Editor’s note: We’re resurfacing this article to learn from the outstanding work of Jim Dwyer following his death on Oct. 8. It was originally published on May 6, 2020.
When my daughter Alison was in the fifth grade, I became a volunteer writing teacher at her public school. I taught at Bay Point Elementary in St. Petersburg, Florida, almost every week for three years. In 1986 that experience became my first book, now out of print, called “Free to Write: A Journalist Teaches Young Writers.”
The book described the process by which I turned children into young journalists. I taught them how to use a reporter’s notebook, how to write down key words from an interview, how to ask good questions and listen, how to think of their schools and their homes as storehouses of story ideas.
I taught them how to find a focus to their story, how to write a lead, how to envision a beginning, middle, and end, how to write a rough draft — sloppy copy — and how to perfect the work in multiple drafts, working toward publication of individual booklets and a class newspaper, The Cougar Chronicle.
Those students are now well into their 40s, and I still hear from a number of them on how reading and writing became an important part of their lives and careers. One of them, Bonnie Harris, got to cover a presidential campaign for the Los Angeles Times. George W. Bush gave her a nickname: Sunshine.
What followed this experiment was a summer program supported by the Poynter Institute for 29 consecutive years: Writers Camp, three weeks of writing work and fun for about 50 students (age 9 to 13), and their teachers. The successor to that program was a three-day summer language arts institute for more than 150 teachers, created by a Writers Camp veteran, Holly Slaughter.
This narrative is the prologue to an idea about how reporters (students and professionals) might find their home shelters as a congenial place to write.
What I am about to offer is called a writing prompt. It is a little engine of reading and writing. I learned it from professionals. I believe it can be adapted for use by teachers, students, and, yes, even parents. I have designed it to help all of us do a better job of learning at home.
The prompt: Find an object that has a story hiding inside it.
This exercise was inspired by a New York Times writer named Jim Dwyer. After the catastrophe of 9/11, Dwyer wrote a series of stories about objects related to the destruction of the Twin Towers. These included a squeegee used by a window washer to escape from an elevator; a family photo found in the rubble and returned to its owner; a paper cup of water offered by one stranger on the street to another.
As a young reporter, Dwyer had learned a key lesson from his editor: “The bigger, the smaller.” The smallest objects can reveal the most powerful ideas and emotions.
Let’s make it fun and practical. What is one of the most common requests of a parent to a child? That’s easy: “Please clean your room.” But what if we turned that chore into a literary scavenger hunt?
Here’s how it might work. The student – OK, let’s invite the parent to have some fun as well — goes through and unclutters a mostly private space: a desk drawer, a closet shelf, a box of photos, a bookcase, a jewelry box, an attic junk pile, a cabinet in the garage, a crawl space, even a wallet, purse, or backpack. One goal is to tidy things up, toss out useless trash.
While the cleaning is going on, the writer stays on the lookout for that Special Object — the one that has a story hiding inside of it.
For example, I was cleaning out a bedroom and found myself rummaging through some old cigar boxes that belonged to our youngest daughter Lauren, who is now 39.
We found lots of costume jewelry. But in one tiny tin container we found seven of her baby teeth — which she had saved. There’s a story here.
Let’s say she was losing these teeth when she was about six years old — 1986. My wife estimates that the Tooth Fairy would leave one dollar under the pillow, but, at some point, it jumped to five, so we’ll average it out to three dollars. Using an inflation calculator, I can determine that a 2020 lost tooth would be worth $7.07. An inflation rate of 135.5%.
In another small paper box there were just two objects: a little pink plastic pig, and a tiny origami crane.
“That’s my lucky pig!” she told us. And the crane was one of 1,000 she folded, for good luck, in her childhood.
Lauren is now a college math and writing tutor, but in recent years she developed a successful side business. It’s called book folding. Using a geometric pattern of cutting and folding an old book, she can turn it into a personalized work of art. She can reveal your name in block letters, or, if you are an Elvis fan, an image of the king.
It struck me that the pig and crane were an early representation of Lauren’s artistic spirit and aspirations. I could write an essay about this, or interview her, or describe a scene where she sells her books at a market.
Keep using it
One cool thing about this prompt is that it can be recycled countless times. That’s what Jim Dwyer did in his 9/11 coverage.
The poet T.S. Eliot had a fancy name for this technique. He called it finding the “objective correlative.” In simple terms, the poet is looking for an object that correlates to the emotion he or she is trying to express: an old baseball card, a photo of my parents on their wedding day, my perfect report card — except for that “Unsatisfactory” in conduct.
This will go better if a parent gives it a try — and of course a teacher as well. The goal is to get everybody writing, reading each other’s work, and talking about the process they used. Those are the primary behaviors that mark a literate person of any age. We should practice them whenever we can.
Here are some coaching questions writers, parents, teachers can ask each other:
- What did you find?
- Oh, you found more than one? Which one interests or surprises you most?
- What do you remember about the object?
- Can you tell me a story about it?
- What did it feel like when you saw it again?
- What are three things you might want to say about the object?
- What is the most important thing?
Worry about details later
Grammar, spelling, accuracy, neatness — these are always important, but they are less important at the beginning of a project. They become more and more important and you revise, change, check and eventually publish the work.
In this environment, we are all writers, supporting each other in a community at a time of special challenge and opportunity.
Although I have described this as a story prompt for children, I propose it as well for all journalists and public writers. Even though we are taking shelter in the sanctuaries of our homes, we can still look outward and inward. The internet lets us visit the world. But our homes, our streets, our neighborhoods have become microcosms as well — little worlds that can teach us much.
Explore your secret gardens.
Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.