Once again, we offer you a piece from Fran Haley, a literacy coach in Wake County, North Carolina. Last week, we shared Part I of her guest series on teaching writing. This week, she takes us even deeper into the heart of writing.
“When you write a memoir, you aren’t writing about your entire ten or eleven years of living. What do you want your reader to think or feel? Decide on that first. Then pick a moment when you learned something about someone, about yourself, or about life. Your job as a writer is to bring the readers into that memory so that they live it with you, like it’s happening right now.”
– Fran Haley, to fifth grade students
I was initially invited to fifth grade by my extraordinary colleagues, who thought I might help inspire students to write meaningful memoirs. In the end, however, it was the students who inspired us.
The collaborative writing of my memoir developed out of the need to model, think aloud, and share the writing process simultaneously with students, but they weren’t just witnesses or passive participants. They became a team of editors, critics, and sojourners who walked back in time with me to live pieces of my childhood.
As mentioned in Collaborative Writing, Part 1, I started out giving students a choice of my memories: Do you want to help me write about The Mysterious Noise or The Time I Was Death? This later morphed into a choice of feelings: Do you want to help me write something suspenseful, something that will make you laugh, or cry?
If the students wanted to laugh, we wrote “The Time I Was Death,” concerning a last-minute costume for a party I didn’t know I was supposed to attend when I was in fifth grade.
One class said, “Make us cry.” We wrote“The Kitten’s Song.”
When you are collaboratively writing your own memory, you have to fill students in on just enough for them to have an idea where you’re going:
Okay, ladies and gentlemen, you’ve chosen to help create a story which will make you cry. The topic is a sick kitten. A good writer anticipates questions of readers and works answers into the narrative. What kinds of questions do you think a reader would have in this case?
The students generated this list: Why was the kitten sick? How did you feel about it being sick? How did you know it was sick?Where did the kitten come from? When did this event take place? How old was the kitten? What did you do to try to cure it?What did the kitten look like? How long was it sick? Did it die? Could you play with the kitten? What was its name? How big was the kitten? Was it a boy or a girl?
Thus the framework for the narrative was created; my goal was to answer all of these questions as we wrote the memoir together.
As words went on the pages under the document camera, the tiny gray-and-white striped kitten was born. Within a day she was pushed away by bigger, stronger siblings who got all their mother’s milk. When I picked her up, she was about the weight of an egg in my hand. I was horrified to discover a raw, red sore where her tail should have been. I was afraid the mother cat had bitten it off, but my mother explained that this condition is spina bifida.
What is spina bifida, Mrs. Haley?
Hmmm. Readers may not know what the term is either. How can we help them know the meaning of spina bifida?
Maybe your mother can explain it to you so everyone can know. Also, you need to go back and tell us the name of the kitten. You forgot.
I’m saving the name for a reason. We are building up to it.
The hook comes in letting the narrative unfold without giving too much away too soon. Here’s how the kitten’s name was revealed in the draft:
Mom handed the dropper of milk to me and I put it up to the kitten’s mouth. She didn’t take it.
“Mom, I can’t do it!” By now my hand was shaking.
“Give her to me,” said Mom.
My mom could fix anything, I knew. Once she had rewired our oven all by herself. She made beautiful clothes for us and other people to wear. As I placed that tiny gray and white kitten in my mother’s capable hand, I was sure she would make the kitten well. I remembered a song then, from a movie I watched on TV with Mom. The song was “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music. Part of the lyrics are: “Small and white, clean and bright, you look happy to me … blossom of snow may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever.”
One student waved her hand wildly: Oh, Mrs. Haley, I know that song!
The rest of the class didn’t know the movie or the song, so we paused as the girl sang it for us in a pure, sweet soprano. There was a reverent hush in the room as we got back to the writing:
In that moment, the kitten’s name was Edelweiss. As my mom tried to put milk into the kitten’s mouth, I sang the song over and over in my mind.
The milk just ran down the sides of the kitten’s cheeks. When I looked at my mom’s face, her mouth was set in a straight line. Tears were rolling down her face like the milk on the kitten’s cheeks.
After a few minutes, Mom said, “She’s already gone.”
“NO!” I wailed. “Keep trying!”
Sniffling was audible throughout the room. I could hardly see the page or the document camera; long-ago tears welled up afresh. We pressed on to finish the memoir, wiping our eyes. One student, sighing, summed it up at the end: Mrs. Haley, that was so terrible and wonderful.
As the students worked on their own memoirs, they focused on what they wanted their readers to feel. The depth of emotion they incorporated was astounding. We tasted the anger of one girl whose family had moved many times; we felt the loss of friends she’d had to leave behind. We experienced another girl’s anxiety giving way to joy on the birth of her baby brother.
Rich, rich slices of life, shared and savored.