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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Writing Road Trip

Roads Not Taken

One Way SignMy brother’s driving directions are full of “roads not taken.”

He’ll say something like, “Go about a mile and you’ll see Hamilton. Don’t turn there! You want the next street.” But without fail, I see Hamilton, remember that it was part of his directions, and turn before I’m supposed to.

My father and I are equally directionally incompatible. He’ll recite a mystifying succession of compass points to me. To give him credit, I’m sure his directions are completely clear and sensible to somebody who can actually tell east from west.

Here’s the only kind of directions that seem to work for me: “Turn left at the third Dairy Queen.” I guarantee I won’t miss a single turn if you use “ice cream directions.”

It’s a simple truth:  different approaches work for different brains. What launches one student’s writing road trip might amount to a “road not taken” approach for another. There is no “one way” that works to inspire every student. But for every student, there is probably “one way” that will ultimately inspire them.

When I first started  teaching students to write, I found it frustrating when kids would ask if they could draw their stories instead of write them. I saw my job as reinforcing writing skills, and I was afraid that the writing would get upstaged.

But gradually I realized that for certain students, drawing was the perfect “gateway” activity to writing. So while I still encourage all students to work with words, I also make room for drawing as part of our brainstorming and pre-writing activities.

Words are my artistic medium; drawing remains my personal road not taken. But it turns out that you can follow two completely different sets of directions, offered by two people who think completely differently—and somehow still end up at the same place!



Several years ago a friend and I got lost driving through New Orleans. Eventually we pulled over so I could ask a gas station attendant for directions.

He rattled off a set of instructions in a Cajun accent, ending with, “then take the Hoopalong.”

I looked at my road map. No Hoopalong. I asked him to point it out to me. His finger tapped a section of my map while he repeated his directions, this time with a hint of impatience. I looked again. Still no Hoopalong that I could see, but he’d moved on to another task. I shrugged. I figured we’d follow his instructions as far as we could, then watch road signs for this mysterious “Hoopalong.”

Huey P. Long Bridge

Photo credit: JohnnyAutomatic, Wikimedia Commons

Which is how I soon thereafter found myself being driven across the Huey P. Long Bridge (identified by some as the “scariest bridge you’ve ever driven across”) by my shrieking, bridge-phobic friend. By the time the two of us had realized where the attendant’s directions were taking us, it was too late to do anything but keep driving forward.

I once heard author Laurie Halse Anderson tell a group of writers that we should “lead our characters deep into the forest.” I’ve heard other authors refer to it as “throwing our characters in over their heads.”

To phrase it slightly differently, we need to somehow trick our characters into crossing the scariest bridge they’ve ever driven across.

Keep drumming this fact into your student writers’ heads: a story doesn’t become compelling until you heap trouble upon your characters. Trouble is what makes a reader want to keep reading.

As for the students, they’ll learn one of the biggest satisfactions a writer can have: the fun of figuring out how you’re going to teach your character to swim after you’ve thrown him or her into the deep water.


Road Food Re-Mix

by Lisa Bullard

2_11lemonPieI love seeking out oddball road food opportunities. In New Jersey: a Chinese-Italian buffet where the spaghetti and lo mein rubbed shoulders like long-lost cousins. In Nashville: a Swedish-Southern all-you-can-eat spread, with fried chicken and pickled herring vying for att‚ention. In New York City: a Greek-Mexican café.

Many of the world’s diverse taste temptations are no longer exotic options to us. But I still admit to surprise and delight when I stumble over a place where the burritos are backed up by baklava.

Combining an oddball set of options can also prompt a writing road trip. I’ve shared the downloadable activity found here before, under another context. I offer it up to you again with the encouragement that even if you tried it then, it’s something you should use with your students on-and-off throughout the year. Each time you offer it to them, they’ll have a chance to work with a surprising remix of story ingredients.

Not only has the activity proven to be one of my most reliable writing prompts for a wide variety of ages, but you’ll also be reinforcing in your students a taste for the fundamental ingredients that any good story requires: character, setting, and conflict.

Besides, the whole thing is almost as much fun as egg rolls with marinara sauce.


Return Visit

by Lisa Bullard

1_14GooglyEyesSan Francisco has an eerie quality of reinvention that is unique to that city for me. When I make return visits to other destinations, the visual “pieces” from each trip start to fit together like giant jigsaw puzzles, and eventually I form an integrated picture of the whole place.

But despite the number of times I’ve visited San Francisco, each new visit feels as if I’m seeing someplace new: the city feels completely remade to me. It’s as if, between my visits, the curtain goes down and they replace the stage set.

