About Young Writers

The following is from the first chapter of Elwyn Richarson’s book `Children With A Gift In Writing’ (Book II)

 Some Discussion About the Writing of Dialogue:

Children’s dialogue, at least at the beginning of our writing classes, was highly dependent upon the use of the words said  and asked.    For example:

             `What shall we do now?’ asked Peter.

            `We could tell John all about it,’ said John

            `Why not?’ asked Amy.

 Naturally we looked at a fairly large number of synonyms of these words and saw slight improvement.  We could see that we had to obviate say  words, at least for much of the time.  We did not set out to remove these from our direct speech writing as some stylists advocate.  Our approach was to remove the stark quality that overuse of these signal words produce.  We did this by the introduction of mood, detail and `atmosphere’, which gives a strong feeling about the thoughts and actions of the protagonists.

 Sinead’s story about her meeting at a bus stop depends for its message upon the dialogue between her and Jesus.

`I’m attempting to read this timetable,’ He said and ran His finger under the time 4.30, `But it’s so dif…fi…cult . . . aha!  I’ve got it! . . . 4.30 to Queen Street.  Yes.`   He wiped a tendril of hair from His forehead. . . .  `That’s what I want!’

The wind suddenly swooped around Him making His raincoat billow.  He sat down with a bump on the bench.  There was a silence.  I glanced at the rain cascading into the gutter making miniature waterfalls;  Jesus was watching too, His eyelids drooping in depression, gazing pessimistically at the grimy water sloshing  over paving stones as grey as stone masons……

'What are you waiting for?' I asked, standing between Him and His view of the waterfalls.

Within the context of children’s use of direct speech there is often little information provided about other things and happenings which might be taking place.  This excerpt is unusual in that it includes other information and feelings about what is taking place.  We had referred to this kind of quality in class by various terms:    the environmental piece…….the mood piece…..the physical movement piece….the descriptive piece……the sounds piece.

 Our terms need some explanation:

 The environmental piece:    We used this expression to describe any place which is talked about in the text.  The bus stop in the above excerpt is an example of what we called the environmental piece.

 The mood piece:    This we related to the manner or mood of some person or perhaps animal written about.

 The physical movement piece:     This is a description of the person/animal and how physical movement takes place.

 The descriptive piece:      We used this term where it was necessary to describe a person or animal alongside what he or it did.   For instance Hemingway continues to describe the old man in `The Old Man And The Sea’, right up to the last paragraph of the story.

 The sounds piece:      This was used to describe a response to what is heard.  For example:   Somewhere in the house I heard the drip of a tap.   Or:   The house creaked in the summer heat.

 These `definitions’ are, of course, ours.  They are our convenient way of defining and understanding the complexities of language style, and I believe that this kind of analysis is justified in that it makes it possible for the writer and the reader to appreciate elements of writing which we would not otherwise easily recognise.

 I am sure that we shall `discover’ other kinds of paragraphs.   I had thought that some comments made by the children almost approached what I might label:   The philosophical piece   and perhaps The fantasy piece.

 In all the paragraphs, thinking is the vital activity.  The ability of the mind to recognize the essential from the many influences of sight, sound and feeling, is what adds the art to the writing. I dwell upon these skills and try to make the writers aware of what may have its beginnings in intuition.  I am of course setting out to strengthen the writers’ intuitive feelings for story content:  so little that we do does much to train such mental abilities.

 Our definitions are mere labels.  What a writer includes may be any combinations of these and other ideas:    For example:

Time passes……time passes.  The sun rises high, higher….higher in the sky……time passes.

We had some difficulty in classifying this paragraph, if that was important.  It is about an abstract thing: time.  It is not then labels which are needed but the freedom or permission to think in these ways.

 The descriptive/mood paragraph of Sinead’s story is very satisfying.  We feel some human understanding for Jesus as the wind blows, the rain races down the gutter, and we see Him thinking sadly about many things which come readily to our own minds.

 What kind of counsel would I give Sinead regarding this piece?

The wind suddenly swooped around Him making His raincoat billow.   The alliteration of the words suddenly and swooped, and the rhythms of Him/His  together with the image of the billowy raincoat helps to make a satisfying statement.   Swooped is a well chosen word (and verb) – He was taken unawares.  This image of the billowing wind is a real one.  Sinead  - you are what we call a literalist of the imagination.  In the same way you have conveyed to us the image of Jesus temporarily losing his balance and sitting down with a bump on the bench – a better chosen word than seat or form!   Perhaps we, the readers would not have pictured Him in such a human way.  Divinity has implied perfect control of such worldly things.

