An email I received:
What do you do if you’ve been avoiding writing for a long long time?
The child in question is 14. He is male.
First, congratulations! Thank you for not damaging your writer. It is far better to ignore and avoid writing than to require it and create writer’s block due to applying methods that harm the child’s natural ease of self-expression.
Any child who has simply “not written” can be taught/encouraged to find his or her writing voice no matter how old. The older the child, the more swiftly this process can happen. Why? Because older children (12, 15, 17!) have been speaking fluent English for many more years than their younger siblings. They have read more words than new readers. They’ve handwritten or keyboarded to the point of near fluency (spelling, punctuation, how to make that weird cursive ‘r’, where the question mark is on the laptop). They have thought about ideas and have mastered facts that were unfamiliar to them at ages 6, 8, and 10.
When we turn our attention to writing with a child who is already a teen, we are greeted with a person who is truly ready to write! So if your way of avoiding all that trauma that attends most writing programs was to ignore it—well done! You’ve waited for the key moment to make real progress. I’ll help you with that in a minute.
If you are the parent of a teen who won’t write because the programs you used have created writing paralysis (a block that is bigger than “I don’t know what to write,” but is more like “I hate writing and will never use it therefore I will not do it now or ever, forever more”), you have a slightly different issue but no less solvable.
Here are the two strategies.
1. For the writer you neglected to cultivate: Start from scratch! You can. Start by listening to him, having great conversations, jotting down some of the great stuff he says in words out loud to you. Read back what he says to his dad or siblings or to him later in the day, talking about the content of what he said.
Begin with copywork—song lyrics, humor, his favorite quotes from books. Do it at the same time with him, copying your favorite quotes. Read your quotes to each other. Pick quotes for each other as a surprise. Light a candle or eat brownies or use fountain pens or create an entire passage by snipping the words from magazines and gluing them in order on a page. Make a collage of favorite quotes! Make up your own quotes!
Freewrite—about anything, about everything. We have prompts on our blog, but you can get them anywhere. With teens, you want the topics to be interesting to the teen. Provocative positions are often best: What makes X band better than Y band? If you could change one law, which one would it be and why? If 18 year olds can be asked to fight for our country, does it make sense to say they aren’t old enough to drink alcohol? What’s one part of your education you’d like to take control of and how would you do it?
Get into fan fiction or NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) or blogging about gaming or online discussion with kids who have similar hobbies or texting or Facebook or whatever drives a kid to write without thinking about “school.”
Play with words—use them, write big ones on a white board to stump each other, recite Shakespeare or poetry or quotes from Seinfeld.
Then, over the course of a year of this kind of practice, talk about moving into some preparation for college. Look at the Brave Writer online classes or local classes in a co-op or junior college. Move one bit at a time, but first, focus on reading, copying, freewriting, and language play. Like you would at any age.
2. For the damaged writer, the same process applies, but you have to rebuild trust and that happens through this little conversation that you need to have.
“Son, gulp. I’m just realizing that the writing programs we’ve used have been really unhelpful to you in becoming a competent, comfortable writer. I feel awful about it! Can we start over? I promise to pay attention when you say something is boring or isn’t working for you. I want us to start with writing that has meaning for you. Here’s a brownie. Let’s talk.”
Some version of this with more or less apology depending on how much damage is there will work. Brownies or going out for Cokes helps.
The goal with any child or teen is to recognize that the writing voice is already alive and well within. It may be hidden from view or afraid to come out, but some attentiveness to your child’s speaking voice and some humility about how difficult writing is for many kids will lead to breakthroughs. Start where your child is. Kids can go from not writing to college level comp between 16-18.
Cross-posted on facebook. Image © Richair | Dreamstime.com