Pencil wizard

Once upon a time, I said that writing is the closest thing there is to magic.

Here is why.

Magic is not, well, magic. It is a lot of work (or why would Hogwarts exist? Just saying).

Writing is a lot of work.

Work (a lot of it) makes the magic happen.

Here is a true story of magic moments at the end of this dystopian school year (know that I am suppressing the urge to compare virtual learning to disapparating, i.e., teleporting from place to place, or essentially vanishing). After end-of-grade testing—I said dystopian, right? What does the State expect this data to look like?—a fourth-grade teacher sent me a note:

One of my students has been writing a story in his free time. He wants to read it to the class. He knows it needs some work and I am wondering if you have any time to help him? He’s not usually motivated to write…

I made time. I would shift heaven and earth for this.

He came to my room wearing a giant grin, clutching his pencil and notebook. I recognized the cover—it’s a notebook our district distributes to teachers. His teacher must have given it to him especially for his story, for in grades 2-5, our district doesn’t use writing workshop any more (and that, Dear Readers, is a whole ‘nother tragedy for the telling on another day).

“Come in, come in!” I said. “Have a seat here beside me and read me your story.”

Without giving too much away (for the story is his): It’s a fantasy, a battle between humans and wizards, the protagonist a young wizard with power to make living things grow. The student read it all aloud and then we went back to make some changes for clarity and flow, with my asking:

“What exactly do you mean here, when…”

“What is it you are trying to tell the reader? What do you want readers to think or feel here?”

“Think of an action to add here, so readers or your audience can better see what’s happening in their minds, like we do when we watch a movie. What are you seeing here in your own mind? That’s what you need to get across.”

“What’s a better word choice here, to make the meaning clear?”

While the boy thought and elaborated aloud, I began typing the story. As I read the lines back to him, his face glowed: “Perfect! That’s amazing!”

“That is the power of revision,” I told him. “When you start writing, it’s all about getting your ideas down. When you go back to make the meaning clear, by adding these kinds of details and taking out what you don’t need, that’s where all the magic happens.”

“We’ve made a lot of changes,” the boy observed, “but it’s SO much better.”

And yet the story remained the story he wanted to write.

We’d changed city to town, people to townspeople. He made the stylistic choice to capitalize Humans. We’d added transitional phrases to keep the readers from falling out of the story. We added gestures for the young wizard when he makes vines grow (“I need to see how the wizard does this,” I explained). The student vetoed my suggestion to go ahead and incorporate “earthbending power” (a phrase borrowed from video games): “I am not ready to tell readers yet about earthbending power,” he stated. —Such a tone of authority!

“All right then! You’re the author. Save it for when the time is right in the story. Just make a note here to add earthbending power later.”

And then the word tome… “Is tome the word you want here, where you say the wizard found a tome in the laundry?”

“Yes. It’s a big book of spells.”

I blinked. “Indeed! That’s impressive. Just make sure your readers know what you mean here, that they can see and understand what you mean by tome.” It became an ancient tome of spells, hidden in a robe in the laundry, that the young wizard began to read “without realizing the power he now carried”—those are the student’s own words, not mine.

And thus I spent the last days of school this year watching the love of writing take root and flourish in the heart of a child…magical, indeed, in a year where so much felt anything but, even in some of my own writing of late.

As I write this morning, sunlight streaming in my window like all the glories of summer on the cusp, I recall my final words to this child as he carried his typed version away in a bright yellow folder: “Keep writing!”

In my mind’s narrative, I add: Young word-wizard, with earthbending power.

For that is the magic of writing.

May he cultivate it all of his life.

Imagine. Indy Sidhu. CC BY

with my thanks always to Two Writing Teachers, a community dedicated to the craft, power, and love of writing, for all Humans.

29 thoughts on “Pencil wizard

  1. You had me spellbound throughout, but this is the line that got me hook, line, and sinker, “… sunlight streaming in my window like all the glories of summer on the cusp,”…. Thank you for recognizing and sharing the moments and talents.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad that line spoke to you – it was a late addition to the post before I let it go, and to me the sunlight and summer glories on the cusp connect to that yellow folder in which the boy placed his printed copy when he left my room that last day. It is a symbol of promise for his future, I hope, and all the glorious writing to come for him. Many thanks for your words!

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  2. the student’s Words, Read Out Loud, your Listening Ear, his ReThinking, ReWriting, your typing & printing make my eyes moist with Hope & Joy for his summer & future. appreciations for this lovely sharing & your caring ways, dear Fran

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    • It is a privilege – an honor – to share in a student’s developing love for writing, and to be asked by teachers to help. It doesn’t happen as often as it used to before curricular changes, but I live for moments such as these. I treasure your words and YOU, dear Jan!

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  3. I needed this today. How I love seeing a master at work. This boy will never forget you. Remember his name. Tome rhymes with home. Writing, creating, revising. Feels like home. Love this!

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    • It’s just the real process, organic, ongoing…I love this work, love seeing the awe on kids’ faces when they get a taste of their own power with just a few tweaks here and there. For that matter – it’s a joy to see if happen with adults also. So many teachers told me, back when I facilitated PD on teaching writing, that they “used to love writing.” That’s because they had a sense of their own power, which has somehow been stripped away… we must reclaim it. Thank you always for your buoyant words, Janet.

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  4. You’ve given me a huge window into how you make magic happen with students and it’s remarkable. As you probe and suggest, I can tell that listening is at the heart of what you do. You open up space for the writer’s voice and welcome their purpose in the process. That’s what I hear throughout your exchange: invitations to consider change without displacing the author’s intent and ideas. Amazing!

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  5. Wow…this…”I made time. I would shift heaven and earth for this.” I would like to think I would too, so this piece warms my heart and gives me beautiful images of passing on the love to another generation. Fran, so beautiful!

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    • If only I could do this type of work exclusively, Denise! I suppose I treasure it all the more when these occasions arise – which isn’t as often now with curricular changes, beyond the disruption of this past year. Thank you!

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  6. I love this! There is something amazing that happens in the process of sitting with a young writer and helping him find his own voice in his writing. You communicated so much to him-confidence in his ability, worthiness of his project, strength in his communication skills… The list could go on and on. I think that is a bit of real-life magic right there!

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    • Many thanks, Tracy. Donald Graves’ words come to mind: “children want to write…” and this is true. We’re born with a need to express and create, yet school doesn’t always nourish it, shall we say. I, too, could go on here, but YES – these are magical moments and we need so many more of them!

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  7. I love how I could see into your learning space in this post. It was more than a writing conference, it appeared to be two writers doing the work of writing together. Thank you for sharing this moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. If ever you tire of the education biz, or just need a change…I see editing in a publisher’s office as a true calling for you. Reading your post, I could only think of how lucky that student was to have you guiding him, asking him all the right questions to expand his story and move it forward. You truly have a “writer’s brain,” Fran, with such great depth of understanding of storytelling and all it entails.

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    • I did feel a bit editorial, Chris! I’m amazed by the precise “magic” of professional editors and have wondered if I’d enjoy that work. I expect it would depend on the publisher and type of publication. At this level (elementary through college anyway) I truly enjoy guiding the organic writing process and, in this case, the storytelling facet – so natural to us as children, so important to us as a species. Capturing story in written form is a unique alchemy. Such power in it!

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