Today on the podcast we have a sample from the newly released audiobook of Writing Unbound: How Fiction Transforms Student Writers, read by author Tom Newkirk. Writing Unbound builds an argument for bringing fiction back into our writing curriculum as a way to strengthen all writing.
In this preview, Tom describes the vast opportunity found in fiction writing, and what we lose when we don’t embrace that opportunity in our classrooms.
If you’d like to hear more, you can head over to our new audiobooks feed where you can browse our full catalogue and listen to more samples. Just search for Heinemann Audiobooks wherever you listen to podcasts.
Read along with Tom...
The missed opportunity of fiction writing
Bastian: How many wishes do I get?
Empress Moonchild: As many as you want. And the more wishes you make, the more magnificent Fantasia will become.
—from The NeverEnding Story (1984)
In the summer of 2004, my wife and I attended a Boston Red Sox game, where some filming for the movie Fever Pitch was being done. After the singing of the national anthem, the door of the Green Monster—a thirty-five-foot wall and scoreboard in left field—opened, and a man with a Sox shirt and chinos began a slow, labored walk toward the pitcher’s mound.
It was Stephen King, the limp caused by a horrific 1999 accident in which he was hit in the breakdown lane—the other driver was travelling, as he often did, in the wrong lane. King remarked that it was as if one of his own demented characters came to life to injure him.
As he walked the three hundred feet to the mound, the crowd rose and applauded him. Soon we were all on our feet in sustained appreciation. I wondered if any other author could receive such a tribute from this crowd. (J. K. Rowling was the only name I could come up with.) Even if those standing had not read Christine or The Shining or other novels he has produced in his amazing career, they had seen movies and TV series; they may have been aware his stories were the basis for two superb movies, The Shaw-shank Redemption and Stand by Me. We may have been cheering his recovery from the accident, and perhaps his legendary generosity in his home state of Maine. Maybe all of that.
Whatever the reason, we knew that here was a man who had created a thrilling vision of horror. Like Rowling he has created a world, a kingdom. I once had a student who claimed that we love horror because it makes us feel fully present—nothing exists outside that moment of terror. We feel fully alive in our bodies—it affects our mind, heart, breathing, and skin. King takes us there. He writes for us.
And for the record, he threw a strike.
While King is a model for a virtual army of young and not-so-young writers, his brand of fiction has little place in the high school English reading curriculum—and no place, that I can see, in the writing curriculum. In fact, fiction writing disappears from our educational system around middle school, if it survives that long. The Common Core standards generally ignore it, along with narrative in general, in the upper grades. At this stage, writing is colonized, controlled, by the literature curriculum, and the focus often contracts to the analysis of literature. Mercifully, there are exceptions—the multigenre paper, and the elective creative writing course, which is often the first course to be cut in a crunch. But the fiction writing that does happen is usually off the formal educational grid.
And this off-grid writing is plentiful. The main FanFiction website contains 817,000 pieces written off the Harry Potter books, and 220,000 off the Twilight series. Over a million fictional pieces from those two series! Percy Jackson spinoffs are near the top of the list (72K) as are those built off The Hunger Games (45K) and The Lord of the Rings (55K). There are even submissions using the Bible(4.1K) and Pride and Prejudice (4.9K) and this is just for books. Two popular TV shows, Glee and Supernatural, both have more than 100,000 entries. Video games also spawn fiction with over 82K for Pokémon and 73K for Kingdom Hearts. More recently created sites, Quotev, Wattpad, and Archive of Our Own, have similarly huge numbers, and attract writers from across the globe. We can predict an exponentially greater number of unposted stories created by loyal followers.
Even in those schools that employ writing workshop approaches, fiction writing is marginalized or avoided, with memoir or personal narrative and, later on, the informational report or argument holding center stage.1Often this personal nonfiction is perceived as more authentic than fiction—especially high fantasy, which is seen as derivative. In college a student normally has to take at least up to three preliminary nonfiction writing courses before being allowed to elect a fiction writing course, assuming one is avail-able. And even then it is unlikely that they would be able to attempt popular forms like the graphic novel.
All of which leads to a question that has puzzled me my entire career. If reading fiction is beneficial, if, as some research indicates, it builds empathy, reading stamina, vocabulary, and cultural knowledge, if it provides entry into appealing vicarious worlds (e.g., Chiaet 2013)—why can’t the same be said for writing fiction? Am I missing something here? Jeff Wilhelm (1997) has shown that readers need to “be the book” to feel present in the book—and writers can also “be the book,” as in the case of one young student I interviewed who created JoJo, the junk food ant, a recurring character in his stories:
Mike: Sometimes I feel like I’ll write about this little ant named JoJo—a junk food ant—and he goes on these little adventures and usually gets hurt. So sometimes when I write about him, I make him like talking. I feel like I’m him, like when the Red Sox hit a grand slam and he gets caught on the ball, I feel like I’m flying through space like this (he leans back in his chair and mimes holding on to the baseball).
