“Because I Want to Write” by Elisabeth Dahl
During my first school visit for Genie Wishes—at my own elementary school, in the very library I’d cherished as a kid, where my mother had once worked as a library assistant—a fourth-grade girl asked whether I’d liked to write when I was myself a fourth grader. I paused. I wanted to respond with an unqualified “yes.”
But the truth is, back in my classroom days, I knew I was good at writing clear, orderly sentences that compelled my teachers to put check marks in the margins and reach for their sheet of colored star stickers. But using my imagination? Reaching for deeper truths or ways of saying things? Those were scarier things, harder things—at least within the classroom, among my fellow students, below the sound-absorbing ceiling squares.
When I was seven, I said to my mother, may I close my door? And she said, yes, but why do you want to close your door? And I said because I want to think. And when I was eleven, I said to my mother, may I lock my door? And she said, yes, but why do you want to lock your door? And I said because I want to write.
— Dorothy West, Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, 1995
I wish I’d seen this quotation back in my knee-socks-and-wallabies days. Because while not everyone is like Dorothy West—I know writers who do their best work in group settings—I think I was, and am. I needed that locked door, or at least a closed one. I still do.
Looking back now, I can see that writing in a full classroom, with a teacher wandering up and down the rows, helpfully checking over our shoulders, dampened my creative impulses a bit, as did the possibility of having to share a piece of writing before I was truly ready. The classroom is full of wonders and possibility, but it’s not always the ideal space for creating out of whole cloth—at least not for every student.
As Kristen Kittscher (author of The Wig in the Window) pointed out in her recent LA Review of Books piece on Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, writing (and reading too) sometimes resembles Madeleine L’Engle’s tessering. The truly great moments of writing involve whole-body transport through space and time. There are sublime moments when you find that your subconscious mind has made a connection—of plot, or imagery, or character—that your conscious mind wasn’t aware of. For me at least, sublime moments like this don’t happen in a crowd.
I had extremely talented, committed teachers along the way, and I learned incredible amounts from them. But I shouldn’t have taken my classroom writing as the full measure of my writing ability. As great as it can be, when it comes to some people’s attempts at writing, a homeroom is just not the same as a room at home.
Summer is here, and with it the kind of free time and head-space in which great stories are often born. Here’s hoping your student-writers will take advantage of it!
Elisabeth Dahl’s first book, a middle-grade novel with line drawings entitled Genie Wishes, was published by Amulet Books/ABRAMS in April 2013. Since then, she’s met many lovely readers, including lots of excellent Nerdy Book Clubbers at ALA 2013. Her website is ElisabethDahl.com, and on Twitter she’s @ElisabethDahl.
Elisabeth created the writing prompt at the Society of Young Inklings this month. Maybe you know kids and teens who’d like to try it?