Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable. – Carl Jung
Her teacher sent her to me, to confer about her writing.
Not because the student is struggling.
The student, a fifth-grader, had written twenty pages of complex plot and extraordinary dialogue that revealed character personality and motivation.
“It’s amazing,” explained my colleague. “Out of the blue, she’s just taken off. I thought you could give her some pointers – her story is really good.”
The student, delighted at the prospect, immediately sent her work to me via Google Docs. Here are things I am thinking about, her message stated. She’d made notes about characters, problems with the story line, where she wanted to go with certain parts.
For a moment I felt transported to the future, as if I were an agent or editor receiving book ideas from an established author.
I read the work, praising the strength of the writing on sticky notes: Powerful, believable dialogue! and Excellent descriptive detail – I can “see” this scene vividly.
I looked for a couple of major areas to improve – only a couple – and they had nothing to to with spelling, format, or conventions at this point. The pressing thing at the moment was keeping those rich ideas flowing and clarifying this young writer’s meaning in some spots.
The child, beaming, comes to confer with me at the appointed time.
I sit beside her at my table:
“Ok, I have to know what inspired you. Clearly anyone who writes this much and this well – this dialogue is better than what I’ve seen some adults write! – is very inspired.”
Giggles ensue. “Well, it started with the fantasy writing unit in class. I got this idea of a girl who went back in time to the days of slavery. I am bad at history” – more giggles – “but that time period interests me, especially since my teacher read Chains to the class. That book made me want to go back in time and rescue some of those people, so that is what my main character will do. And she will meet her great-great-great grandmother.”
“That,” I say reverently, “is a story a lot of people might like to read.”
She goes on to share additional ideas that she got from other books like Serafina and the Black Cloak.
As she speaks, I mentally toast the power of the read-aloud and student-selected texts.
To the student, I say: “Let’s go over what you’ve done here.”
I explain that switching narrators and times is using multiple story lines – “very advanced,” I tell her.
I show her places where she lost me: “This is called a plot hole. You know what’s in your head and what you mean to say, but you jumped too fast and lost your reader.”
She nods. “Yes, I see that now.” We discuss ways she might want to fix it.
Off she goes.
That night, the Google Doc returns with revisions and questions.
Today she appears in my room, announcing: “I rewrote the entire first chapter. I felt that readers needed to know a little more about my main character’s life and her family in order to get the rest of the story.”
“Ah,” I reply, “exposition and backstory. That will help your readers.”
We look at the changes together.
“What we have to watch now is your pacing. Don’t spend too long on the beginning or you’ll lose readers – they want to know where this is going, so you want to speed up the less important parts and slow down at the more important ones.”
“And watch for plot holes,” she laughs.
“Indeed,” I smile.
Her ideas come fast and furious, and before we know it, time is up. As she turns to leave, she asks: “When is the next time we can meet?”
My turn to laugh. “Ask your teacher.”
At the end of the day, I return to my room to find a folded paper on my table – a schedule for when she can confer with me every day through the rest of the year.
I think of J.K. Rowling, who said that the idea of a boy wizard fell into her head on a train ride, when she had nothing to write on.
I think of C.S. Lewis, how an image of a faun carrying Christmas presents in the snow popped into his mind.
I think of Suzanne Collins, who grew up on her father’s stories about the effects of war.
I think of my young writer’s inspiration, and how fantasy and fairy tales help us work through the problems of the real world.
I recall telling my young writer: “Stick with it. You will be a famous author one day. I’ll come to your book signings.”
Giggling, she’d replied: “And you will be my famous helper.”
I look at the little conferring schedule in her handwriting, and smile.
We are tripping the write fantastic, she and I.