For parents, teachers and librarians, we know that reading to kids, bringing them to libraries and bookstores to choose books they’re interested in and generally being enthusiastic about reading are all ways to spark a lifelong love of reading. What about writing? How do you spark that passion, too? Whether it’s a kid who already loves telling stories or one who’s a bit hesitant about putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), Ellen Potter and Anne Mazer have figured out how to spark writing love. They’re the co-authors of the highly-regarded Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook. I spoke with them recently about what the act of writing provides for kids, the wonders of collaboration and why “works-in-progress are as fragile as a soap bubble.”
Mixed-Up Files: Was SPILLING INK aimed at kids that love to write and want to write more, or for kids who might need a little push to get their pen and paper out?
Ellen: Both, actually.
Anne: We wanted to address the needs of both groups of kids –reluctant AND enthusiastic writers. We wanted to open a pathway for every kid to express his or her imagination through writing. It’s incredibly satisfying to hear from kids who previously hated writing and now love it; and it’s also satisfying to hear from kids who already loved writing and feel validated and supported by our book. We’ve heard from them all!
MUF: What inspired you to write this book?
Ellen: It was Anne’s idea, and the moment she proposed it to me, I knew it was brilliant. For years, both of us had been receiving loads of emails from kids, asking us questions about writing. These young writers were desperate for answers. “What do I do when I get writers’ block?” “How do I make my characters feel real?” “I can’t figure out how to end my story.” Anne suggested writing a book that answered all their questions in a fun, engaging, and honest way. Ultimately, we wanted to write the kind of book that both of us would have loved when we were kids.
Anne: Ellen and I both have so much joy in writing. Too often writing is experienced as boring or painful. From our many years of writing, we felt we knew how to make it more intuitive and natural. We wanted to transmit our joy to young writers.
MUF: What makes writing such a wonderful activity for kids during their middle school years?
Ellen: Of course, I think writing is wonderful for people of all ages! For middle schoolers, though, creative writing can be particularly powerful. When you write, you are building worlds, exploring motives, deciding on paths of action. What a great way to discover what you believe and what you value! Also, writing is a slow activity. It forces your mind to settle and focus, which heaven knows is something we all need, now more than ever.
Anne: Writing is a wonderful activity for every age. But especially in middle school, when there are so many things to sort out and when you’re struggling to find your way. My middle school years were the hardest of my life. (I still think so!) But I remember the pride and pleasure I had in writing stories at that age. Writing doesn’t have to be all about imagination, though. It can help you clarify your thoughts and feelings. It can be a friend when you need one; someone to talk to. It can also be a way to connect with other people.
MUF: How should a parent try to nurture a love of writing, or is that possible or do you more suggest parents hang back and let kids take the lead on this?
Ellen: I think that the best way to nurture a love of writing is to encourage a love of reading. Reading to your child well into their middle school years forms such a viscerally pleasurable connection to reading, which can lead to a love of writing. You can’t force that desire to write, though. Believe me, I’ve tried. My 10-year-old son isn’t naturally drawn to writing. For him, it’s a chore. That used to worry me. How could the child of a writer have zero interest in writing? Yet this past summer, we found an injured seagull near our house. We took it home and tried to nurse it back to health. The poor thing only lived a few hours. We gave it a burial at sea. When we got home, my son was silent, thoughtful. He was obviously very moved by the experience, but didn’t want to talk about it. Instead, he sat down and wrote it out as a story. That avenue of expression was open to him, it had been all along, and he turned to it when he most needed it.
Anne: The best way to nurture a love of anything is to model it. So parents who wish to nurture a love of writing in their offspring should enjoy writing themselves. But don’t force it! Kids can always tell the difference between genuine enthusiasm and a parent with an agenda. You can also nurture a love of reading, or of storytelling, or language, or curiosity about the world. All these things feed into writing.
MUF: For teachers/librarians, would advice might you give to spark passionate writers and help hesitant or shy writers push past their reluctance?
Ellen: I think one of the most freeing things for young writers is for them to realize that writing is hard for everyone, even professional writers. Getting frustrated is normal. Getting stuck is normal. I get stuck on a daily basis. Actually, strike that. I get stuck on an hourly basis.
Young writers should also know that first drafts are typically awful. If they could see the first drafts of their favorite books, they would probably be shocked. Expecting perfection the first time around is unreasonable. Luckily, we have a handy little thing called “revision.”
Anne: You have to find out who the person is. Then connect writing to the individual’s interests, experiences, and feelings. Try to help them find something that they want to write about. You have to sometimes get creative to help someone connect to his or her creativity.
