Tuesday, March 12, 2013

March is Writing Month? or Bird-by-Bird: Advice for Writing and Life

Fran was really excited about studying biographies at school. He picked Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman pilot, (over LeBron James) for his project. The first thing I did was grab him some books from the library. He did what any respectable biographer would do, he read them, and then he talked about them.

So a few days later, he brings home his biography from school... It was really accurate, it had solid mechanics, and it was very...well, concise. Since more than one session had been allowed for writing and he had more to say about the topic, I thought perhaps it needed to be a little longer. Like many 3rd graders, it seemed like he just needed some help figuring out how to use structure to tell it long.

A lot of 3rd graders tell the whole thing in a paragraph. Or write a really long, well-crafted beginning and then get tired and rush the rest. But each part needs to be developed, and this is where structure comes in.

So I did it. I told Francis the old "bird-by-bird strategy" from the famous grown-up writer Anne LaMott. Basically, it goes like this: her brother left a huge project on birds until the day before it was due. Her father, also a writer, remained calm. He got her brother some bird books from the library, sat at the kitchen table with him, and told her brother to relax-- just take it bird-by-bird. (Anne tells it better.)

Just take it bird-by-bird.

Such simple advice. I've found that most tasks, both in writing and in life, seem so much more manageable if taken bird-by-bird. So that's what we did: Fran set up a timeline and figured out his sections. We labeled his draft with each "part on a page" and he worked bird-by-bird in a few short work sessions to finish it.

Now he had used this "timeline and each part gets a page draft" strategy before with both his personal narrative story and his fiction story this year, but sometimes you just need someone to remind you to just take it bird-by-bird.

Yesterday we were driving in the van, chit-chatting about how his piece had changed. I hoped I was hearing his words, not the words he thinks I want him to say about his process. Every writing teacher worries (sometimes) that a teaching point was too heavy-handed, that the teacher, not the student owns the strategy or craft applied, or that students just say what they think we want to hear so we'll leave them alone.

But Francis reminded me that this work was now his own by closing our conversation by saying, "Well, Mom. Now I know I can write long if I just do what that famous writer's brother did... just take it bird-by-bird."

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