Have you ever been so lost in a story that the rest of the world melts away?
Today on the podcast we’re joined by author Tom Newkirk. Tom says that if we want students to develop a love of books and writing, we need to bring fiction back to our writing curriculum, and not just as an extra-curricular. In his new book, Writing Unbound: How Fiction Transforms Student Writers, Tom makes a case that writing fiction strengthens all writing.
Through interviews with both students and teachers, Tom breaks the myths about teaching fiction writing and places the student's desire to write fiction at the center of his thinking.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Brett: I'm currently reading a YA novel from author T.J. Klune called The Extraordinaries. It opens up with a young man, I think a sophomore in high school... He's got ADHD and it opens up with him writing fanfiction on Tumblr. And the first thing I thought of when I read that page was you.
I know not everybody thinks about Tom Newkirk when they read YA, but I thought of you, because I thought about Writing Unbound and I thought about fiction. I thought about this young man who is writing all this YA, and I thought about all of the students that you interviewed for this book. I just thought about this need for fiction that students have. I want to start there. Why is fiction writing the missed opportunity?
Tom: Well, I think kids read fiction, they're surrounded by fiction, they would like to create fiction. And I think that we want to get kids interested in writing and to love writing. But we have this crazy situation where we say, reading fiction is great... It's the center of English. It makes you more human. It makes you more empathetic.
But writing of fiction then disappears in high school, and that just makes no sense to me, why that's the case. I think that what's happening in our culture, is you have the student you talk about who's writing fiction, probably on his own I would vet, in that book.
And so, you have tens of thousands and millions, literally, of people writing fiction these days, posting it on fanfiction sites or not posting it in fanfiction sites. You have an imbalance between what's going on in the culture, and what's going on in schools.
Brett: You open the book up in chapter one pretty honestly. You refer to yourself as, "an outsider," and you connect that to a confession. Can you say a little bit more about why you refer to yourself as an outsider and what that confession is?
Tom: Well, the confession is that I was a snob... Let's not make it too nice. I think I had a lot of the prejudices against the kind of fiction that kids write in school. Super fantasy, superheroes, some of the things that they write. I was, "I know good literature and I read good literature," and I had all those biases. And I was never a fiction writer as a kid myself.
I'm an outsider. But I was really interested. These kids that I interviewed, some of them wrote novels in November. I was in awe. How did you do that? It wasn't like, "I know how to do that, because I've done it." It's like, "How in the hell did you do this? How did you write 40,000 words in a month?" And so, it was genuine curiosity of trying to enter this world that I'd really never been part of.
Brett: It is fascinating. The power of what passion will drive in a student. It never fails to amaze me. But you take that outsider's, I'll use your words, snobbish perspective. And you use that for your own curiosity to debunk a lot of misconceptions about allowing students to write fiction. Can you walk us through some of those misconceptions that you debunked?
Tom: Well, I think that people say that if kids write fiction, they're not going to write good fiction. If you allow eighth graders or ninth graders to write fiction, it's not going to be good fiction.
It's not going to be fiction that you really want to read. And I'm thinking, look, if you watch a 12-year-old play basketball or an 11-year-old play basketball, it's not good basketball. You know what I'm saying?
Tom: They cluster around the ball, they double dribble. They have trouble with their passes. But every now and then, you see these flashes of real basketball. Every now and then, somebody takes the ball, drives the length of the court and makes a basket. Then, you say, "That's real basketball." I think that's what you get in fiction.
You get a lot of it where they're trying to do things that they may not be able to do, but then there are flashes of the real thing. When I interviewed the kids, I would often read a section that I really liked. I'd read it to them like it was literature and say, "Could you talk to me about this?"
And so, I think it's the same deal, but to say, "I'm not going to read kids fiction because it's not good fiction." Well, of course it's not completely good fiction. They're just learning how to do it. In the same way, if they write memoirs, it's not going to be great memoirs right from the get-go.
Brett: I love how you wrote that in the book. It's sort of you start that off as they're at their very beginning. They're building it. And it made me think... You referenced Stephen King in the first chapters.
It made me think, well, what teacher saw Stephen King's writing in the third or fourth or fifth or sixth grade? He wasn't Stephen King that we know now back then in the seventh or eighth grade, probably.
Tom: Yeah. But there's flashes, there's times when they do something really right. And I think to highlight that and say, "This really works." And then, you make some suggestions to help them out.
