West Education Campus Residency
December 11, 2020
When I join the first online session for my writing residency with West Education Campus, a handful of fifth graders are already on, talking to their teachers Ms. Wolf and Ms. Snell about the new video game they’re enjoying. The moment I pop into an online class always feels like a bit like magic. One second I’m sitting alone in my writing studio and the next second—POOF!—I’m in the middle of a room full of people, except we’re all still in our own homes!
Immediately, the students make me smile and feel lucky to be here. I love kid energy, and the teachers are radiating enthusiasm and curiosity, too.
In preparation, Ms. Wolf has written that the fifth graders have been studying extended metaphors and have just read Walt Whitman’s poem about Abraham Lincoln’s death: O Captain! My Captain! So, after the remaining students arrive and we get started, I introduce a metaphor of my own. “When I was your age,” I tell them, “I was a big chicken.”
We spend the next ten minutes sharing our fears. I confess mine and hear some of theirs, including closing your eyes while shampooing because there could be a demon in the faucet.
The surprised looks when I tell them that I was scared of writing isn’t surprising. Lots of people think that writing must come easily to writers. “You can really want to do something and still be afraid to do it,” I say, and I see lots of nods. It happens when you’re trying to learn something new or trying to do something difficult, whether it’s in music, sports, or schoolwork.
We talk about the idea that we each have a negative inner voice that talks to us and discourages us. You can’t, the voice says. You’ll make a mistake. You won’t be good at this!
That inner voice is the dragon of fear. Lately I’ve been calling my inner negative voice Grunkle. Grunk for short. I show the students my writer’s notebook in which I have a sketch of Grunk. A chimera—half woman and half dragon.
Inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, I have also written a note to Grunk, firmly telling the dragon to leave me alone, and I share the note with the kids. The idea is that you have to acknowledge your fear is there and then you can choose to overcome it.
I also show how I made a Grunk out of stiff paper that I folded at the bottom so that she can stand up on my desk. Humor is helpful in overcoming fears and anxieties. So when I’m feeling especially anxious, I can act out my power over Grunk. Sometimes I flick her off my desk, or stick her face down under a heavy book or literally blow her away. Sorry, Grunk, but I’m not listening to you now, it’s time to create!
Of course, I always rescue Grunk in the end because I like having this prop to help me write.
(Students, take a look at how much better my final Grunk is compared to my initial sketch. Revising a first draft, whether you’re drawing or writing, is how you improve.)
During question-time at the end, one student prefaces his by saying it isn’t really a question. I love to hear comments because they help me to discover what’s going on in students’ minds. He reveals that he’s thinking about how I described my fear and he’s thinking that maybe my desire to want to be good at writing even if writing can be hard and scary pushes me in a good way. Overcoming fear can make you stronger.
Yes! Yes! That blows me away.
I cannot wait until our next meeting. Most of my day is spent writing. It’s like I’m alone at sea in a little boat. How lucky I am that this big ship is going to pull up once a month with all the students and their teachers on deck, waving at me and saying, “Come aboard, Mary Amato! Time to sail with us!”
My West Education Campus Fifth Grade Writing Residency is supported by An Open Book Foundation. I’ll be posting a once-per-month essay about the experience between December 2020 and May 2021.