Are We There Yet?

by Lisa Bullard

WRT_27KeyboardMy Texas grandparents  usually made the long drive to Minnesota. But the summer I was thirteen, my parents piled me, my two younger brothers, and a borrowed boy cousin into the old station wagon and headed us south.

I escaped into the far back, propping myself up on suitcases and reading a thousand-page-long Civil War novel called House Divided. The boy’s constant bickering added a backdrop of battleground sound effects.

Did I mention how often we had to turn around and go back somewhere to retrieve my cousin’s forgotten retainer?

“Are we there yet?” That question comes out on every long drive. There’s point where we just want to be DONE with all the traveling. It’s the same with a writing road trip. There’s at least one moment during every one of my writing projects when I think: I’m done. This has to be good enough. The problem is, I’m often nowhere near my destination  when this happens.

To be a writer over the long haul, you have to get back on the road and keep writing despite those moments.  But it helps enormously to change things up somehow—I might alter my writing location by going to a coffee shop, or turn on music (usually  I’m a non-music writer).

Students have this same “I’m done” response after they’ve worked on a long project for a while. One of the most effective ways I’ve found to generate a new burst of enthusiasm in them is to let them switch from writing longhand to keyboarding. Sign up for the computer lab, or let students take turns on a classroom computer. This simple change always fuels new writing energy.

Even on the longest trip, the answer to “Are we there yet?” is eventually, “Yes! We finally made it!”

 

Read more...

Places We Never Expected to Go

by Lisa Bullard

WRT_TwinsOn-the-road Lisa is different than Lisa-at-home. Traveling Lisa takes bigger risks. She’s less responsible. She puts herself in the way of more trouble.

You might almost call her my Evil Twin.

Something happens when I’ve moved outside my comfort zone. I perceive things in a fresh way. I feel a freedom to be someone other than who I usually am. My perspective and my relationship to the world change with my surroundings.

Writing gives me this same chance to try on different parts of myself, but without the need to set aside bail money. So what if I’ve never been a fourteen-year-old boy? A musical genius? Homecoming queen? I can write my way inside any one of those characters, any one of those facets of the human experience. When I am successful in doing so, it means I have managed to travel to an unexplored part of myself—a part that, like my Evil Twin, experiences the world in a very different way.

Your students can explore the power of an alternate outlook through a simple “swapping viewpoints” writing exercise. Give them a basic story conflict, such as a scenario where a “perfect” older brother and a “screw-up” younger sister have to work together to achieve a common goal.

Ask students to immerse themselves as fully as they can into the consciousness of the brother. Have them write for ten minutes, telling the story from that character’s point of view. Then, ask them to swap and rewrite the exact same scene from the younger sister’s point of view. They’ll be surprised by the possibilities they discover in the story, and in themselves, by exploring these alternate viewpoints.

One of the beauties of writing is that it can take us places we never expected to go—perhaps especially, places we never knew existed inside ourselves.

Read more...

You Be Thelma, I’ll Be Louise

by Lisa Bullard

pit stopIt’s best to bring a buddy when you hit the highway.

With a traveling companion along for the ride, the guffaws are louder.  The adventures are grander. The late-night soul-searching is more soulful.

Then there are times like the morning I woke up mid-road trip with severe food poisoning in Myrtle Beach, a day before needing to catch a plane in Raleigh. Do you know how long it takes to drive from one Carolina to the other when you have to make an emergency pit stop every ten minutes? My friend “Thelma” does. She drove the entire nightmare trip while I lay curled around a bucket in the backseat.

I line up lots of people to ride shotgun when I set off on writing road trips.  These writing companions are often different people than my riding companions, but they’re just as important to my creative journey. My writing group alternates between tough-love critiques and cheerleading sessions. My other writing friends let me despair over rejection letters, and then offer encouragement  and advice. There’s always somebody willing to take the wheel when my writing life hits a back-seat-and-bucket moment.

And a writing critique group is a two-way road: I not only receive feedback for my work, but I learn an enormous amount from evaluating other writers’ manuscripts.

