Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Writing Road Trip

Driving Past Effingham

erasersIf a road trip ever takes you past Eff­in­g­ham, Illi­nois, you won’t be able to miss the 198-foot giant cross that looms over two inter­states.

And yet, did that tow­er­ing sym­bol of her reli­gious beliefs inspire my moth­er to sing a rous­ing cho­rus of “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” as we drove past it? No, indeed.

That was because at the time, she was much too busy chortling over the name “Eff­in­g­ham.” To her, it sound­ed like a euphemism for THAT word—the one that, in her opin­ion, is the sin­gle most offen­sive utter­ance in the Eng­lish lan­guage.

Label­ing some­thing “naughty” only makes it more irre­sistible. So from the moment we first spied an Eff­in­g­ham road sign, Mom spo­rad­i­cal­ly repeat­ed the name out loud, laugh­ing anew each time. It turns out that “Eff­in­g­ham” is emi­nent­ly glee-wor­thy to at least one grand­moth­er of five.

Or maybe she’d just inhaled too many exhaust fumes that day.

One of the best ways to give stu­dent erasers a work­out is to tell stu­dents to read their writ­ing out loud. This is a sure­fire revi­sion tac­tic; read­ing some­thing out loud ensures that stu­dents will hear mis­takes they have nev­er noticed before. Or you can have stu­dents give a copy of their piece to a part­ner. As their part­ner reads it to them, the writer of the piece should lis­ten espe­cial­ly for all the places where the read­er stum­bles, paus­es too long, or looks con­fused.

These are all places where the writer will need to con­sid­er revi­sions.

Per­haps the founders of Eff­in­g­ham should have said their new town name out loud a few more times, until one of them noticed its poten­tial for pro­nun­ci­a­tion humor.

Or maybe, in the end, they sim­ply chose not to revise.



ph_moseyingMy favorite road trips focus more on the dis­cov­er­ies the jour­ney holds than on rapid­ly reach­ing a des­ti­na­tion. You might call me a mosey­ing kind of per­son.

Every fall, my mom and I load my nephews and niece into the car for one of my favorite mean­ders: a vis­it to the Min­neso­ta Land­scape Arbore­tum. In the years it has tak­en for the old­est of the kids to go from babies to tex­ting teenagers, we have per­fect­ed the art of stretch­ing the Arboretum’s Three-Mile Dri­ve into a sev­er­al hours’ ram­ble.

There are year­ly rit­u­als: a stop to see if the kids can still squeeze them­selves inside the lit­tle hous­es, a good long roll down the big green hill. But our leisure­ly pace also affords us the time to notice some­thing new each vis­it: the tex­ture of this par­tic­u­lar tree trunk, the fire cap­tured in that indi­vid­ual autumn leaf. The vista of the dis­tant barn crown­ing the tree­tops.

This tak­ing-a-deep-breath jour­ney allows me the chance to notice the way the teenaged nephew who Grand­ma once car­ried across this same park­ing lot, now leans down to pro­tec­tive­ly offer Grand­ma his arm.

Some­times writ­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the revi­sion stage, requires that we slow our­selves way down. It is not always pos­si­ble to hur­ry and still do it right, but giv­en enough time, we have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to notice the tex­ture of the words, to ask our­selves if the piece’s fire burns bright­ly enough.

The next time you chal­lenge your stu­dents to revise, encour­age them to notice each indi­vid­ual word. Ask them to focus on the dis­cov­er­ies they are mak­ing, rather than on the des­ti­na­tion of a due date or a grade.

Some­times mosey­ing makes for bet­ter writ­ing.


Secret Destination

Secret DestinationIf I hadn’t made the trip myself, I don’t think I would believe how quick­ly you can trav­el from the curi­ous world of the Las Vegas Strip to what seems to be its dia­met­ri­cal oppo­site: the Red Rock Canyon Nation­al Con­ser­va­tion Area.

Red Rock is com­posed of desert and rock for­ma­tions, the kind of place that inspired one web­site to urge vis­i­tors to leave news of their intend­ed des­ti­na­tion with a “respon­si­ble par­ty” before they jour­ney into its mys­ter­ies.

The Vegas Strip is com­posed of show­girls and casi­nos. In oth­er words, it’s the kind of place where vis­i­tors should leave news of their intend­ed des­ti­na­tion with a “respon­si­ble par­ty” before they jour­ney into its mys­ter­ies.

It’s almost as if Las Vegas keeps a giant secret wilder­ness tucked away in its backyard—a secret unknown to many Vegas vis­i­tors who don’t ven­ture beyond the famil­iar flash­ing lights. And yet, now that I know that secret is there, a whole new dimen­sion has been added to my under­stand­ing of the Las Vegas expe­ri­ence.

Dis­cov­er­ing a secret can be illu­mi­nat­ing when you’re on a writ­ing road trip, too. Some of the best advice I’ve ever been giv­en about char­ac­ter­i­za­tion came from mys­tery writer Ellen Hart. She urged me to give every one of my characters—even those who play small roles in my stories—a secret.

She was right. These secrets have added a won­der­ful dimen­sion to my under­stand­ing of my sto­ries. Now that all of my char­ac­ters have some­thing tucked secret­ly into the back­yards of their lives, my sto­ries are more infused with poten­tial and human­i­ty.

Every young writer knows the refrain “I’ve got a secret.” Remind your stu­dents of it; urge them to study their own char­ac­ters, to find out what kind of wilder­ness each one has kept hid­den from the world.


