Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Michelle Ray - "Usually Battling Ideas Away"

I used to keep a writer's notebook. In it, I did writing exercises, pasted business cards, cartoons, birthday cards, articles, and other inspirational knick-knacks. Great objects to write from. Great memories to hold onto.

When I met Amy VanDerwater, she was teaching teachers at my school about teaching writing to students. (Did you follow that?) Convoluted to describe, but life-changing in action. Amy had us start writer's notebooks just before our students did so that we would have something to show them. They decorated the fronts, but mine had pretty painted hydrangeas.

As the students' notebooks grew, so did mine. I tried all of the activities in my WNB before asking them to try the exercises themselves. Lists of favorite words, memory walks (Hannah Hinchman), writing stuff off an object, It's all still there. The notebooks were lively and inspiring, and I never had students tell me, "I don't know what to write about," because it was all there. Great personal items and memories from which to write.

Michelle's Notebook

Michelle's Memory Walk

Amy's class did such a good job inspiring me personally that I began to take myself as a writer seriously. I began a writing routine. I told others that I was writing (by far the toughest part of the process: admitting to such a time-sucking, potentially embarrassing pursuit!). I finished one novel. Then another. I learned about the process of getting published, and miraculously, made it happen. FALLING FOR HAMLET came out in July, and I know it never would have happened without Amy's inspiration.

So, the 20 million dollar question: Do I still keep a writer's notebook? (Audience holds breath in anticipation.) No.

Oh, I know, I know. I'm supposed to say yes. But I don't. Ack! What happens is that my books take so blessedly long to write and edit, that I'm usually battling ideas away and putting them on hold rather than trying to collect more.

My new process of writing is disorganized. I get inspired in my car, on field trips, at museums, at the playground. I tend to be thinking about new scenes and conflicts for my works in progress rather than completely new story ideas, but ideas come all the time.

A sensible person would carry around a writer's notebook. Being, um, silly, I end up scribbling my notes on lunch bags, Post-It notes, receipts, permission slips. You name a paper product, and I've probably made novel notes on it. This distresses my best friend to the point that every year she offers me a computer program for writers. But this scrap-paper process is working for me. I say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Michelle's Bin of Scraps

My daughter just started a writer's notebook for school. I showed her my hydrangea book, and she loved it. Last week, she did her own list of favorite words and wrote from a memory. My heart swelled with pride and excitement.

I think writer's notebooks are fantastic. I'm just too disorganized and long-term-projecty to keep one. For now.

Here's a writing exercise to try, "Snapshots and Thoughtshots" - from Barry Lane's great revising book, AFTER THE END -- Take a photo of a moment in your life that you remember pretty well. Then describe in great detail the photo. This is the "snapshot" -- all the details of what can be SEEN. Then you start on a new page and describe everything you were THINKING at that moment. This is the "thoughtshot." When you've got both done, you're ready to combine them into a vivid description of a moment in time.

Michelle Ray is a Valley Girl, middle school English teacher, Shakespeare-Lover, and the author of FALLING FOR HAMLET.  You can read more about Michelle at her website, and she blogs at EMU'S DEBUTS.

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