There was a silence.    This is so much better than saying:  everything was quiet, or it (the wind, whatever) was silent.   A silence gives an importance or special significance to that space of time.  

e.g.  `When he had finished his recitation there was a silence and then a burst of clapping: even Mr. Lyons clapped’ (James Joyce).   Similarily, Hemingway, in his story A CLEAN WELL LIGHTED ROOM uses the indefinite article to express another kind of value:   

`It was a nothing that he knew too well.  It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too.’

Also:   `It was a business, a piece of very bad business’ (David Lange)

I glanced at the rain cascading into the gutters making miniature waterfalls.   The participle cascading is an apt word;  it `goes’ with waterfalls.

Jesus was watching too, His eyelids drooping in depression, gazing pessimistically at the grimy water.   He is not, of course, concerned about what He sees but what He feels and thinks – perhaps about the frailty of man?   And indeed any philosophical concern which you like to bring to this scene.

Sloshing over paving stones as grey as stone masons.   Again, sloshing  is the best word.  It is most apt.  Our image is one of the greying dust of cut stone and the sombre coloured clothes (made grey) of the stone masons.  Mere adjectives would not establish the greyness as well.

 I have seen other interesting, imaginative figures of speech from this ten year old:

             I ventured onto the glinting eyes of the ice……..

            Bent over as World War One veterans……..

            The coastal waters were filled with a paradise of fish………..

            Green curtains of ferns………...

            The sound of the paddles of small canoes plunging the waters……….

            A booty of cans and cardboard………….

 Learning To Use These Skills.

Children do not respond all that well to exercises which are designed to help them to be creative.  They are often mere ideas and lack the familiarity which comes from a strong intuitive feeling for knowing their theme.  However, very able writers may well make a favourable choice.

The exercise requirement is that the child shall write some dialogue with a paragraph which tells what activity or movements were going on, either while, or between the exchange.   For example:

`Excuse me but is this the Davis home?   I want to see David….er, please…..we met at the Saturday game.  I’m Allan.

I told him that David was home and walked to the foot of the stair well and called twice.  I heard a grunt from above and waited.  This was David’s way;  up late and unspeakable until he had eaten something.

The boy looked at me then swung his bat tentatively in the air.  Again he set his hands and fingers on the bat in a way which I felt he had been taught.  He looked up at me and smiled – he seemed to want some kind of approval.  He was a pleasant enough kid.

The piece following, by Sinead, was part of a short story.  She demonstrates what we termed the movement piece – the scooping up of sand in the hands, allowing it to fall through the fingers.

`Well, what do you think was the best thing you ever did?’

He scooped up a handful of sand and let it flow gently through his fingers.

He shurgged.  `I simply don’t know – I was hoping you would be able to tell me.’

I closely watched his hand until every grain of sand had fallen through it.  Then, satisfied, I muttered, `Oh well – I’d better be going now.’

Exercises of this kind were practised with two objectives in mind:

1.)     I/we selected dialogue and asked for some kind of physical/movement paragraph to be written.

2.)    I/we selected a movement paragraph to which a dialogue was written.

It was important for us to investigate the various kinds of paragraphs I have listed:   the mood piece, the sounds piece, and so on.

A descriptive/mood  writing exercise can be arranged by supplying one or two sets of dialogue which set a scene.  The better the stimulation, the better the outcome might be.  

I read Karel Capek’s short story THE LAST JUDGMENT as the introduction to the exercise.  I then gave the group pieces of dialogue and asked them to write some kind of mood/descriptive piece which would add to the conversations in some way.

The writers’ interpretations were varied.  Callum surprised me and produced a philosophical piece. Most of the others wrote descriptive pieces.   Agnieszka’s paragraph was similar but distinctly poetic and involves finer detail.

Lesson:   THE RECORDING ANGEL (Karel Capek)


The Angel Speaks:   Why must I be cast in white marble upon your grave? All of your life I followed you around and recorded your sins – you did those things which you ought not to have done, and left undone those things which you ought to have done. You were not a good person!  Is there no escape for me?


The Dead Person replies:  Ah, I see now what they meant when they said, `he cometh up and is cut down like a flower;  he fleeth as it were a shadow and never continueth in one stay…….Escape you say?