If only I could bottle it, this San Francisco syndrome would be enormously useful to writers. The ability to successfully revise requires the ability to return to a work-in-progress as if you’ve never seen it before. But this can be incredibly difficult. We become attached to the work as it is already wri‚tten and, when we revisit it, we notice only how easily it fits together, instead of being able to truly “re-vision” it.

Sometimes, however, all it takes is time away. One of the best tactics I’ve found to aid a fresh look is something I call “putting it in the drawer.” If I set a piece aside completely, ignoring it for several weeks, I often find that during my absence from it the set changers of my imagination go to work. When I return to the piece, I’m able to tackle the revising task with far greater objectivity and skill.

I know from experience how reluctant students usually are to revise their writing. Why not try my simple San Francisco trick? Ask them to set the work aside for a week or more. When they finally come back to it, they are more likely to return with a fresh set of eyes.


Well-Traveled Paths

by Lisa Bullard

12_17PinkCarriageI slip into auto-pilot when I’m driving through overly familiar territory; I stop taking in the same old landmarks. And then one day, there’s a stop sign where there’s never been one before, and my eyes are re-opened to the possibilities around me.

There are “story paths” like that too: fairy tales and other narratives that have grown so familiar we fail to notice the power they hold unless we’re forced to take a fresh look. But these stories have much to offer; there’s a reason they’ve been passed down through ages of story-tellers. Sometimes they even serve as the foundation for new stories in new generations; “once upon a time” becomes “here, in this time.”

I use some of these time-proven stories as student writing prompts (download here). They are particularly useful when students are struggling with pulling stories together. The prompts provide the basics of character, plot, and conflict; students draw on their knowledge of earlier versions of the story to craft a new version. By exploring the existing narrative from the inside out, they learn how a story is crafted. And they carry that knowledge forward to other stories they write.

Sometimes writers turn time-proven stories into even more powerful new stories. When I added the last of the four prompts to my list, I had “The Ugly Duckling” in mind. But it didn’t take me long to realize that the same basic description could apply to another children’s story: the tale of a boy, shunned by his family because he’s different who one day shocks everyone with his amazing hidden talent.

I offer you the two words that changed children’s book publishing: Harry Pott‚er. Who knows what other “new classics” your students might create when they begin traveling the paths of time-tested stories?



by Lisa Bullard

12_31BikerLegEvery year, thousands of bikers road trip to Sturgis (South Dakota) to celebrate their shared passion for motorcycles. For some of them, attendance is an eagerly anticipated annual tradition that holds the same power found in spiritual rituals.

One year my friend and I were caught unawares in the middle of the experience. We had traveled to South Dakota without knowing about the pilgrimage of believers, but as we came closer to our destination, the growing number of bikers, thick as plagues of locusts at gas stations, forced us to piece together the clues. It turned into one of the most illuminating of our many road trips together. After all, it’s not every day that outsiders such as us are allowed a glimpse into secret ceremonial rites involving fur-covered bras and leather chaps.

And we had good reason to know we had nothing to fear from the bikers, however oddly they were adorned: “Most of them are dentists in real life,” the local newspaper assured us.

Apparently even dentists love an excuse to leave the regular world behind and celebrate with their own kind. So I draw on that fact for one of my more reliable creative writing prompts—one that works even on those deadly just- before-vacation or just-back-from-break days when students are completely distracted.

Namely, I ask students to invent their own holiday. I ask them to write about the reason their holiday exists and the special traditions that surround it. When is their holiday? What foods are eaten? What costumes are worn? What rituals take place? Are gifts exchanged? Are there figures such as Santa Claus that play a prominent role?

Hopefully you’ll find, as I have, that students really enjoy channeling their pre- or post-holiday energy into creating their own imagined visions for “the best celebration ever.”


Through the Woods

by Lisa Bullard

12_17SantaSleighA few years ago I decided to visit a friend in North Carolina over the holidays, and the only way I could afford the airfare was to fly on Christmas Day. I admit to a case of self pity as I set out, picturing the rest of the world in their new pajamas, opening presents and reveling in a holiday feast, while I suffered the long lines, cramped seats, and other indignities that air travel offers

What was I thinking, leaving home for Christmas? How could I possibly enjoy another family’s holiday traditions? Would it even feel like Christmas in a place where pansies were still blooming?

And then I spotted a family at the airport who were all decked out in Santa caps, the two young children big-eyed with excitement as they prepared to journey over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house. They hadn’t left their Christmas at home: they were carrying it with them, packed along with their toothbrushes and clean underwear for the trip.