MUF: What are some big don’ts when it comes to keeping kids enthusiastic about writing — have you seen adults say or do just the wrong thing? Like what?
Ellen: I think it’s helpful to figure out which part of writing comes most naturally to an individual child. Sometimes a child has a great narrative voice. Or maybe she can create suspenseful scenes. Maybe his dialogue is really funny. Point out their strengths. Let them know what works best in their writing. If you must critique, be gentle. For those of you who have ever been in a writing group, you know that even adults find critiques of their writing difficult to hear. These young writers are learning a very challenging craft. Give them space to make a muddle of it while they’re figuring it out.
Anne: When adults say or do the wrong thing, it usually reflects their misunderstanding of the writing process. Unfortunately, kids don’t know this. They see adults as the authority, so they give their words great power. It’s far too easy to destroy someone’s confidence in the early stages of writing. If you want to really help your kids with writing, start doing some serious writing yourself. You will quickly see how difficult, confusing and chaotic the process is, and how vulnerable you become. You might also experience the joy, playfulness, and connection that writing can bring. Once you have a taste of what writing really involves, you will be far more sensitive to what a young writer goes through.
MUF: Middle school is an age where kids often start to feel self-conscious in front of peers, and that can often stifle creativity. What do you suggest for a child who wants to write but is nervous about what other people say?
Ellen: It’s the same advice I would give to an adult writer. Works-in-progress are as fragile as a soap bubble. One harsh or overly critical word and it all goes SPLAT! Writers need to be choosey about who sees their works-in-progress. If a child is anxious to share his or her work with someone, I suggest that they tell that reader exactly what they want to know. For instance, the young writer could say, “I want to know what you think of my main character.” Or “Is there any part of the story that doesn’t make sense?” They can coach their reader into giving them feedback that is helpful and not discouraging.
Also journal writing is often perfect for middle school kids. It’s private, you can spill your guts or explore story ideas and no one but you ever needs to see it.
Anne: I think every writer should have the right to keep their work to themselves, if they wish. Let them know that they can share if and when they’re ready. Another idea is for the student to find a group of like-minded peers and to share work within that group. Or find a writing buddy. All these are good options for shy or self-conscious students.
MUF: When it comes to reading, are there certain books you think young writers might particularly love, perhaps because they feature writers as main characters or have something about them that makes kids want to write themselves?
Anne: Every single book that I’ve loved has made me want to write. And that’s a LOT of books, by now. Go to the library. Read as much and as widely as you can. It will nurture you as a writer.
MUF: Can you talk a bit about what you do at the official SPILLING INK website and why people should come check it out?
Ellen: The Spilling Ink website is really a treasure trove for young writers. We regularly host writing contest for children and teens. Winners are awarded gift cards and their stories are posted on our site. We also offer writing prompts, book club ideas, and a list of magazines that publish children’s stories. We’re very proud of our site and have gotten amazing feedback about it from teachers who use it in the classroom.
Anne: Ellen and I have worked very hard to assemble some excellent resources for young writers – from where to publish your work to how to start a writing club. There are bookmark and poster downloads, new “I Dare You’s,” writing contests, and more, – and it’s all free!
MUF: Lastly, how was it working on this project together? Is collaborating something you’d suggest to younger writers, too?
Ellen: Working with Anne on Spilling Ink was one of the highlights of my writing career. I had never collaborated with anyone before, so I was a little nervous at the beginning. I wasn’t sure how it was supposed to work. It didn’t take long, though, to see that the collaboration would be dreamy. We just had so much fun! Also, we share a mutual admiration for each other’s work and a respect for each other’s opinion, both of which are crucial for a collaborative team. I still run most of my own manuscripts by Anne first. She has an impeccable editorial eye.
Many young writers are naturally drawn to collaborations with their friends. I think it can foster a healthy approach to writing. It takes the focus off the individual writer and puts it squarely on the story itself. Plus, when the story hits a rough patch, two heads are almost always better than one. The key to successful collaborations, in my opinion, is to pick a partner whom you respect and trust.
Anne: Working with Ellen was the best. In fact, it was so good that I didn’t want to go back to my usual solo writing gig. For a while, I really hated writing my own books (fortunately, I’ve gotten over that). I said earlier that we wanted to transmit our joy in writing to young writers. Joy is a word I associate with every aspect of Spilling Ink. We had a lot of joy working together.
Collaboration can be wonderful for kids; they can really support and inspire each other. But it’s very important to find the right partner. The partners need a creative connection; they should spark each other’s imagination. Each partner needs to feel like an equal.