You can build supportive writing relationships in your classroom by offering peer review opportunities.  Model constructive feedback for students; show them how to strike a balance between feedback that is kind, but too vague to be useful, and feedback that is overly negative. As a starting point, you can download my peer review handout.

If you haven’t tried it before, I think you’ll find that the buddy system can be a real writing boon.

 

Read more...

Shifting Drivers

by Lisa Bullard

Take TurnsIf you go road tripping with enough different people, you discover another way that human beings sort themselves out: into the drivers of the world, and the passengers of the world.

The drivers are only completely happy when they have control of the steering wheel. But, on every trip, there comes a point where they tire out and lose their concentration.  Then it’s necessary to shift drivers. Even a short break can bring the original driver back to peak driving ability.

This is true of a writing road trip as well.  At some point, we tire out and lose our concentration.   When my students have been focusing on a longer writing session, I’ve discovered that temporarily “shifting drivers” works as a quick and effective break.

Here’s how it works. Ask students to shift their writing utensil to their non-dominant hand, and to try writing two or three sentences with that hand. Sometimes I use the board to model the “crazy ax murderer” results that my left hand produces when I shift drivers this way.

This gives students a chance to shake out their dominant hand, which has likely grown tired of gripping a pencil. It provides students a chance for a quick laugh over their attempts to write with their non-dominant hand. And I’ve read information that suggests that shifting hands this way re-engages the other side of our brain, which enlivens the writing process.

So when you’ve assigned a longer writing project, remember to follow the road signs in today’s photo at some point: First, STOP. Then, TAKE TURNS.  It’s a little trick to bring your students back to peak writing ability.

 

Read more...

Traveling Abroad

by Lisa Bullard

Swiss ChaletIn college I spent a month traveling in Europe. I savored dozens of exciting new foods.

But it was the ketchup—something I usually took for granted—that stood out. Foreign ketchup was so foreign. Had ketchup become so familiar at home that I’d stopped noticing its taste? Was it because I was eating ketchup in Switzerland that it seemed like I was tasting ketchup for the first time?

To me, the elusive concept of “writer’s voice” is like foreign ketchup. I know, now you’re saying, “Seriously, ketchup?” But teachers are being asked to help even young students develop their writing voices. The first step must be to define voice, yet adult writers struggle to grasp what it means. Is a condiment comparison really so out of line?

The best definition I have for voice is that it is the writer embedding her personality, history, essence, into her writing. Is it true that there are no new stories? If so, then voice is the thing that makes us want to hear the old stories told over and over again—because each new voice makes those stories seem fresh and surprising.

Voice is each new writer saying to you as the reader:

“I’m going to tell you a story… about being afraid… about losing someone… about finding your true self… about staying a good friend. Sounds familiar, right? But I’m going to tell you this story in the way that only I can tell it, so you’ll hear it as if for the very first time.”

My story, told in my voice, will taste like foreign ketchup to you.  Still recognizable as the condiment you take for granted. And yet also so unexpected, so newly noticed, it will seem as if you have never eaten ketchup—or heard that particular story—ever before.

 

Read more...

Changing Course

by Lisa Bullard

6_4DashboardMy family didn’t camp when I was a kid. So a few years ago, when a friend asked if I wanted to go on a camping trip to Arkansas, I said, “Sure. I’ve always wanted to try camping. It will be fun.” I assumed there would be lots of yummy toasted-marshmallow moments.

You know what they say about making assumptions, right?

I’m not sure exactly when I realized that “fun” was the wrong word. Maybe it was when that park ranger warned us about copperheads. Maybe it was the restrooms. Maybe it was the torrential downpours. Maybe it was the wood ticks. Maybe it was the murderous screams of warring raccoons.

Or maybe it was that nearby baby shrieking all night. I’m with you, baby: I wanted to shriek, too. Within 48 hours I was begging my camping comrades to completely change all our travel plans.

