Teachers Write 7.28.16 Thursday Quick-Write with Laurie Ann Thompson

Good morning! Today’s Thursday Quick-Write shines a light on nonfiction – something our guest author Laurie Ann Thompson does beautifully. Laurie is the author of BE A CHANGEMAKER: HOW TO START SOMETHING THAT MATTERS and EMMANUEL’S DREAM: THE TRUE STORY OF EMMANUEL OFOSU YEBOAH. 

Writing From the Heart: Putting Yourself Into Your Story

I worked on draft after draft of the text that eventually became Emmanuel’s Dream—a true story about a man from Ghana with a disabled leg—for six years before I landed my agent and two more years after that before the manuscript finally sold. I’d done all my research and had written a competent biography. People read it and enjoyed it. But the most common feedback I received was, “Good writing. Unfortunately, there’s just something missing.”

At various points along that bumpy road to publication, I will admit that I occasionally became discouraged. During one particularly low period, my well- meaning husband said something along the lines of, “Why are you—an able-bodied white woman from Wisconsin—writing this story anyway? Maybe it’s time to drop it and move on.” My first reaction was OUCH, but then I started to wonder… maybe he was right. What did I have in common with Emmanuel? Why did his story affect me so deeply? Why did I feel it was important for children to hear? Could I convey that in a meaningful way?

It turns out these were just the questions I needed to ask in order to come up with a brand-new draft that finally worked. You see, I’d had all the facts in the right order, but what was missing was heart—my heart. I’d been so focused on writing the truth that I’d carefully removed my own feelings from the page. But isn’t real emotion just another kind of truth? And isn’t it, perhaps, the most important kind of truth to share with others? When I finally sat down and got clear about my why for telling that story, the how to tell it best revealed itself almost immediately. For me, it wasn’t a story about having a disability. It was about being counted out, challenging an unfair and discriminatory system, and making the world a better place. With that in mind, the heart of my story became clear.

Since then, I’ve used the same approach for every book I’ve written. For example, for my teen how-to guide, Be a Changemaker: How to Start Something that Matters, my why was the intense yearning to change the world that I had felt as a young person and the frustration and disappointment of not knowing where to begin. For my simple picture book, My Dog Is the Best, it was how important my canine companions have been to me throughout the years, despite their various idiosyncrasies and imperfections. Readers may take their own, different meanings from my books, of course, but they won’t be able to until I’ve purposefully injected the proper bits of myself into the books first.

This all feels like it should be obvious to storytellers, yet clearly it took me years to figure out, and even then I only stumbled upon it by accident. In my school visit presentations, I recommend making every single writing assignment uniquely relevant to you, the author, by finding a way to tie it to your own personal interests and concerns, and there’s always an audible gasp of excitement—from students and teachers alike. And just last week a well-published author whom I admire greatly was discussing her struggles with her current work in progress. When I asked what her why was for writing it in the first place, she said she’d never thought about it that way before but couldn’t wait to apply it to her next round of revision!

So, in case it wasn’t obvious to you either, here’s an opportunity to get good and clear on your why and put the missing pieces of you into your work.

Today’s assignment:

Prompt 1: Go somewhere quiet and calm your mind. Turn off your busy brain and focus on your deepest emotions. Think about your current work in progress, if you have one. If not, think about something you’ve already written for Teachers Write. If you haven’t started writing yet, just think about why you want to write in the first place. Now journal for ten minutes about the following questions:

 Why must you tell this story?

 What are you really writing about?

 Why do you care so much?

 What meaning are you trying to create for yourself?

Optional: Once you’ve completed that exercise, go back and look at your work in progress to see if there are ways to put your most authentic self more prominently into your story. Is the work achieving what you’re really wanting it to? Where can you make adjustments that will reveal a bit more of your innermost heart?

Prompt 2: You can also use this basic concept to brainstorm new story ideas!

Write down a list of things that make you feel any kind of strong emotion: happy, sad, scared, angry… you name it. Think about why each item on your list makes you feel the way it does. Is there a story there? Make a document or folder where you can store these kinds of ideas whenever and wherever the emotion strikes!

Whatever you choose to write, feel free to share a paragraph or two in the comments today!

22 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.28.16 Thursday Quick-Write with Laurie Ann Thompson

  1. Laurie, thank you for such an interesting And thoughtful lesson. I am going to tape those reminders up on my desk so I can keep them in the forefront of my mind when writing. It will provide direction and encouragement. Here is just a tiny clip of my WIP a conversation between two characters.

    He looks at me, “My brother will end up in foster care and we won’t be together. Would you want to be separated from your family?”
    My family is miserable and I can’t say that any of us are much good for each other right now but at least we are within arms reach.

    Thanks again.

    1. Hi Martha,
      I’m so happy you found it helpful. Your line “My family is miserable and I can’t say that any of us are much good for each other right now but at least we are within arms reach.” reaches out and grabs my soul. Thank you for sharing, and good luck with your writing!

    1. Susan, I have a friend who went through something like this with her daughter, so I found it really powerful. The mom truly having no idea; the daughter feeling that mom SHOULD have known, the guilt and anger and sadness. The only thing I’d think about is using “like butt and underwear” in this context, although it is a fantastic phrase in general.

      1. I completely agree. It is too serious a moment for such a flippant comparison. Good eye. Thanks!

    2. Hi Susan,

      What a powerful piece. Thank you for sharing! You certainly didn’t leave out the emotion, which is often the hardest thing to incorporate.

