“I don’t know what to write about.” This is often the first thing I hear when beginning a writing workshop with middle graders. It’s also a subject dear to my heart. Because the best techniques I know to help youngsters find a story they’re excited about are the same ones I’ve used with teenagers and adults. Yes, my students have ranged from third graders to senior citizens. But although they are diverse in age, experience and ability, when we talk about how to find a great story, the most important tools I use with all of them are the same, Seminal Experience and Spiritual Geography.
In her book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Author Kathleen Norris, defines spiritual geography as the way our external geography, or landscape, shapes our internal geography. When I work with middle graders and teenagers, I explain spiritual geography as a place that helped shape their lives and their character thus far. Some of my students have written about the countries they emigrated from, their neighborhoods, apartment buildings, and schools. Others have written about a library, a basketball court, a subway line, and a fire escape.
In much the same way, seminal experience—an event that has contributed to who a person is inside—can teach young people to write reflectively. My current crop of teenagers is writing about subjects that include the betrayal of a friend, being understood by a grandparent, overcoming a health challenge, and struggling to learn English. Their writing teaches them to better understand and appreciate their lives. They are learning what makes them happy and unhappy.
My favorite anecdote about a seminal experience comes from award-winning author Katherine Paterson. In her book, Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children, Ms. Paterson remembers the February 14th when she was in first grade, and came home from school without a single valentine. She writes: My mother grieved over this event until her death, asking me once why I didn’t write a story about the time I didn’t get any valentines.“But Mother,” I said, “all my stories are about the time I didn’t get any valentines.”
Here is a start on the many wonderful works of autobiographical fiction by MG Authors. You’re welcome to add your favorites in the comments section below.
Some Great Autobiographical Fiction
Bridge to Terabithia — Katherine Paterson
Lucky Broken Girl — Ruth Behar
El Deafo — Cee Cee Bell
Brown Girl Dreaming — Jacqueline Woodson
Hello, Universe — Erin Entrada Kelly
Inside Out and Back Again — Thanhha Lai
The Crossover — Kwame Alexander
One Crazy Summer — Rita Williams Garcia
Better Nate Than Ever — Tim Federle
When Pirates Came to Brooklyn — Phyllis Shalant (a.k.a. Annabelle Fisher—that’s me!)