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Lessons From Third Grade: The Cure For Writer's Block
As I taught my students about observation, description, and metaphor, they helped me regain my sense of wonder and possibility.
By Michael David Lukas
Feb 14, 2011
"Excuse me, Mr. Michael. Excuse me." A tiny third grader with short, curly brown hair and a mouthful of braces, Anna B. waved her hand with the force of an outboard motor. Before calling on her, I looked around the room to see if any of my less talkative students had their hands up. At the back table, Jason was hunched over his notebook, chewing the sleeve of his sweatshirt as he doodled a grisly battle between ghost robots and mutant vegetables. To my right, a shy, red-haired girl named Mackenzie was watching the class rabbit chew through a pencil she had stuck into its cage. "I just thought you would want to know," Anna B. burst out, doing her best to stifle a fit of giggles. "That someone farted."
Welcome to creative writing class at Thornhill Elementary School. When I first took the job, teaching after-school classes at Thornhill, I saw it as a stopgap, something temporary to help pay the bills. Little did I know Jason, Mackenzie, Anna B., and the rest of the third graders at Thornhill would help pull me out of the quarter-life quicksand into which I was sinking.
I had just turned 30, had just moved back home, and was feeling like the punch line of a bad joke. While I looked for a "real job," I was supposed to be finishing the novel I had spent the past six years working on, but that wasn't going very well either. Every time I sat down to write I hit a wall, paralyzed by fear of failure and the possibility that I had wasted six years of my life. Who would want to read a book about a little girl who becomes an adviser to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire? Worrying about the future, I had lost touch with my sense of wonder and possibility, the very reason I was writing the novel in the first place.
For the first day of class, I prepared a few name games and an exercise about observation. According to the lesson, the students were supposed to look closely at a common object—an orange, in this case—then describe it to an alien who has never seen such a thing. Before I could finish explaining the exercise, half the class had their hands up.
"Do you know what galaxy the alien comes from?" Anna B. asked. "Because some galaxies are so far away we will be dead by the time our descriptions get there."
"Can we write in alien language?" Jason asked, before I could respond to Anna B.
"Sure," I said.
After all the questions were answered and most of the students busy writing their descriptions, I noticed that Mac-kenzie's head was on her desk, hidden in the nest of her arms. Walking over to her table, I squatted down next to her.
"Is everything okay, Mackenzie?"
"No," she said, speaking through the gap between her arms. "It's not."
"Can I help?"
"No one can help," she said. She looked over her elbow and I saw her eyes were brimming over with tears. "I don't know Alien."
Those next few weeks, as I taught my students about observation, description, and metaphor, they helped me regain my sense of wonder and possibility. Their wide-eyed enthusiasm and seemingly infinite imaginations helped me unlock the door to my own. I started writing again and it flowed with little difficulty. I finished my revisions by the end of the month and sent them to my agent. Six weeks later, I showed up in class with a huge smile.
"I have good news," I said.
"Is it candy?" Jason asked, chewing the sleeve of his sweatshirt.
At the sound of the word "candy," the room fell silent and 40 big eyes looked up in anticipation.
"Remember that novel I told you about?" I said. "It's going to be published! It's going to be a real book."
"Like Wimpy Kid?" Mackenzie asked.
"Kind of like Wimpy Kid," I said. "Except my novel is about a little girl, a little girl just about your age who becomes an adviser to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire."
The class was silent, unsure perhaps what it meant to be an adviser to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Then Anna B. raised her hand.
"I am going to be a writer when I grow up," she said. "I'm going to be a writer and I'm going to be an adviser to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire."