I will get back to the ed school thoughts, I promise, but thought organization, she’s a bitch. In the meantime, I’m helping others organize their thoughts in my enrichment classes for Asian kids whose parents think free time is for Americans.
Our selected book for the week doesn’t offer much analytical fodder, so they wrote narratives—specifically, a first person account of an actual experience with only an occasional invented detail, no more than a handwritten page.
They came up with their ideas on Wednesday and workshopped them just before the end of class, coming back with a first draft on Thursday. They shared out in at least two pairings, while I reviewed them individually. It’s an hour plus of constant writing and talking. Below are authentic representations, with occasional invented details, of my feedback.
“Ellen, good story, well-executed, flows well, nice attention to detail. But everything needs tightening up. Take a look.”
No matter how badly I wanted to leave my sister to go to the concert by myself, I had to accept that she had a good point. I had been her age when I went to my first concert and I ….
Ellen blushed. “I’m an egomaniac!”
“Naw, I do it too. You just need to edit. Obviously, dump a lot of the glue. Be creative about pronouns. Show, don’t tell. What’s your sister’s name? ‘Jenny always wanted my opinion on new tunes, making it clear her big sister was the final authority. Refusing to take her along might save face with [can you name your friends, please?] but why deny Jenny the same opportunities I’d had? ‘ Something like that. It’s all there; just refocus the action.”
Next up was Ben, another strong writer with good story sense, and in about a minute I’d sent him over to Ellen with a similarly glue-id’ed paper so they could collaborate. On to David, whose closest friends had noticed, on their frequent outings to a local amusement park, that he never rode the roller coaster. Despite his assurances that he simply wasn’t interested, they figured out he was actually terrified and staged a supportive but forceful intervention. No longer afraid, he now likes sitting up front, the better to get the rush.
“David, where’s the essay you wrote the first day? Dig it up for me.”
While waiting, I scanned Jack’s story, which began:
The locked door blocked my last hope for escape. I pounded frantically, hopelessly, screaming for rescue, but my doom was sealed. My fate wasn’t just awaiting me. It was headed my way. One hundred and twenty pounds of hulking, angry sister.
“Jack, this is very funny. But keep the suspense going without identifying the villain. Go through all your efforts to escape, your despair, and then the one-two punch. First, the horrible fate is your sister. Second, with no other escape, you offer up her other common victim, Sister #2, the one who locked that door to leave you to your doom—and who has candy. So you two were always escaping the bully by handing her each other? Why was she always beating you up? She stopped, I hope?”
“Yeah, I was seven, she was fourteen. She’s in college now. I lied about the candy.”
“Very nice. Go change the pacing, and bring out the villain later. Don’t leave out the lie.”
David came back with his essay, and I found the line:
My primary goal in this class is to achieve an essential understanding: I am thoroughly, permanently screwed if I don’t stop playing video games and take school more seriously.
“Where’s that kid?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your quirky quality is clearly in that sentence and nowhere to be found in the narrative. With the voice, your story isn’t really about being afraid of roller coasters, but about you, a unique goofy guy, and your supportive friends who called you on your bs. Without that unique voice, this story isn’t much more than a confession: you’re a baby who’s afraid of roller coasters. Go find the voice. Irene?”
Irene had two typed pages. “I know! Ellen told me it has to be shorter. I’ve already cut eight sentences.”
“Try eight paragraphs.” I read the first couple of paragraphs, stop. “What do you mean, your mother wants you to get CM Level 9 this year in piano?”
“So it’s on my transcript. Otherwise, I’ve wasted the piano lessons.”
“Yeah, this is some annoying Asian thing that’s going to really tick me off, isn’t it?”
Irene, a passionate artist who sketches every spare minute, laughed. “Probably. I take lessons so that I can pass the level 9 test. So my transcript shows I have artistic ability. But mom wants me to pass it this year, before I start my SAT prep.”
I sighed. “Remember if you are writing an essay or story for a wider audience that Americans would disapprove of your mom’s priorities. Those details detract from the narrative. Why not just write about the unexpected outcome from all this?”
“My discovery of anime music?”
“Yeah. Cut everything else out.”
On to Jasmine, whose entire narrative read:
My family left on a 4-day trip to Reno, Nevada. On the way, the car’s air conditioner broke down. We were unbelievably hot. I could feel the heat beating down on my face as I stuck my head out the window, but it was the only way I could get some air. Finally, we arrived. The hotel was airconditioned. I lay back on the bed and felt my body slowly adjust to the cool. It was amazing. I had never felt my body adjust and cool down before. When I began the trip, I had a list of things I wanted to do, but now I was happy to just be in cool air.
“What’s the heart of this story?”
“Um. The heat?”
“Really? I see a huge boost in writing energy when you get to the hotel.”
“Well, that’s because the cool felt so good.”
“Exactly. A blissful feeling so great that you reassessed your goals for the trip. That’s the heart: negative, difficult experiences caused a change in your perspective. Now, what did you think I was going to say about this story?”
“It’s too short.”
“Not ‘too short’ in any absolute sense, but you have to share the suffering, make us feel that heat, feel the endless hours in the car. You are telling a tale of sensations. Give me the sensory info. I want you to sketch your memory of that day. Stick figures, whatever. Or make a list of all your sense memories from that time. How do you communicate that heat? Show your observations of everyone’s suffering. Think who, what, when–heart of summer?–how. Then do the same thing for the blissed-out time in the chill. Overdo it first—you can cut it down later.”
Then Nick, with a well-crafted first draft of his anxious excitement the day he presented his science project at a company-sponsored competition.
“Nick, the opening rocks. Then you lose focus a bit. I want details about the judging. You say he’s nice–what sort of questions did he ask? Was it as you’d imagined it in all your practice runs? And….what’s this?”
“The end? Is it wrong?”
“‘Best of all, this win will really look great on my college applications.’ Dear God. Please tell me you included that little gem to stop my heart.”
He looked puzzled. “That’s why I entered the contest.”
I banged myself in the head with his notebook. “So I’m feeling like I learned something about your love of science, when in fact you did all the work to get a win for your resume?”
“Well, science is okay. But…yeah, I picked the project because I thought it had the best chance of winning.”
“Not because you were interested. See how you’re looking a bit shamefaced? Because you know what I’m saying, right?”
“The thing is, I’m torn in these situations, just like I was with Irene. I’m glad you’re writing authentic emotions. But you are so wrapped up in your Indian cocoon that you have no idea how bad this looks to the Americans who aren’t a generation or less away from Asialand. To us, you come off as a slogger who is only interested in appearance, in faking it, not in pursuing excellence for its own sake. And of course because I’m American and you are, too, I want you to want to pursue excellence for something other than a resume bullet. And you don’t. Which is okay, I like you anyway. For now, though, this story gets much better if you dump this last line and allow your readers to delude themselves about your passionate love of science.”
Eddie up next with a story about three families in two RVs travelling to Banff, Canada to see the sights.
“So you were all related? These are your cousins?”
“No, we didn’t really know any of them.”
I was perplexed, but Ben chimed in. “We do that all the time. It’s an Asian thing.”
“You like big vacations?”
“No, cheap ones” chorused Serena, Ellen, Ben, Eddie, and Jerry.
“We either fly and stay in really cheap places, with all the kids camped out in one room,”…
“One time I was with twelve kids!” from Serena.
“But aren’t there occupancy limits?”
“We ignore them; most of us go out to dinner while one family checks in. Then we sneak in.”
“Indians, is this a thing for you?”
“God, no,” says Ace. “It sounds horrible.”
“My parents came here to escape lots of people, who wants to go on vacation with them?” from Jasmine.
“And you got thrown out of an RV park, Eddie?”
“We almost got thrown out of Canada.”
“All because you were teasing your cousin and he started swearing?”
“It was after midnight, and he was screaming, and Henry wasn’t my cousin, just this other kid.”
“And the adults didn’t stop him?”
“They were in another RV.”
“But they apologized?”
“When the ranger came, yeah. They apologized and promised to be quiet. Even tried to give the ranger money.”
“She was furious, told us to go back to Montana. My parents don’t even know where that is. So she just told them to leave the RV park.”
“Huh. See, your family’s thoughtless cultural rudeness offers some great insights, but I’m not sure you learned anything from it.”
“Yeah, I did. I told them it was a bad idea to offer money. Plus I should have told Henry to shut up, or gotten adults involved.”
“Okay. So drop all the stuff about how pretty Banff was and how terrible the food, tell me about these weird cheap Chinese family vacations, and what you learned about Westerners—and where you slept after leaving the park. Ace, you’re next.”
Ace, the oldest kid in the class, shuffled up hesitantly. I read through the story once, read it again. Read it a third time.
“It sucks, right?”
“No. It’s great.” He looked at me in shock.
“It’s not perfect. It needs work. But four weeks ago, you could barely produce a coherent sentence, because you were just writing words to fill up paper. Now your sentences have subjects and verbs and purpose. Your thoughts are organized. You’ve just described a heartbreaking basketball defeat, made me feel your disappointment—and then you bring up the subsequent win to end on a high note. Beautifully structured. Now, go back and read this aloud, first to yourself and then to someone else, and listen to the words. Any correction you find yourself making as you read it aloud, stop and jot them down. Match the words to your memory, see if anything’s missing.”
Ace went back to his desk with new confidence and a purpose.
I swear, sometimes I’d do this for free.