      My only feedback is that, to me, it feels like perhaps mom’s thoughts are a bit too wordy and put together for the situation. I imagine my mind would be completely blown and I would be struggling a lot more, along the lines of simply, “When? How? Where was I? They were friends!” In fragments and incomplete, even conflicting, thoughts. Condensing mom’s thoughts and words might also allow the reader to create and experience some of the powerful emotions for themselves, sort of letting them fill in the blanks so they feel them directly rather than being told about them. When they have to ask themselves, “How would I feel in that situation?” they can experience the answer a bit more viscerally. In particular, I think the ending would be even more powerful without the last question. Just end on “guilt” and leave it ringing in our ears, since that’s such a huge one. Maybe even emphasize it more: “Nothing but shock, denial, and… guilt.”

      Those are just some little things that might ratchet it up even more. Of course, I don’t know where the story is heading from there, so it’s quite possible none of this applies in the larger context! As with any feedback, take it with a grain of salt and trust your gut. I do hope you keep working on it, though, as I think there’s real potential here. Best of luck! 🙂

  2. Hi Laurie, Thanks for this post. First, I can’t wait to read Emmanuel’s Dream. I work with English Learners, many of them African immigrants, and there is a dearth of quality literature for young people in which those students can see themselves and their worlds. Second, I love the questions that you pose for writers. This is the very heart of what we do and what we try to teach our students to do as writers, whether the genre is fiction, non-fiction or poetry. Why do we care, and why should anyone else care? If we can’t get at that — whether directly or indirectly — we are more certainly “missing something”. Thanks again for sharing with us today.

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      Yes, it is as the very heart of what we do, and yet it is all too easy to get so caught up with craft and mechanics that we forget to include it, are too scared to include it, or worse, end up stripping it out in our search for some elusive perfection! Craft and mechanics are important, of course, but they are nothing without heart. Thanks for adding your voice!

  3. I don’t have a WIP, but I daydream about writing about living in Latvia in the early 1990s, and this exercise helped me to see that the country and I were in similar stages of development at that time–striking out on our own, excited about the potential.

    1. Sounds like something interesting. Even though you haven’t written anything down, I would say you actually do have a WIP. If you’ve thought enough about it to flesh that out, the only thing missing is the work on paper. I encourage you to just start and see where it takes you.

    2. Ooh, I love that, Wendy! What a fascinating starting premise to write from and develop. And I agree with Susan, it sounds like you DO have a WIP! I’ve slowly come to the realization that most of my writing time happens in my head. I hate doing first drafts, so I like to have everything well thought out ahead of time so I can just charge right on through that most intimidating step. Don’t ever underestimate your thinking/stewing/processing time. It’s a necessary part of the creative cycle for all of us!

  4. I am feeling tired today, so my list is short. It’s a poem because I have been working on poetry this summer.


    News makes me mad and sad right now
    So much hatred, so much anger, so much intolerance
    Why can’t we just all get along?
    Summer makes me happy
    Time for me and my projects
    Time to rest, relax, rejuvenate
    And, of course, plenty of planning and prepping for next year
    IB training makes me tired and excited
    So much learning, so much information
    So excited to implement all my new learning
    Energized for the new school year
    Reading makes me happy
    I love getting taken into the story
    A lot of time to read and read and read
    Lots of good suggestions for my students next year
    Driving in Austin is frustrating
    So much time in traffic
    Sitting, sitting, sitting
    Hot, hot, hot
    Just want to get home

    1. Andrea,
      This is nice. I love the contrasts and push and pull from good feelings to bad and back again, especially in the “IB training makes me tired and excited” line. Funny how we can get such conflicting emotions simultaneously, and from the same situation, isn’t it? I also really like the repetition at the end “Sitting, sitting, sitting / Hot, hot, hot.” So simply stated, but oh can we all relate to that feeling. Thanks for sharing! =D

  5. These past few days, I went through my old diaries, there were multiple of them, and read about my life in the 90s and middle school/ high school. Most of it was literally telling what I was doing in my life daily and what boy I liked and who was my best friend, etc.
    I feel like there could be some valuable details in there that I could write about, but I am not sure what. I found some old awesome concert ticket stubs in there and VHS tapes and a framed picture of Jonathan Taylor Thoma.
    Any ideas on how I can turn this into a writing piece?!

    1. Jennifer,

      How lucky that you still have all of those! My advice would be think about the emotions behind the entries. Can the entries serve to remind you what you were feeling at that time? What do you remember to this day but DIDN’T write down then–and why didn’t you? Look for changes… between which boys you liked, for example–what caused the switch? Or a change in who was your best friend… that can be HUGE at that age! So, try to remember what you feeling when you wrote the entries (or didn’t!) and why it mattered. Another thought might be, if you’re around kids that age today, to think about how your life was different from theirs, as well as how it is still the same.

      I wish you much luck, and hope they turn out to be a treasure trove you can use to get back in touch with your tween/teen self!

  6. Laurie,
    I’m coming to this a day late (because I was working with my friend yesterday on our WIP!). This exercise couldn’t have come at a more perfect time for me. My friend and I are working on a picture book biography that is now on it’s third draft, and we’ve been working to get at the heart of the story. We’ve been struggling to tell the story in a way that really let’s the theme shine through, rather than just a series of interesting anecdotes. This exercise helped.

    I love Emmanuel’s Dream! I used it with 5th graders in my library this year and it prompted some great discussions!

    1. Susan,

      Thank you so much for your kind words about Emmanuel’s Dream! FYI, I love doing Skype Q&As with classrooms, so just let me know if you ever want me to make a brief appearance in your classroom. I’d love to hear some of those discussions! 🙂

      I’m also thrilled to hear that the exercise was helpful and timely. When I was getting frustrated with Emmanuel’s Dream (on about draft 21!), I asked a talented author friend to take a look at it for me. One of her comments sticks with me to this day. She wrote simply, “Where’s the emotion?” That has become my guiding principle.

      Good luck with your biography! It sounds like you’re really making great progress and are well on your way. I hope I get to read it someday! =D