"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Saturday, July 23, 2011

There are lessons to be learned everywhere

I know I usually post more often than I have recently, and I apologize for anyone who now thinks I'm some kind of deadbeat. "Dead meat" is more the way I feel. I just completed teaching my second horse camp of the summer. I have one more to teach in two weeks, after which I will breathe a huge sigh of "It's over", even though I do like teaching the kiddos.

When I began teaching the camps, we usually had 12-18 campers for each two-week session. For whatever reason, the camp, while recommended by many, has decreased in enrollment, so that we've actually cancelled some camps. I think the economy has a lot to do with it, along with a general fear among some parents that horses are not a safe activity. (Ed. note: some parents are wimps.)

So this year, I am running three one-week camps. They are simpler and easier on me. The kids still ride horses and have fun. It's all good.

My last camp had four kids, all girls. Two of them are current students. The other two had never been on a horse.

The two students are a year apart in age, but worlds apart in how they approach their learning. The older girl is naturally athletic, fearless, and loves to learn. I remind her to slow down and enjoy what she's doing, as she can get pretty intense to reach her own imaginary finish line. She got along well with the other campers, but she's not what I would call a social butterfly. She's a steady-eddie kind of gal, a good sport, easy to hang out with and not worry about the conversation.

The (slightly) younger girl spent quite some time acting like each lesson was brand new to her. I often wondered if she was ever going to do more than walk her horse on the rail, oversteering left, then right, until the pair looked like they'd hit one too many bars. She was also silent as the grave. Over time, she thawed out and began talking. And talking. AND talking. I called her my little chatterbox, she had so many completely random things to say. Then one amazing day, she got it. She got her horse ready, hopped on, and rode. Straight, circles, around cones and over poles, as if she knew how to make the horse go where she wanted. At camp, she was happy and confident, reaching out to the other girls in friendship, whether it was returned or not.

One of the beginners was a six-year old who was cute as a button and, well, six years old. Very verbal, with the attention span of a gnat with ADD. Someone had to walk beside her horse at all times, because she was prone to forget where her horse was supposed to go and instead let Wendy stroll off to eat the rose bushes. ("Why is Wendy eating the roses? Don't the thorns hurt?") She tended to be afraid when it would get her a little attention, pouted when she was asked to be patient, but got over most of her fears and disappointments easily. She also liked to talk to everyone - all the time.

The fourth girl, also new to horses, was from another state, visiting family. At the ripe old age of eleven, she had already slipped to the edge of teenaged ennui. Her entire vibe said she was too cool for childhood. We had a few talks about kindness, because she wanted to belittle both the younger girls and my counselors. My normal goal of having them learn something about horses was replaced, for this girl, with trying to help her be a kid again and find her sense of wonder about life. Social interactions bounced between boredom and patronizing. On the last day, she almost fell off her horse, and secretly, I almost let her.

But that would be mean and irresponsible, even if I did think of it as a teaching moment.

I drove home after the last day thinking about the group, and my own childhood. We had these kids on my playground, too. Some of them wanted to be social and some didn't. Some were unpleasant to be around because they were so smug. Some were plain old bullies. Each day we had two recesses and a lunch period to learn how to interact with them. So we did, by playing, fighting, making up, and making do.

These days, some schools are cutting recess out altogether. It's not essential learning time, according to some educators. I would disagree. It's fundamental to learning how to talk to other people, how to deal with people who think and behave differently. We grow up and have to work with these people, have to serve and be served by these people. Where else do we learn to get along?

I know you're wondering what this has to do with writing, but in my head, this has everything to do with writing. At the heart of all stories is conflict. I worked all week among four girls to reduce conflict, because it makes a difficult camp experience, even if it makes a great story. But I could take these personalities, either keep them young or grow them up, and give them something to fight, and possibly bond, over.

My buddy, Michele Scott, has just expanded and re-released a book on writing. It's titled, aptly, "A Writer's Workshop" and is a simple guide to some of the things she has used through the years to go from an idea to a finished novel. I love Michele's storytelling. It's a joy to sit and talk to her and think of storylines - her creativity is inspiring.

But what I really like in this book are her worksheets. For each character, she builds a list of questions about what they like, where they went to school, their family structure, their astrological sign. She uses these to find out about the people in her story before she ever starts writing.

When I was writing Hit or Missus, my first draft kind of sucked. It took me a couple of reads to realize that, while I had my recurring cast of characters nailed, my guest stars were just a big, beige mob. No individuals, no unique qualities, among any of them. I went back to each person and looked into their lives, determined their moral boundaries and motives, until I could distinguish each voice in the story.

I learned my lesson.

For the next book I've started, I went back to my conference notes and dug out Michele's worksheets. I began journaling each new character, building their backstory, along with the background of the crimes to be committed in the book. I'm not quite finished, but I know, by the time I am, I won't just know my cast, I'll know where everyone fits in the novel. The writing will go smoother.

So if you're a writer, save yourself from my mistakes. Buy Michele's book and see how her techniques can help you tell a better tale.


Helen Ginger said...

I love the way you handled the kids in your riding groups.

I do a bit of profiling on my characters, but not as deeply as you, it sounds like.

Gayle Carline said...

Kids are funny. Sometimes I'm successful at dealing with them, and sometimes I suck.

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