But come in with that positive attitude and not with the attitude like, "Oh, I really hate to read this because it's not good fiction." Or, "I don't really like science fantasy." You get on their train and try to help them out.
Brett: You mentioned the interviews that you were doing with students. You interview a number of students and teachers throughout the book. Can you tell me a little bit about those conversations and what themes you were looking for as you went into these conversations? Or the themes you got out of them?
Tom: Well, I think particularly the interviews with the students were astounding, because I didn't know these students at all. I had never met these students. And so, I had maybe half an hour, 40 minutes with them. And just how they loved opening up about why they liked it, who they wrote with.
One question that I really love to ask is, I'd say, "This is going to be a really weird question, but if I could go inside your brain while you're writing, what would I see?" And the student would say, "Hmm." And then, they really answered that question.
Tom: Well, "You'd see chaos," or "You'd see me watching a movie that I'm actually also directing. I'm watching it and directing it." They'd get into these explanations of their thought process, and that was a real treat.
With the teachers, often it's the logistics. How do you manage it? Because I think that's a big problem, because fiction could go on. How do you manage it and how do you guide the students? Because students can get lost in plots. And so, how do you do that?
Sometimes the teachers is a little more pragmatic. With the students, it was kind of getting inside that brain and saying, "Okay. What's happening?" And one student says, "If you were inside my brain, while I was thinking about writing, you'd be crushed by the flow of ideas."
Brett: I love that. You noted that students in particular really liked to write action scenes, I read.
Tom: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Brett: What is it about action scenes that draw kids to it so much?
Tom: Well, I think that a lot of kids imagine their novels like plays. Or like movies, I'm sorry. And so, it's the action. It's something happening. It's plot moving forward. I think that both in their reading and their writing, they don't like things to move too slowly.
And I think in a lot of young adult fiction, the plot moves. It doesn't stay still. I recorded one kid was talking about... His mom was actually a fiction writer. An established fiction writer. She says, "I'm going to write a book that you're going to like," to her son. And he says, "Yeah, not 50 pages about the next five minutes of your life."
Brett: I think that student's onto something.
Tom: I don't know if she tried to do it. And it's not a fair criticism of her either.
Brett: One of the first things... One of the first students, I should say, you introduced us to is Ernest. What really jumped out to me when you were talking to him about his fiction writing and his school writing, he spoke about a loss of freedom in his school writing. What's he referring to there? What's the freedom he means?
Tom: Well, I think that he thinks that there are all these unstated... He says, "They want us to be creative, but they want us to be creative in their own way." And so, I think it's things like having rubrics, having structures that you're supposed to follow, and just not being allowed to write fiction.
He had a line that I liked. He says, "I'd rather be..." Let's see if I can get it right. "I'd rather be the kid who writes stories that other people analyze than being the kid who has to analyze someone else's story." He wants to be that creative person who creates the thing that other people read.
But I think in school, he's the person who is analyzing someone else's story. And I think that's what often happens in school is, if you do writing, you're doing writing to analyze reading. Writing is used to interpret reading. And what I argue is that essentially writing is subordinated to reading.
I think we can all remember times in school when the writing you did was to answer questions about reading. You read something and then you have those terrible questions at the end and you had to answer those questions. It monitors your reading. And I think that's not a full use of writing in school. That's a very limited use. I think that's the kind of thing that Ernest and a lot of the other kids didn't like.
Brett: Ernest also had something that I was blown away by. So much insight from all of these students, but something Ernest said about his writing was he gave some advice about being judged. What was that advice that he was talking about?
Tom: Oh, he had a long answer to that question, because at the end of every interview, I said, "What advice would you give to students?" And he says, "Don't worry about being judged." The story has its own demands. Go with it. Don't worry about how people are going to be offended, or if it's too graphic. Go with the story.
He talked about with the Princess Bride, and he says, "The Princess Bride. Take the Princess Bride." He says, "They could have made that into a cheesy movie, but they made it into the movie it was supposed to be." And I think that's what he says. That a story has its own demands and you go with it. And if people are offended or ... You go with the story. And he says, sometimes that's hard to do.
Brett: Another student, Eve, she and her mother, you spoke to them. She described feeling shut down by her AP honors class. Why was that?
Tom: Well, I think that she was asked to write pretty much in formulas. You basically have this essay formula. Other kids talked about that too. And so, you'd get the formula, and you'd write the formula, and it has nothing to do with who you are. I think for Eve, if she writes something, she wants it to reflect who she is and what matters to her.