Tom: So when you’re writing you feel like you are in the air?
Mike: Yeah, when he gets hurt in the air, and I’m kind of like up there. I’m JoJo. (Newkirk 2002, 67)
If we gain insight into the human character by reading fiction, why can’t we get similar insight (or more profound insight) by creating characters? Even if our aim is still to make better fiction readers, won’t writing fiction attune students to craft, structure, and detail as they learn to read like a writer? If we want to build a love of writing, why in the world would we want to rule out the option to write fiction, emulating the genres and cultural storytelling that is so deeply popular outside school walls? Why do schools so willingly accept these handicaps and limitations?
Here are some possibilities.
Obstacles and Resistance: Teachers Themselves Have Had Little Experience Writing Fiction
This is a variant of a bigger problem—that English teachers are rarely required to take writing courses as part of their preparation. At the University of New Hampshire, where I taught for thirty-seven years, the only required writing course for prospective teachers was first-year writing (and that was required of all students)—an example of the reading–writing imbalance. It is exceedingly rare that a prospective teacher would take the prerequisites that would enable them to register for a fiction-writing course. And it is, as I noted earlier, unlikely that they will be taught versions of fiction that their future students will want to write.
The Fiction Writing That Students Choose to Do Is Often Imitative of Low-Status Forms of Entertainment
Young writers are drawn to plot, to action, to writing versions of movies and video games that appear—to a certain sensibility—as less “authentic” than nonfiction genres like the memoir. Borrowing characters and plot elements (and weapons) from preexisting stories violates an expectation of originality and personal examination of experiences. (As if memoir is not, itself, a preexisting genre.) Popular youth genres, particularly those selected by boys, have traditionally been labeled “escapist.”
One of the least attractive traits in adults is the inability—or unwillingness—to imagine literary gratifications that we don’t feel (though we perhaps once did). And then to rationalize this inability, this limitation of imagination, as a claim that certain popular genres are incapable of eliciting thoughtful engagement. We fail to decenter, to take an inquiry stance, to learn why someone might enjoy a literary genre that we don’t (or won’t). Some genres of writing, we come to believe, are capable of eliciting complex responses, and some aren’t—by their very nature.
This view has been powerfully challenged by a number of scholars, most notably Janice Radway in her sympathetic investigation of women reading romance novels (1984). My own approach is deeply indebted to the work of Jeffrey Wilhelm and Michael Smith—in fact my own title mirrors theirs, as does my argument. Wilhelm and Smith begin with a set of pro-vocative questions:
might kids gravitate to the kinds of texts they need? might they experience a deep fulfillment that we don’t completely understand when they read those books? might passionate readers of marginalized texts—those books that many parents and teachers disapprove of at some level—be choosing books that help them build on new interests, become competent in new ways, and grow beyond their current selves? (2014, 9)
Yes. Yes. Yes. They found that even genres we might dismiss as superficial and escapist—like vampire stories—could elicit profound reflections on sexual attraction. Texts do not set hard boundaries on what readers can do with them—a fact driven home to me when I listened to literacy expert James Gee spend a brilliant hour on an aspirin bottle label.
An argument for fiction writing can mirror the one Wilhelm and Smith make for the reading of marginalized genres. Young writers who devote themselves to seemingly endless postapocalyptic stories are gaining something by it—and to understand that gratification we need to ask them questions. We cannot presume to know their realities.
Inexperienced Writers Have Difficulty Managing Plots, Leading to Unplanned and Excessively Long Stories
True. True. True. But there are ways, including storyboarding, that can help with planning. In addition, there are very popular short forms like flash fiction that can be introduced.
Yet I would like to make the case for this long writing. When I speak with the really fluent and accomplished writers who have taken my first-year writing course, many of them could look back to a time when they wrote at length—maybe a journal they kept up, or a long novel they wrote with a friend, chapter after chapter. Unlike many of their peers, who panicked about meeting a page requirement, these writers had an expansive sense of what writing could be—they had felt that openness, that the blank page (or screen) was an invitation and not a threat. That writing could unfold. They have trouble staying within the page limit—a good problem in my view.
I realize that it may seem like I am supporting overwriting, and I am. Almost all the good young writers push description and dialogue and plot to the limit, often boring to any outside reader. It’s the same with athletes—watch promising middle school athletes. They will often charge into a hope-less layup, dive for a ball clearly out of reach, attempt the impossible pass. Often their bodies are not under full control. Their game is excessive. Yet that daring, that excess, that lack of caution, is a virtue. Good coaches know that. Control will come later. In the same way, the overwriter can be taught to control the gift of excess, but the underwriter has no awareness that this excess is even a possibility.
But even this inevitable difficulty can be helped by instruction and planning tools, as we will see in the interviews with skilled teachers. Concepts like plot beats, drawn from screenwriting, can be attractive supports. When students have difficulties inherent in a task, the solution is not to avoid the task, particularly one as appealing as fiction writing. The proper response is to offer support—and we will meet teachers up to that challenge.
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.