My entire mood turned instantly ebullient. All it took was that reminder that even when we travel far away, we still carry a little part of home with us.

Writing is a journey too. It might begin with the things we know best, but eventually our imaginations take us into unfamiliar territory. Sometimes this is exhilarating. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable or even a little scary. The best thing to do is to keep moving forward, taking out whatever little part of home we’re carrying with us when we need some reassurance.

The path to Grandmother’s house may take us through the woods. But never forget that Grandmother is waiting on the other side with a big cup of hot cocoa and a thousand twinkling Christmas lights.


Crossing the Border

by Lisa Bullard

12_3MooseMountieOnce when flying back to the U.S. from Canada I met up with some zealous border control agents. The customs guy wanted a detailed description of what I’d purchased.

“I bought one of those souvenir snow globes with a little Mountie inside,” I said.

The guy thought a moment and then sadly shook his head. “Ma’am, if you’d played your cards right,  you could have taken home the real thing.”

The immigration guy looked me up and down and then barked out, “What’s ‘Oshkosh?”’

“It’s either a small town in Wisconsin or a kind of overalls,” I said. I was hoping for a gold star, but instead he rolled his eyes and waved me through.

Years later I was telling a friend trained in security about this story. “Would he really have kept me from crossing the border if I had answered the Oshkosh question wrong?” I asked.

She laughed. “He didn’t care what you answered. He cared how you answered. He’s trained to know when someone is telling the truth or when they’re lying.”

Fiction writers are also heavily vested in the kind of truth that lies underneath the surface answer.

When student writers use real-life events as their inspiration, they often get worked up over “what really happened.” But this isn’t the task of fiction. Instead, fiction is all about reshaping “what really happened” to reveal to the reader some of the biggest truths of all: truths about life, truths about people.

Explain to your students that it’s okay to leave out some details, add others, change a few more, if it’s done with the goal of pointing the reader towards the emotional truth of the story. This isn’t crossing the border from “telling the truth” over to “lying.” It’s making important writing choices.

It’s digging down to the truth found underneath “Oshkosh.”


Packing List

by Lisa Bullard

9_10SpiralNotebookI generate a flurry of lists for every road trip: A “bizarre attractions to stop and see” list. A “things to tell the cat-sitter” list. A packing list.

I love lists. I love them so much I have a whole journal full of different sorts of lists—I write down everything from household repairs to my bucket list. And I don’t keep lists because I’m one of those super-achiever types who expects to get all those things accomplished.

Instead, I make lists because I manage to forget even the most obvious of things if I don’t make note of them. Sometimes when the temperature is below zero here in the winter, I actually forget to breathe while I’m walking outside.

Okay, I don’t really write down “breathe,” because I’m not quite that hopeless.  But I do write down most practical stuff.  My lists are the best way I’ve found to successfully de-clutter my brain. By making them, I clear out space for my imagination to play.

And then whatever quirky, catawampus ideas were previously shoved to the corners of my mind have room to grow, to end up on their own lists. These get filed away under headings like “great ideas for a book someday,” or “awesome oddball character possibilities.” They are the best resource I have when I need a prompt to get me started on a new writing project.

In honor of this kind of list-making, the type that feeds the imagination, I offer you a “list poem” activity here. It reminds students not to forget four important things: namely, the other senses—sound, touch, taste, smell—that writers too often overlook. It also reminds students to “feed” their imaginations by noticing the many things that they are thankful for this Thanksgiving season.


Winter Roads

by Lisa Bullard

WRT_12-3SnowWinters add the element of surprise to the Minnesota driving equation. Mid-journey, you can be sucked into one of the car-devouring potholes caused by my state’s radical temperature changes. Or you can skid on a deceptive slick of black ice, and end up straddling a snow bank.

In those moments, you realize that your trip isn’t going to turn out as you thought it would. You might not even reach the destination you had planned.

The writing road is full of sudden surprises too. Even when I think I’ve figured out exactly where a story is headed, my creative brain might pop up one of these “journey adjustments”—an oddball image, a repeated song refrain, a quirky possibility that changes my whole perception of the story.

Often these surprises make no sense at first. But strange as they are, I’ve learned to invite them into my writing. Sooner or later, I come to understand their role in the story—and it’s often something that changes that entire writing road trip.

For one of my stories, this unforeseen “pothole” was an ugly winter hat, which floated into my brain and eventually came to represent an important turning point for my character. In another story, the surprise was a walking catfish—which proved to be a metaphor for the underlying theme of the novel as a whole. I allowed these unexpected gifts from my subconscious to reroute my stories, because I’ve learned that doing so makes my writing all the more compelling.