Callum’s paragraph:

He thought about this complaint.  Darkness was around him, darkness was in him, darkness was what he saw, yet he did not think darkness.  He thought light, light of which he had none.  His reply was not well thought of but it was not dark, nor for that matter was it really very light. It was undetermined, but it was an answer.

Melissa’s paragraph:

The spirit stared moodily for a minute, not sure whether to take the angel to heart.  He drummed his fingers on the coffin and listened to the boney sound echo round and round.  He turned over and lay on his stomach.   A withered rosebud flicked against the side of the coffin.  He’d only had two flowers.  The priest had brought them out of loyalty to God.   He wondered if he had a recording angel.

Vanessa’s paragraph:

The soul in the tomb shuddered.  With no body to restrain him he floated to be level with the angel and said, `I may not have been wise.  I died at twenty yet I have gathered this, Angel.  If the soul can be unleased, the body can too.’

Agnieszka’s paragraph:

The recording angel looked down at the empty grave.  No flowers added colour to its grey image.  The wind blew a few brown crumpled leaves over the grave.  They rested there only to be swept away again as if they, too, didn’t want to be near the murderous spirit.  A half moon rose from behind a cluster of dark stormy clouds and in its light the spirit rose from the grave.

Topics for Paragraph Writing:

The relative success of the Recording Angel paragraphs offered stimulation of discussion.  Agnieszka’s paragraph was the best piece of writing I had so far seen from her.  She had been with the class for four sessions at that stage.  As a young child she lived in Poland and was not English speaking when she came to New Zealand.   I have had a number of pupils for whom English was their second language but have not been able to develop a great deal of writing ability with them.   They have written well but have lacked idiomatic and subtlety of expression in their work.

In general, providing a list of suggestions or situations for the writers to work from created an outstanding problem:   the possible lack of some kind of emotional bond with the topics chosen.  The success or not of writing always depends upon the way the writer feels about the subject, and if we are interested in children’s work as literature then these considerations are vital.

If we take for instance a list of environmental piece ideas the writer should identify, or feel, some kind of emotional response to one or some of them.  If this is lacking the writing will be insincere.  In normal `felt’ writing activity the dialogue will move the writer towards determining these feelings.   Only very able writers – those in the top one or two per cent, are able to write convincingly in an abstract and fictional manner.  

When children of average ability attempt fictional writing before they are capable of abstract thinking, their work is almost always ineffectual.   We have to learn to handle our own feelings first, before we follow on to write fiction.   It is a valuable exercise to ask the young writer to put together two or three real experiences in order to make a new story.  Such a story will be based upon real and felt memory but will have a new fictional quality.  For example a writer may produce a story about looking out of a window, and another about a traffic jam.  Both themes will be about real and felt experience.  The fictional story will lie between and around these two experiences.

Suggestions for writing about Environmental Topics:

The Topic is:   Looking out of a window…….
The Associated Feelings might be related to one of these:

Seeing something or someone exciting or unfamiliar.
Feeling sad. . . .   the only place to look.
Following a bird’s flight.
Fascination with a cloud shape or pattern.
Feeling faint.

The Topic is:    Looking out to sea…….
The Associated Feelings might be related to one of these:

Feeling the sea weather around me: 
wind/sounds/cold/rain/sea/birds, etc. 

The Topic is:   Feeling alone…….
The Associated Feelings might be related to one of these:

With someone special/with an animal/in fog or mist.

The Topic is:   Feeling sadness…….
The Associated Feelings might be related to one of these:

Following a bird in flight/an animal on a hill
Remembering someone.

It seemed profitable at the time to continue paragraph writing of one or other of the various kinds we had selected.  We soon saw that examples we found in literature seemed to agree with some of our simplifications but tended to be far more complex.   This observation led to a careful study of paragraphs in a story known as THE LEADER OF THE PEOPLE which is taken from John Steinbeck’s novel THE RED PONY.

When developments which are largely in the minds and skills of children take place I am alerted to think and observe with every sense I can give to the process.  The idea of looking at paragraphs was largely thrust upon me by the work of Sinead, and from that point I had before me a development which was to teach all of us a good deal about writing and sensitivity to creative process.    If I do not see what is taking place, even when the child’s efforts are tentative or quite obvious, I know that I have become the limiting factor with regard to creative growth.  Sometimes I can stare at a new process of skill and not see what is taking place.  I miss the opportunity and have a sin to expiate as a result.  The sensitivity and ability to foster this process is all I have ever had to offer to children. 

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