…But I Play One in the Classroom


Photo used with permission, cc licence, Seattle Municipal Archives

We all wear a lot of hats in our lives. The newest hat I’ve squeezed on my head has writer written along the brim. While I’ve been writing novels for close to nine years now, it’s still a relatively new role for me, and it’s only been recently that I can comfortably answering ‘writer’ when someone asks me what I do for a living.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of 6th grade students in our neighborhood middle school for a Q&A session about my young adult book, THE BETWEEN. Their English teacher had taught my now college-aged son and I’ve always held him in extremely high regard. Mr. D is an enthusiastic, creative, and wonderfully supportive teacher who helps his students discover their own love of literature and language. When he asked me if I would be willing to speak with his students, I jumped at the chance.

Then I found out he had purchased several copies of the book for his classroom and students had used it as part of their work learning to be analytic readers.

There are milestone moments in anyone’s life and this was one of mine. I’ve always dreamed of having something I created used in a classroom. (Actually, my ultimate writing fantasy is to sashay in to a college classroom and tell the professor what I really meant by [fill in the blank] from my poem/novel/essay. I always hated the certainty of some teachers in their literary interpretations. This was not the issue in Mr. D’s class.) Seeing student worksheets filled out with my book’s title and my name as the author made it feel real to me in a way that simply publishing the novel had not.

These students were engaged, articulate, and thoughtful. They asked insightful questions, both about the novel, the world of publishing, and my writing process. I do think I may have daunted them a bit when I told them I had just finished the fourth revision of a project and pulled out a thick sheaf of paper with my handwritten notes all over the manuscript. I probably ended up with changes across about 25% of the text–and remember–revision number four. (I suspect their teacher wanted to stand up and cheer!)

We had an interesting discussion about how to revise and the differences between reading on a screen and reading off paper for that process. (I do some of both, depending on what stage the project is in.) I also made sure to tell them that there wasn’t any one right way to go from initial idea to ‘the end’–only what worked for them and got stories completed. (You’re never too young to reject dogma.)

My favorite moment of the conversation was when I talked about how one idea can give rise to radically different books and that if each of them were to take the core idea from THE BETWEEN, they would each write completely individual stories. I saw a lot of nodding and smiling. It turns out that their teacher does a project where they examine multiple editions of Beowulf, making inferences about the story from the cover alone and before they read it. Then they each write their own version of Beowulf based on those inferences. I suspect they were surprised at how many distinct versions of the story emerged from that project.

The level of sophistication among these young readers (and writers) thoroughly impressed me. I suspect that we will see some of these eager students represented on the shelves of bookstores in coming decades.

After this experience, I am proud to say I am a writer and I can play one in the classroom.

–LJ Cohen

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5 responses to “…But I Play One in the Classroom

  1. Sheesh. And I call myself a writer. Typo alert in the first paragraph: “and it’s only been recently that I can comfortably ANSWER ‘writer’ when someone asks me what I do for a living.”

  2. raymondbolton

    Don’t you just hate those? I think the author ought to be able to edit her typos, but no. It’s a wordpress conspiracy. I’m certain I typed a E, but wordpress turned hate into hat. Grrrrrrrrrrrr!

    All that aside, what a wonderful experience you had. I suspect even more amazing for the class was to have the author visit. Especially at that age, books and the people who write them are fantastic things that magically appear shelves and populate their imaginations. A visit by the author would be almost on a scale as a visit by the protagonist.

    Hope you have another such opportunity. The uniform becomes you!

  3. Like you LJ, I was almost an apologist when someone asked what I did. I’d feel more comfortable saying “I write,” rather than “I’m a writer.” The latter seemed too pretentious for some reason. Now that I’ve published a book, I can say “I’m a writer” a bit more easily, but until I can get out another book, I rarely say “I’m an author.” That’s the next hurdle.
    Good post,

    eden

  4. Brilliant blog, LJ!

  5. LJ, it sounds like you and the kids had an amazing time.

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