But changing course on a writing road trip isn’t that simple. When it’s time to revise our writing, it’s hard to give up our original assumptions about the piece. Those original ideas fueled us through the first draft, so they must be good enough to stick with, right?

Wrong. Re-visioning our work is crucial to the writing process. A true writer is a re-writer.

Revising is also, in my experience, the part of the writing process kids most resist.

There’s no one easy way to teach students the value of revising. But the same “What if?” question I described as a great idea-generator in my last post (“Pulled Over”) is also an invaluable revision tool. You can download some examples here of how students can use it to revise.

“What if?” may show your students that changing course allows them to journey through their piece again in a different—but maybe even more satisfying—way.

 

Read more...

Pulled Over

by Lisa Bullard

Cousin Susie on our road trip to Galveston

Cousin Susie on our road trip to Galveston

My brother’s wedding rehearsal is in three hours, but my cousins and I take a jaunt from Houston to Galveston anyway. Then a cop car pulls us over. One cop stands behind our car, gun drawn; another leans menacingly into the window and grills us. Eventually, he admits that our car and the three of us match the descriptions of the perpetrators of a just-committed, serious crime.

I start playing the “What if? Game” in my head:

—What if we have to spend the night in a Texas jail?

—What if we have to spend the next thirty years in jail?

—What if my brother kills me for missing his wedding?

My over-developed imagination loves to think up outrageous possible outcomes like this. So when I started visiting schools, I was surprised by how many students told me they struggle to think up story ideas. I might have trouble translating my ideas into workable stories, but I never lack for the ideas themselves.

And then I realized: I needed to teach students the “What if? Game.” You simply take something predictable— tomorrow’s bus ride, soccer practice, dinner at Grandma’s—and you brainstorm a list of the funniest, scariest, or most life-altering alternatives as to how that event could turn out. Then you assign one of these imagined disasters to a character. Now you’ve got the start to a story.

Try it out. Prompt your students with, “What if when you walk into school tomorrow morning—.” Then set them to brainstorming: What if zombies are chasing your classmates? What if the U.S. president is sitting in your desk? What if the principal has turned into an alien?

And, yes, the cops let us go and we made it to the wedding. But what if instead…?

 

Read more...

Collecting Souvenirs

by Lisa Bullard

Author's snow globeNot all writers can claim the vast and varied assortment of souvenir snow globes I’ve acquired on my travels. But most writers I know are constantly collecting other things: stories, words, images, emotions, quirky characters, new experiences, and oddball facts. These “writing chachkas” clutter the rooms of our imaginations until we need inspiration

Then we pick one up, shake it, and watch to see what lands in our writing.

A big part of the writing act is sedentary—sooner or later, you have to set your butt in a chair and focus on a page or a screen. But movement is crucial too: you have to get out into the world and find new souvenirs to add to the mix, or your imagination can quickly grow stale. Even a simple “road trip” to a coffee shop or the park can provide fresh material or a new perspective on old material.  I’ve learned to value these times away from my writing chair as an important part of my writing process.

I’ve met many kinesthetic learners who hate writing because they hate to sit still. And even students who have a knack for sitting quietly can benefit from a change in perspective.  So I’ve worked hard to build movement into my writing sessions with students.  One of the most popular activities is a simple poetry-writing Treasure Hunt.  (Download a description here.)

Why not get your students started on collecting their own word souvenirs by simply sending them on a writing road trip across the landscape of your classroom?

 

Read more...

Heavy Baggage

by Lisa Bullard

I wrote in “The Beauty of Roadblocks” about how students sometimes forget to include the critical element of conflict in their stories.

White squirrelSometimes I’m faced with a different problem: a kid will include painful, intense conflict—something that is clearly based on their own experiences. Some young people carry around “heavy baggage,” and a writing road trip can unexpectedly wrench those bags open. In worrisome cases, such as descriptions of abuse, I’ve chosen to follow up with teachers or principals to let them know that a child may need additional support.