The Quest

ruby slippersMy one vis­it to Hawaii might best be defined by an after­noon quest.

I was there to say good­bye to my cousin, who was com­ing to the end of her bat­tle with can­cer. I dis­cov­ered she had devel­oped a sin­gu­lar ambi­tion: to find a pair of size 11 ruby slip­pers. She took great plea­sure in the thought of giv­ing them as a gag gift to a male col­league orig­i­nal­ly from Kansas. But she was too ill to shop her­self, and I sensed
she might nev­er have the chance to deliv­er the punch line to her grand joke.

But—hadn’t I jour­neyed thou­sands of miles for just such a pur­pose? It became my per­son­al mis­sion: if nec­es­sary, I would walk across lava fields to get my hands on the Rain­bow State’s last pair of appro­pri­ate­ly hued, and enor­mous­ly sized, footwear.

I was for­tu­nate in Hawaii’s geo­graph­ic real­i­ties. I drove along, mak­ing sure to keep the ocean to my left, ratio­nal­iz­ing that even­tu­al­ly I would either stum­ble across enough shoe stores, or I’d cir­cle the island back to where I began. Many hours and much adven­ture lat­er, I returned tri­umphant to my cousin’s home, ruby red tro­phies in hand.

If young writ­ers are strug­gling to devel­op their story’s plot, the mod­el of a char­ac­ter on a quest can be a great help. Ask them this: What is their char­ac­ter seek­ing to find? Is it a trea­sure or a per­son? An undis­cov­ered land or the answer to a mys­tery? Their own des­tiny? Or are they search­ing for some­thing they have lost, or some­thing they have yet to find?

A quest offers writ­ers the oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore mis­sion and mis­di­rec­tion, trep­i­da­tion and tri­umph. And when well told, it allows read­ers the chance to go along for the ride as well: even, per­haps, to a place that is some­where over the rain­bow.


Treasure Hunt

gemsOne of my favorite road-trip mem­o­ries is “mud-pud­dling” in west­ern North Car­oli­na. We had fol­lowed signs that lured us in with the promise of gem­stones prac­ti­cal­ly free for the tak­ing. The space we wan­dered into looked like a road­side pic­nic area, and seemed ide­al for the kind of lazy after­noon we had in mind. We each pur­chased buck­ets of dirt-cov­ered rocks for a small fee, and then claimed our places along
a bench in front of a trough of run­ning water.

While sun­shine dap­pled the green of the sur­round­ing hills, my best friend and I revert­ed back to one of the great delights of child­hood: muck­ing about. We played in the mud­dy water, wash­ing off our piles of rocks, con­vinced each time that the nat­ur­al beau­ty of a stone was revealed that we had dis­cov­ered a fab­u­lous trea­sure. Could this be a ruby? An emer­ald? A sap­phire?

We left a few hours lat­er with noth­ing more than a pile of pret­ty rocks. But we had found some­thing much more valu­able in our trea­sure hunt than a gem­stone: one per­fect after­noon, reclaimed briefly from a child­hood we’d both left behind long before.

Words are the trea­sures I’ve car­ried for­ward with me from that child­hood; I’ve been col­lect­ing my favorites for most of my life: Col­ly­wob­bles. Lugubri­ous. Gob­bledy­gook. Insou­ciance.

Why not spend a few moments on a per­fect after­noon tak­ing your stu­dents on a lin­guis­tic trea­sure hunt? Ask them to them crack open the dic­tio­nary and write down one or more new word “gems” and their mean­ings. Have them use these new-found words to inspire their own poems, or cre­ate a col­lec­tive class poem by swirling all the words togeth­er.

I’ve made a career out of prov­ing that there are lots of trea­sures to be found when you go muck­ing about amidst


Time Travel

sun dialWhen you tour Rome, you’re not always sure if you’re trav­el­ing in taxis or time machines. Down one street, you’re trans­port­ed back to around 2,000 years ago, watch­ing the Chris­tians take on the lions in the Forum. Head down anoth­er street, and you’re enrap­tured by one of Michelangelo’s Renais­sance mas­ter­pieces. Turn your head, and you see—the Gold­en Arch­es?

It’s the kind of place where it’s hard to remem­ber exact­ly “when” you are.

When” can also be the per­fect jump­ing-off point for a stu­dent writ­ing road trip. Is your class­room study­ing a key time in his­to­ry? Ancient Egypt? The Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion? World War II? Elim­i­nate the dis­tance between your his­to­ry les­son and your writ­ing les­son by ask­ing stu­dents to write a sto­ry set in that his­tor­i­cal time, using details accu­rate to the set­ting. Talk about how set­ting details such as the cor­rect tech­nol­o­gy, peri­od-appro­pri­ate cloth­ing, food choic­es, even the smells of that place and time, will help shape not only the story’s set­ting, but the char­ac­ters who live in the “then” and the “there” of that sto­ry.

Or why not cre­ate a sto­ry-writ­ing time machine? List the var­i­ous his­tor­i­cal peri­ods you’ve stud­ied this year on dif­fer­ent index cards. Count up the total num­ber of cards. Assign each card a num­ber. Then have stu­dents num­ber off into that many groups, or choose some oth­er way of ran­dom­ly assign­ing time machine des­ti­na­tions to each stu­dent. You can even use the time machine over and over again, with stu­dents end­ing up in differ­ent “times” each day they jour­ney down this writ­ing road.

Writ­ing can help take your stu­dents any­where, and any-when, you want them to trav­el.


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.