And she saw no place for that in the AP course that she was taking. So, that writing had to be personal. When I interviewed Eve, I thought, "You should be writing this book." That was the feeling I had with a lot of the kids. I thought, "Well, your insight into writing is just amazing."
Brett: I have to agree. The insight from the students is just unbelievable. It's so overwhelming. I felt I grew as a writer just reading these students giving you feedback. Another student that I wanted to ask you about, Ardash.
An eighth grader, at the time that you interviewed Ardash, he made a case for fiction writing strengthening other forms of writing. And you honed in on that a little bit around argumentative writing. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Tom: Yeah. I think we tend to treat kinds of writing as if they're totally different. If you're teaching fiction, you're not teaching argument. But Ardash said, "Basically, in fiction you have different points of view." He opens up his story with the father having to reprimand a son who's terrorizing his sister.
He says, "Well, you have to look at it from the point of view of the kid. And you have to look at it from the point of view of the father." And so, you're constantly having multiple points of view. And he says, "That's pretty much what you do in argument." Obviously, other examples could be like, often in fiction, you have people reflecting on what they've done. What's happening to me? Why am I doing this? What am I going to do next?
Well, that's almost analytic thinking. You have this cross-pollination, I think, of kinds of writing. I also think that, in terms of stamina, if you have a kid who's written a 40,000 word novel... An eight grader, who's written a 40,000 word novel in November, and he's asked some time down the line to write a five-page paper... It's not going to phase that kid.
It's like, "Oh, I can handle this." It's almost like they'll just have trouble staying within five pages. Where often kids who don't write, the five pages is like writing an epic. I think, in terms of just facility with writing and competence in writing, I think it crosses over. But sometimes we don't treat it that way. It's like, "If you're writing fiction, you're not learning the skills of this." And I think it doesn't work that way.
Brett: Well, we'll sort of conclude with this. Connecting back to where we started from, you talk towards the end of the book about the concerns teachers have for reading works of fiction from their students. And I wanted to put this to you, because you've done a little bit of this. What does it take to be a good reader of student fiction? Do you have some advice for teachers in the book on that?
Tom: I think you have to get on their track. What are they trying to do? Not on your track. Not like, "Oh, this is the kind of stuff I like to read when I'm at home," but, "What is this person trying to create in this fictional story? Where is it really working?" It seems to me, you need to be attuned to what's working. That may sound Pollyannish, but I just think it's human nature.
It's so easy to doubt what we're doing. We read accomplished fiction, and then we see what we're doing... It's really easy to feel bad about it. What's really working? And then, do you have some questions that could help the writer achieve what he or she's trying to do?
I think it sounds simple, but I think it really means honing in on what the intent of the writer is and getting on their train. And not trying to maybe bring your own prejudices, your own case, necessarily to that. If the kid's writing a fantasy story, how can that fantasy be better? If there's horror, how can the terror of that story be better? Those would be some of the things I'd recommend.
Brett: That's perfect. Anything else that you want to mention that we didn't get to?
Tom: Well, I have, and I don't mean this facetiously, a low-cost, low-frills method that I think we could engage kids throughout this country in writing. It won't cost anything and we could do it with the tools we have. And that would be to allow kids in every grade to write at least one fictional story. Not necessarily require it, but to allow them to write one fictional story every year of their school.
And I would guarantee that what they will remember, a lot of them, from school will be that opportunity to write that fictional story. Just maybe one. We could take two weeks and allow them to write a fictional story, should they choose to do it. And I think that just that act alone, just that opportunity alone, would bring kids into writing in a way that I think most kids in this country are not brought into writing.
Brett: I think you're right. That is a really easy way to really just get that into schools. It's so simple. It's so simple.
Tom: Yep. And I don't have a patent on it. I'm not making money off it. There's no trademark behind it, so I offer it to everybody.
Brett: It's there for the world to take.
Tom: It's there for the world to take.
Thomas Newkirk is the author of numerous Heinemann titles, including Embarrassment, Minds Made for Stories, The Art of Slow Reading, The Performance of Self in Student Writing (winner of the NCTE's David H. Russell Award), and Misreading Masculinity. For almost three decades, Tom taught writing at the University of New Hampshire where he founded the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, a summer program for teachers. In addition to working as a teacher, writer, and editor, he has served as the chair of his local school board.