My husband Josh and I are both middle school teachers, and this means that we spend a lot of time talking about teaching. (Sometimes this drives my sister crazy.) We teach different subjects (him: English; me: history) at different schools with wildly different populations, so most of the time this leads to productive, interesting conversations that help us deal with problems or revitalize our curricula.* And for the past few years, we’ve also been talking a lot about reading and writing.
Josh teaches according to the workshop model developed by Lucy Calkins at Columbia University Teachers College. It’s all about kids doing the authentic work of the discipline, which in this case is reading and writing, and making choices about what to do. Students might meet with a book club to discuss the last few chapters they all read, or revise a short story they’ve been working on. Writing in the workshop classroom follows a specific sequence of steps. First, you collect ideas. Then you develop, draft and revise. Finally it’s time to publish, which could be anything from sharing your work with five people in school to submitting to a literary magazine.
It sounds very similar to the traditional format I was taught (brainstorm, outline, draft, revise, publish), except for the “collecting” and “developing” phases. This is more free-form than brainstorming and outlining, as impossible as that might sound (what’s more free-form than brainstorming?). Whereas I grew up jotting down words and phrases and maybe drawing a concept web or two in the brainstorming phase, in collecting you can make outlines, write character sketches, do research, write a few paragraphs of description, draw, whatever helps you collect those ideas. Eventually you’ll develop those ideas into a plan, maybe with an outline or something else that makes sense for the project. Then you’ll use that plan to draft your piece. If you find you have to go back to the collecting phase when you’re doing developing, that’s okay. You’re allowed to be flexible.
I’ve been doing this unconsciously with my own writing for years, but in a haphazard, agonizingly unproductive way. I would do only historical research and call myself ready to write, only to find the characters flat and uninteresting, and have to go back to the drawing board. I would collect ideas for a week and dive into the first fifty pages of a draft, only to find the plot messy and convoluted and have to make another outline.
Since I started talking with Josh about it, though, I’ve been much more deliberate. While I’m still dealing with my own impatience, I’m learning to respect the process of collecting and developing. With my latest WIP, I spent a few weeks just collecting (everything from going down the Wikipedia rabbit hole to listing song titles to jotting down character traits), even though I was dying to start writing immediately. I developed those ideas into an outline, reworking ideas until they felt okay. When I finally started to draft, things still felt misshapen and badly formed, so I spent more time collecting, making outlines and character sketches and revisiting CD mixes from my high school years. Now, maybe the third time trying to draft, things are finally starting to feel good, and I’ve seen yet again how important it is to let those ideas and possibilities marinate before drafting.
I read once that Judy Blume fills a notebook with everything she knows about her current project and characters before she starts writing. And I’m discovering that I need to do that, too. As impatient as I am to get to the drafting phase, collecting and developing are crucial steps towards understanding my story. And if we’re being honest, listening to mixes from your adolescence is its own brand of weird fun.
*Yep, I’m a nerd.