Outside of remembering to stamp this heavy baggage “handle with care,” I haven’t come up with a way to prevent the emergence of these more complex emotions and memories. Opening up about the experiences that have moved us in the past can be a powerful and even liberating part of the writing act. But I do want young writers to feel secure when these tough issues emerge, so I often use a tactic that creates a buffer of sorts: we assign these intense experiences to animal characters.

A student might write about the Rabbit family struggling through a divorce. Or the death of Grandpa Eagle. Or the all-white squirrel who is bullied for looking different than his gray squirrel schoolmates. The stories are still emotionally honest—but there’s a protection granted the young writers because the traumatic events are removed from the human world.

This tactic doesn’t work as well for older students—by Grades 5 or 6, some kids think it’s too babyish to write about talking animals. But until that point, you may find that a squirrel can come off as surprisingly human when it acts as a stand-in for a character facing one of life’s tough moments.

 

Read more...

Taking the Wheel

by Lisa Bullard

Some days I really wish I was better at being a bad writer.

At the wheelHere’s why. Drafting, that early stage of writing when you are just trying to capture your ideas, usually works best if you can get words down as quickly as possible. But my inner editor is horribly critical. If I let that inner editor take the wheel while I’m drafting, it’s as if my car has hit a patch of ice: my wheels start spinning, I skid, and eventually I crash into a snow bank. So rather than writing badly, I often don’t write at all—to avoid that crash.

In a real-life skid, you have to react quickly; there’s no time to over-think. You correct the car’s trajectory based on instinct and practice. I advocate a lot of “behind-the-wheel” practice for your writing students, too, to counter tendencies towards their inner editors taking over too soon in the writing process. These inner editors too often have names such as “perfectionism” and “lack of confidence,” and they’re bad driving instructors.

I start each writing session with a “quick write.” (You can download one of mine here.) For this exercise, the only measure of student success is that they keep writing. Even better, forbid the use of erasers, since this is one time when spelling things correctly doesn’t count.

Throw the editors out of the room for these ten minutes—and that includes your own editorial voice as teacher, as well as the critics living inside each of your students. I’m a huge fan of a well-crafted sentence. Editing and revising DO have a huge role to play. But the writing ride is plenty long—and drafting must come before revising. Give students’ creativity some daily driving practice before you ask them to let their inner editors take the wheel.

 

 

Read more...

The Beauty of Roadblocks

buffalo-sign

by Lisa Bullard

Can you guess which of these really happened?

a) After accidentally invading the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, my traveling companion and I were in a three-way stand-off: our car, a Harley, and a 1,000-pound buffalo.

b) I peered over a hotel balcony high above the Mississippi, watching the bomb squad and 50 other emergency vehicles squeal into the parking lot directly below.

c) Our airboat became stuck in an alligator-infested Louisiana swamp.

d) All of the above

Did you guess “d”? One of the best things about road trips is the stories I have to tell afterwards about the unexpected roadblocks I faced down along the way.

Obstacles come in handy when you’re writing fiction, too. You need to make sure your character faces problems all along their wild ride to the story’s finish. That conflict is what hooks in readers. But conflict is the ingredient kids most often leave out of their stories. Sometimes they don’t understand that fiction requires it. Sometimes they want to protect their characters. Sometimes conflict scares them. Some kids resolve all the conflict too quickly, draining the story of suspense.

So before we even start writing, I ask kids to tell me about their favorite books. I help them identify the roadblocks their favorite characters have faced. I have students brainstorm long lists of problems that could confront their own characters. And I remind students that “and they lived happily ever after” doesn’t come until a story’s end.

For me, the whole point of taking a road trip is that moment when you’re facing down the buffalo. After all, I got home in one piece—and I’ve got a great story to tell! So don’t let your writing students forget to introduce their characters to a buffalo or two along the way.

 

 

Read more...

Packing Your Bags

One of these things is not like the other

One of these things is not like the other.

by Lisa Bullard

One of the basic writing exercises I use with kids starts with having them create personal “Time Capsules” (download the activity). It’s a great way to explore how writers build a character through the use of “telling” details—in this case, the items a character values the most.