You can’t force your students’ brains to pop out these intuitive hints on demand. But you can teach them to be receptive to bizarre elements when they do turn up. As practice for that, throw some winter surprises at your students—by using the downloadable “Snowball” activity found here.


Home Away from Home

by Lisa Bullard

10_22I like to play a certain game when I’m traveling. I pretend that the place I’m visiting is my home, and I imagine how my life would have been altered if I had in fact taken root in that other environment.

How would things be different for me if my world swirled amidst New York City’s self-fulfilling energy? If my abode was perched atop a fog-shrouded island in the Pacific Northwest? If I was planted on the lip of a tall-grass prairie, with the world dropping off into nothingness on the other edge of the great grass sea? If I dreamed my dreams in a twig-built hut?

Part of a writer’s task is to create alternative homelands, to build distinctive worlds for each of our characters to inhabit. Once we have our world crafted, we invite readers to make themselves at home there too. We hope that they will want to hunker down into this habitat that we have fashioned and make it a part of themselves; to allow it to take up residence in their hearts and imaginations.

One of the easiest ways to teach young writers about envisioning an environment is to talk with them about the worlds they have wandered through in their fantasy reading. Good fantasy writers are masters at the art of world-building, and students can learn a lot by meandering through the keyboarded landscapes of these writers who have built worlds before them.

Once you have had a chance to help students recognize the importance of “place” in the stories that they have loved reading, start them writing with the Fantasy Land activity found here. It will help your young writers begin to visualize a “home away from home”—a place where they might house their next story.



Plotting Your Route

by Lisa Bullard

10_8PaulBunyanUsing an “I’ll just see where the road takes me” approach has led me on all sorts of adventures. But it’s also meant I’ve arrived at midnight and discovered every hotel room in town is rented to lumberjacks.

I still don’t plan ahead for lumberjack influxes—I figure one of those per lifetime is probably my quota—but that experience has forced me to rethink my approach a bit.

I’ve learned the same thing about writing road trips. My earlier, shorter projects didn’t travel enough distance to require planning ahead. I always had a final destination in mind (the ending of a story is clear to me early in the process). But I didn’t worry over the how-to-get-there details. A few unexpected detours just meant more fun.

It was different when I began drafting a novel. I jumped in with my usual spontaneous approach, steering towards the ending but exploring all the intriguing side roads. Then my character dug in his heels and refused to move forward. I suddenly recognized what a vast expanse stretched between the beginning and the ending, and I completely stalled out.

I reluctantly recognized it was time to plot my route. As soon as I had that outline in place, I began writing again at full speed. I’m not a full outline convert, but I now see that a road map can be an important writing tool.

Some young writers are natural outliners. Others are like me, dragged to it only by necessity. You can help these “outline resistant” students develop their outlining skills. For example, you can work together as a class to outline a published story. Or you can outline a “typical” human life or a calendar year for practice.

Sometimes even the most spontaneous writer needs to stop and plot their route in order to make forward progress.


Round Trip

by Lisa Bullard

9_24One of life’s great satisfactions is returning home after a long journey. We rejoice in the familiar clasp of our own bed, in the bracing taste of our home air. Everything seems comfortingly the same, yet also fresh and remarkable.

This is because, even if home has stayed the same, journeying has changed us. The cat’s suspicious investigation of our foreign smell confirms it: We have returned to the place our old self lived, altered by the world. You can go home again, but it will be a different “you” that you bring there.

This thinking comes in useful when I talk with students about story endings. Strong story endings have two important elements. Even young writers seem to intuitively grasp the first: some kind of satisfying resolution to whatever conflict the character is facing.

But students often overlook the second element. That element focuses on the way the character has been transformed by facing the conflict. How have they been changed by taking the long and complicated journey through the story?

A story that doesn’t include this second element is easily forgotten. The stories that do explore character transformation can linger in our imaginations long after we’ve returned the book to the library. Moments from these tales may periodically spring up to surprise us, like the unexpected whiff of suntan lotion the next time you open the Miami suitcase.

Here’s a way to explain it to your students: A merry-go-round only circles us back to the place where we started. But before the ride is over, we’ve been through a whole lot of ups and downs. A ride like that alters a person.

Great story endings have two parts: First, the writer gets the character off the horse. Then, the writer shows us how taking that wild ride has changed the character forever.


East, or West?

by Lisa Bullard


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.



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!”



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.


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.



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.



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.



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.



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…?



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?



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.



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.




The Beauty of Roadblocks


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.




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.




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.



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.