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In researching Miss Charlotte Mason's old Parents' Reviews (in the 1990s) I came upon an article by Raymond Ward. When I read of the success of Mr. Ward's scheme, I couldn't resist using it as a writing exercise with my own children. The experiment worked and I was quite pleased. The children composed directly from their imaginations. They wrote with descriptive phrases and vocabulary unlike anything they had written before. To share my happy discovery with my readers, I republished Mr. Ward's article in the spring 1996 issue of my Parents' Review magazine. (I use he/him in reference to any child.)
Writing with Feeling
What is Exciting Writing? In brief, the student is provided with a situation that involves conflict by way of a story starter and its accompanying picture. He sympathizes with the characters and, wrapped up in the emotion of the scene, calls on his developing skills of reason and imagination to continue the story. Emotions such as fear, joy, wonder, sadness, worry, or great relief create the spark to write more vividly. The student expresses himself spontaneously, leaving penmanship, spelling, grammar and punctuation for a later time. An exciting story starter and picture create a vivid impression in the mind of the student. The story starter provides parameters and shape so that he can immediately visualize what the actors might do next. The student is free to write whatever he wants. He taps into any previous experience he has had with an emotion. It is a student's past personal and literary experiences that enable him to sympathize with the characters - to feel as they might in the situation depicted. He translates these emotions and concepts into words that are quite descriptive. In his article, Raymond Ward writes, “The deeper the emotion and the keener the feeling, the more readily will the child find words with which to express them; and this expression will be far more vivid, genuine, revealing and meaningful than the more conventional composition exercise.” Standard exercises such as “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” “My Pet,” “A Visit to Grandma's,” “A Trip to the Zoo,” all have their place, but an exciting story starter will better accomplish what Mr. Ward describes above. Even a student who normally has a dull, rambling narrative will, with Exciting Writing, compose at least one notable phrase. Small though it may be, his one vivid description is a break through. It is something to rejoice in. The dormant writer in him has awoken and is emerging from his cocoon.
The Rough Draft
I've always been a believer in the need to begin with a rough draft. At its conception, a piece of creative writing needn't be bound by formal style, because this can squelch budding enthusiasm. The birthing stage of writing should not be bound by all the rules of composition. Mr. Ward's article even advocates putting down an idea or an impression in a single phrase. The student keeps a list of what strikes him at the moment, or, he might begin each new idea, phrase, or sentence on a new line. Content is stressed over form. Sentence structure and connectors are secondary to this first creative stage. If the latter is not developed the former will be less effective. Students who are accustomed to Charlotte Mason's method of oral narration from books are apt to write in prose more naturally than others. When a situation of exciting conflict demanding resolution is presented to a child, his ideas develop faster, hence the suggestion of a list of phrases (rather than a paragraph).
For those students new at narrating and new to using these writing exercises, I suggest the home teacher take dictation.
Mr. Ward's Example
Below is an example of Exciting Writing that Mr. Ward used in his classroom about half a century ago. He told his ten-and eleven-year-old students,
“'I am confronted with a mad dog. See, there it is!' I called out urgently, and started backwards, pointing. 'It's there, all right. Now - quickly write down what you feel about it.'
“The children started. There was no pencil-biting, head-scratching, window-gazing, restless fiddling or doodling, but quiet intensive effort. There was not a sound in the class. One could almost hear the heavy breathing of the mad dog.
Then I said, 'Begin a new line. Write down what kind of dog it is. Say something about its eyes, its jaws, what it looks like. Remember to start a new line for each new idea.'”
Some years ago I adapted these ideas to my own elementary school age children. Instead of coaching them through it like Mr. Ward did, however, I stimulated their emotions with the following story starter:
Dad was away on a business trip. Mom and little brother were in bed with the flu and their fever wasn't going down. An announcement came over the radio that rabies was on the rise. From her bed Mother asked her two young daughters to check the doors before all retired for the evening. They found the back sliding-glass door caked with ice - the latch couldn't lock. They tried opening it wide and slamming it shut to crack the ice. This activity attracted the attention of a rabid dog that some men were tracking in the dark. It was staring at them through the glass.
I left them, pencils in hand, to continue with the story as I prepared lunch, because very soon we needed to run out to music lessons. They worked quietly and quickly at the kitchen table with a real sense of purpose. Just as Mr. Ward had noted, I also observed no dawdling, pencil biting, or other signs of restless fiddling. What they wrote wasn't long. Each wrote one paragraph that was brief but concentrated. The results were remarkable!
My nine-year-old daughter started out with, “The mad dog's huge face was contracted and of a hideous form. Poisonous saliva oozed from his mouth and dripped from his jowls.” She then added a little comic relief: “I slowly edged away from the door. The dog's eyes followed my every move. I tripped over a large book - my math book. As I fell, the dog leaped…” In the story's climax she throws her hardcover math book - her least favorite schoolbook - at the dog.
I liked her younger sister's ending sentence very much: “The dog stopped, let out a long piercing cry, pawed the air and fell dead.” Such words might describe a scene in The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which we had listened to on cassette earlier in the year. The more imaginative reading a child does, the more images and words he will have in store to draw from in his efforts to create a story.
A week or two prior to the writing experiment described above, they had viewed the film Old Yeller. I should also confess that they were familiar with Louis Pasteur's experiences in finding a cure for rabies from listening to the dramatic Your Story Hour tapes. Thus they just happened to be primed when it came to wild dog stories.
So pleased was I with their creative narration (as I called it) that I made up some more story situations that posed a conflict, problem, or challenge that needed to be resolved. Some of my story starters were not as intense, though all contained emotions and situations to which a child could relate. My children felt sympathy for the characters automatically. I didn't have to tell them what to feel.
A Resource I Put Together
My children took to Exciting Writing so well that I decided to make the same kinds of story scenarios available to my fellow home educators by way of my book Story Starters - Helping Children Write Like They've Never Written Before.
The ideas behind Story Starters swam in the back of my mind while I was in the thick of homeschooling. Not until after two of my children had graduated from homeschool (years later) did I attempt to write such a big book - a whole collection of short stories. I wanted the children who might be using Story Starters to have a numerous array of choices.
I like Victorian pictures. This is why they form the basis of my stories. All the pictures in Story Starters are from my personal collection of antique illustrations - a collection that took some fifteen years to acquire. The Victorians had high ideals, were sentimental, and were also believers in realism, which is reflected in their art and literature. If it is true that a good picture is worth a thousand words, then let the pictures be translated into the words of a child whose interest and imagination have been sparked by it.
A New Level of Vibrancy
May the use of story starters empower the student to write at a new level of vibrancy that communicates the best of what is going on in his developing mind and emotions. May he discover that yes, he can write - and even like what he writes.
It is my hope that Exciting Writing will foster a positive attitude toward writing in general and that this newfound confidence will carry over to other writing aspects of his schoolwork.