I was recently invited to be one of roughly a dozen speakers at my children’s elementary school for the school’s “art walk” day — a morning that saw intermediate students attend a series of talks with artists to learn how art can be used to connect with community.
The invitation came with a promise of coffee and cinnamon buns so, quite naturally, I accepted it, completely forgetting one of the main reasons I became a writer: I hate public speaking.
When the day came, my eldest was still on the tail end of being sick and these days it’s frowned upon to send your child to school when they’re sniffling and coughing even though they’re likely well beyond their contagious stage. (I remember being sent to school with a box of Kleenex and some cough candies but that doesn’t happen anymore.)
Anyway, with nowhere else to send him, and not wanting to back out on my commitment to the school, I had him don his mask and join me for the two-hour event. We were stationed in the library; with the size of the room and with the groups of kids maxing out around six, it ended up not being a big deal.
I started to worry, though, when I was given a WiFi password and told if I needed the television set to let them know. The other artists the school administrators had brought in included actual artists like carvers, dancers, musicians, graphic designers, animators, photographers and painters. Me? All I did was write. I’m sure the students have all seen a pencil. I’m sure they all write, too.
I went into the first of four 30-minute sessions nervous, and I told my eight-year-old as much. In the end I had nothing to worry about. The kids were great. Some freely admitted to having to fill their four time-slots with something…anything and writing seemed easy — while others were keen to tell me about what they loved to write about.
One thing we all agreed on every session, was being given instructions to write “whatever you feel like” is super difficult to do. The world is so big and children’s imaginations are even bigger, so narrowing down what to write about is often the hardest part of all.
So, I explained to the kids the way I do it. I explained that anything, literally anything, can be a jumping off point and the best part of creative writing is that you can’t really be wrong when you’re writing your own stories.
(“Yes, you can,” suggested one young man, who after a bit of a philosophical debate around the merits of fiction, finally agreed that imaginary stories aren’t technically “wrong”. And let’s not get bogged down with moral dilemmas here either, that’s not what I mean and if the kids understood what I mean, you should too.)
I talked about how the littlest things can spark a much bigger story if we only let our imaginations run free. I told one group of the time I had a bug on my windshield the entire length of a highway drive I had coming home from writing a “boring” news story and ended up writing a fun column about the bug’s courage, strength, and sticktoitivness to hang on for dear life until I parked my car.
I explained that when we get stuck for an idea or are afraid to write about something because we don’t want it to be bad, we need to push ourselves to do it even if it’s crummy at first. The most important part is to get them out onto paper and then we can refine them after that.
After the second session I asked my son if he thought it sounded like I knew what I was talking about.
“Not really,” he said. “But they aren’t noticing.”
How’s that for support?
The last session involved a chatty group who knew they’d be let loose for lunch soon. I went over all the things I’d told the previous groups when a pupil spoke up about how he’d read a story that included a cool digital scanning system to unlock the door.
Together, we turned that one idea into a whole story, that before my eyes unravelled into a one that involved having a chair with a bum-cheek scanner to unlock the door. They were elementary school boys, what could I expect?
The children laughed hysterically as they added details to their story, not realizing that while the subject matter was probably not the best for school, they were learning how one little idea can ignite a fire of imagination.
“This is the best session yet!” said one of the kids. He must have skipped the animator and carver talks. Either way, he made my day.
Back at home, I sat down beside my sick son on the couch ready to get some writing done for work.
I opened my computer to begin but he commandeered it and started writing a story of his own.
“That was actually pretty great today, Mom,” he said. “It felt like a field trip without leaving the school. It was definitely worth it.”
The other kids having a good time in my sessions and maybe learning something was cool. My son not being embarrassed by his mom, and instead being proud of me was even cooler and, I will admit, well worth the discomfort of public speaking any day.