The writer, the woman who made my breakfast sandwich, and the people around the campfire
I talked with a young writer this week because his teacher was exasperated. He’d been working on the same draft for weeks, and my best calculations revealed he wrote almost one line in his composition book per week. He was shy and embarrassed when we started talking. (He was talking with me as part of a demon lesson. There were 25 teachers in the room and I struck a deal with him that he could bolt from the conference at any time — no questions asked. Thankfully he hung in for the whole conference.)
It’s agonizing when a draft takes forever — both for the teacher and the writer. I read the bit he had and chuckled about his make believe character and the predicament the character was in. “You know one of the most important things about writing a story,” I said.
He lifted his eyebrows, mostly in disbelief.
I kept talking. “You know that stories have struggles. No story; no struggle. This is one of the most important rules of writing a story. Have you thought about your plot diagram?”
His big brown eyes blinked at me.
“Maybe you call it a story mountain?” I asked and drew an arc on my notebook. He shook his head. I explained a plot diagram. “The best story writers take a character and then make him struggle. You’ve set up your story just like this. What’s going to be the next problem he encounters?”
He thinks. I wait. It didn’t take long for him to tell me the next scene of the story. I listened, my big brown eyes wide, and he tells the next scene and the next. Then I say, “How is it going to end? Writers like you know there is a resolution at the end.”
“Like a solution to the problem?”
“Yes,” I answer. Then I wait while he thinks. He tells me the ending.
“I can’t wait for you to write it,” I say. He gathers up his notebook and gets to work.
At the end of the workshop, I ask him if he wants to share. He doesn’t, but I nudge him. “I think there are a lot of people who will be happy for you and there are a lot of people who get stuck at the beginning of a draft. You can help them.”
He nodded. He was reluctant and a little embarrassed when we started sharing about his writing. I showed his notebook and covered all of his writing from the day. “At the start of workshop, he was a little stuck,” I said. “How many people have been stuck in a draft?”
Almost everyone’s hand shot up. “Me too,” I said. “Today we talked about how the character was going to struggle in each scene of the story. Then he went back and wrote. Look how much he wrote!”
I remove my hand so the class can see the filled notebook page. I didn’t take the time to do the precise calculations, but his writing rate increased by about a gazillion percent. In just a few minutes, he filled the page.
The class clapped. I didn’t tell them to clap, they just did. This is what happens in a community of writers — we celebrate when good things (like writing a whole page) happens. Then I asked, “How many people think they might be able to do what he did when you’re stuck. Talk through the scenes and then go back to the draft?”
Hands shot up.
The writer beamed.
After workshop, I knelt beside his desk. “Thanks for sharing today,” I said. “You really helped a lot of writers.”
He nodded, his big brown eyes wide.
“Not just the other kids in your class, but there were 25 teachers in here and they all have 25-30 kids in their classes. It was important for them to see your work today. Thanks for being brave.”
He gave me a high five.
Of course, he was the talk of the debrief. He’s the classic hard-to-reach writer. His writing is more chicken scratch than formed letters and it is slim. He’s from a hard place and writing workshop is an unlikely place for him to succeed. Later, his teacher sent me an email. “You changed the course of our workshop,” she said. “I needed to be reminded of the way it matters when we build on the things kids are already doing.”
It was a matter of moments, but I think he changed us all. It was more than just getting a kid to write, it was about listening, believing and trusting in another human’s story.
Early on Friday morning Andy and I were on our way to pick up Stephanie for an interview at a school we are hoping she will be accepted into. We were running late and worn out. Not only was the day ahead a stressful one, but it was at the end of a full week. We stopped at a gas station, and didn’t have time to grab something to eat. I decided to get a breakfast sandwich anyway.
The woman who made my sandwich was so kind. She approved of my choice to add onions and green peppers before toasting. We chatted about the sunbeams streaming in, and she said, “I’ve been working here for 12 years and am grateful for the way the morning sun comes in those windows. Should I cut your side of the sandwich in half? I bet you’d appreciate the smaller portions.”
I smiled and said, “Thank you.” I hope she knew I was grateful for more than the extra cut in the sandwich.
Saturday night Andy and I hung out around a campfire with some friends. Some were friends we’ve been hanging out with for years. Others were new friends. I was cutting pie and the friend who was new (they moved from another town) said, “I’m so glad to find some people who are easy to be around.”
Laughter from around the campfire bounced in the window, and I giggled. “Yep, we’re easy,” I teased.
I’ve been thinking about how right she is: it’s nice when you find people who are easy to be around.
Sometimes I wonder if I made a mistake taking a new job. I miss the front lines of being a classroom teacher; I miss the familiarity of working within a single district; I miss the experience of being part of the same team for nearly two decades. I wonder if I make a difference, if I’m serving the greater good.
I keep thinking about the writer, the woman who made my breakfast sandwich and the people around the campfire. They were moments that could have been insignificant. But they weren’t.
They mattered. Whenever humans interact, we tell a little bit of our stories. This is not a slight thing. There are a million different ways the story, the moment, matters.
I think the mistake I make too often — whether it is when taking a new job or something else — is to be so concerned with making a difference that I miss the moments that make a difference. Stories are built moment by moment.
I hope I’m not so concerned with making a difference that I forget what really matters.