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Monday, March 2, 2020

Story Begets Story

Here are some unrelated facts.

I cure writer’s block by picking up a good book. One of the books currently on my nightstand is about narration. I have two different daughters using two different writing curricula and one mostly just drawing dinosaurs. I am reading a whole stack of books aloud to my kids, and they are reading through a much larger stack of books on their own, and all of them are writing their own secret, magical novels, for fun.

Here’s what I think based on these disparate experiences. If I were going to start over, with a new batch of offspring, I would have several theories.

All times are story time!
1. If you read to them, they will read eventually. I wouldn’t invest a lot of time in a reading curriculum at all, at least until the child showed that they were ready to read. They do this. You’ll be eating breakfast cereal and they will say, “H….hhhh…hhh… does this say honey?” Or you’ll be reading a book to them and they’ll suddenly stop you and ask, “Which word says ‘Mercy Watson?’” And you’ll point it out. And you’ll know they are ready to start learning to read. But if you read to them in your bed in the morning, and on the couch and on a picnic blanket at the park and in the car and in the dentist’s waiting room and in their bed at night, the moment will come.

2. If you keep reading to them, they will become writers. When your child can read Frog and Toad, it’s not time to stop reading aloud. It’s just time to read Charlotte’s Web. And when they can read The Hobbit by themselves, it’s not time to stop reading aloud. It’s just time to read The Count of Monte Cristo. And when they’re over Shel Silverstein (this may never happen, actually) it’s time for Tennyson and Coleridge. You will know from their vocabulary and syntax in normal conversation that the rhythms and imagery of all these brilliant minds have been seeping into them the whole time.

3. A writing curriculum can’t make a writer. Writing curricula CAN help refine the tools they learn from hearing great books read aloud. Whenever I have had good writing teachers, I find that they give names to things I was already doing, or to things I already loved about my favorite authors. The curricula can help you learn why certain things are compelling, and why other things don’t work. But style can’t be learned this way. It can only be articulated. Style is learned by listening and copying and narrating and just loving the best examples of literary style. Bask in beauty and beauty will be the overflow of your heart.

Each of my girls’ writing classes produce stilted, formulaic papers. This is by design, to study form. But an academic approach can’t teach imagery or subtlety or natural pacing. Good art massages the brain into new shapes, and from these shapes spring unique style. Kids who marinate in literature will already use fluently the tools their teachers diagram in class. Through the curriculum, they learn how to recognize them, and how to name them.

The real teachers of style must be Arnold Lobel and E.B. White and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen and E. Nesbitt and C.S. Lewis and the Brontes. The formation of a literary soul is a mystery. But it is a mystery we can probe comfortably, from beneath a blanket, on a couch, over a good story.


  1. While reading this, I had an "aha" moment. My editor kept encouraging me to describe the scene when we were reworking my book, Flying with Dad. I now know that having been a reader of scenes from 1st grade to now made it possible for me to write more descriptively. Thanks Elizabeth for the blog. It so helps to understand where the creativity was born.

    1. How encouraging! Thanks and congrats on your book!