But a person’s stuff can reveal more about them than just the obvious. For example, I have identical twin nephews. From the time they were two, one of them (Alex), insisted on spiking up with hair gel like a porcupine or a James Dean-wannabe. When he came to visit me, he’d carry along an entire 128 oz. bottle for an overnight stay (I guess you never know when you might have a hair gel emergency).

For years we weren’t sure what the gel represented. Was his chosen hairstyle a “coolness” thing? A matter of vanity? And then Alex finally answered the question we’d been asking for so long.

“This way nobody confuses me for Matt [his identical twin],” he said. “I really want people to know it’s me under here.” Hair gel represented his deeply felt need to have others recognize him as a distinct individual.

Understanding that, a writer could build an authentic, believable character—using nothing more than the 128 oz. of hair gel the character packs in his suitcase.

 

 

Read more...

A Writing GPS

GPS_clipFor a couple of years running I was hired for two-week “writing road trips” across the southwestern Minnesota prairie. On my daily journeys I often passed within a few miles of the banks of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Plum Creek. But I didn’t have time to stop and visit Famous Author Landmarks. I had been hired on as a “Famous Author” myself, to visit a series of schools and talk to students about writing. I would spend the morning in a school with hundreds of kids packed into the gym, and then charge down country highways to another school so small that the entire 3rd grade was made up of six little boys.

I was on display in these out-of-the-way places as proof that there are real people behind those names on books. But I also wanted to inspire the kids I met to be more enthusiastic writers. I wanted them to see writing as a chance to reach into their deepest hidden selves, and then to reach back out to others with whatever stories they found squirreled away inside. But that’s not always an easy thing to do when you only have 45 minutes and a big group of kids. I had to come up with a lot of attention-grabbing activities—activities that truly taught something about writing, but were also “fun” enough to stick.

Now that it’s many thousands of words, kids, and teens later, I’ve figured out a bit more about teaching kids how to write, and I’m going to share what I’ve discovered—here, on a regular basis. If you’re acting as a “writing GPS,” hoping to guide kids towards writing with more confidence, more imagination, and more finesse—but especially more fun!—I’d love to have you come along for the ride.

 

Read more...

Traveling In-Word

For this week’s writing road trip, I journeyed to the Alphabet Forest. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting, the Alphabet Forest is the remarkable creation of author/illustrator/innovator Debra Frasier, who through pure passion and persistence, managed to carve out an oasis for words in the midst of the consumable craziness that is the Minnesota State Fair.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the State Fair. I just don’t think of it as a place to sit quietly and muse deeply. And yet, Debra’s love of fair lettering started her on a journey that led to creating this enchanted place: in the midst of sunburn, sore feet, and stomach aches, here is a corner where there’s shade and plenty of places to sit down and people who offer you fun for free. But better yet, there are words enough to stuff your imagination even more than those mini donuts have already stuffed your stomach.

Lisa Bullard

Last year, I watched as my niece ignored every other fair offering (okay, with the exception of that giant brownie) as she obsessively filled out her Fabulous Fair Alphabet Game Card. This year, I had the pleasure of serving as author-in-residence at the Alphabet Forest for a day. I worked with oodles of kids who settled in at my table and promptly became utterly absorbed in writing or drawing. It didn’t matter that the parade was passing them by (literally!) and that there were still corndogs and cotton candy to be eaten: when given the option, their number one priority was to lose themselves in the creative act.

It reminded me, all over again, why I do what I do: giving kids the gift of words and story is like handing them the magic key to life. Even kids who think they hate reading and writing can be won over easily once you find the right key for them. A forest full of words can beat a clutch of corndogs any day.

If you’re near Minnesota, and you’re going to the fair, you can be inspired with ideas for how to create an Alphabet Forest in your own classroom or dining room. If not, there are a myriad of amazing downloadable resources to help you, starting at this link and moving on from there to Debra Frasier’s website.

You’ll be mighty glad you made the journey.

Read more...