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Children and memoir writing: A surprising creative writing experience at the library


Recently I visited the East 38th Street Public Library of the Indianapolis library system. I was teaching for the Indiana Writers’ Center: “Memory Writing for Adults.” The Indianapolis Public Library was sponsoring a series of workshops this year at various branches.

Arriving in time to set up the hour-and-a-half workshop in the common room of the library out on Indianapolis’s east side, I awaited for the participants. This would be a group of what is usually ten to twelve adults wishing to write about their families or their own early lives, to learn the skills of recalling the past and putting it into readable prose with word pictures of scenes remembered.

The hour came and went; nobody. For some reason the workshop hadn’t been publicized or—more likely at this time there was no interest from the community.
But—never mind! The head librarian came in within five minutes with a group of fifteen children and their three mentoring adults. It was an after-school tutoring class from a local charter school, the local Tindley Academy. “You can teach this group,” the library told me. She plunked down pieces of paper and some markers and pens.

I looked at the unexpected workshop, cute kids from a tiny little guy in a suit, a four-year-old to a somewhat bored-seeming teenager of 14.
Ever the teacher, having taught all ages in my twenty-three years, from kindergarten through college, I rearranged the curriculum in my mind and started talking. The kids were well behaved, used to respecting the adults (former teachers who now mentored this after-school program where homework could be done or some students tutored).
“You all have memories. Can you remember your first one?” I asked and then shared mine.
Yes, they could, or at least they could come up with holiday memories from their earliest days: Halloweens when they were ballerinas or lions, Christmas when the lights wouldn’t work for a while and then the whole room came to life sparkling with color. Cake eaten with baby hands. Maybe that was a parent memory, but that was fine too.
“Now we’ll write a story about this memory you have. Put in how the scene looked, what the tree smelled like, whether it was hot or cold, what sounds were around.” One boy’s father had been taken downtown and had shared many memories of what Indianapolis looked and sounded like then; that was fine.

The little four-year-old couldn’t write about his memory of course, but he could draw a little picture.

kidsmemoryOne girl, shown in this picture, kept writing and writing, asking how to spell words and pouring out her remembrances. Three pages soon showed up in front of her.
When an hour was up, we shared the stories. How much pleasure it gave me as the impromptu teacher, and, I suppose, the three mentors, who liked having something different happen in their afternoons. Parents arrived to pick these cuties up and I found the time had flown.

Children are natural story tellers. If we can catch them early enough, we can preserve that love of remembering, thinking things up, imagining and inventing that will make good writers out of them.

Nancy Niblack Baxter is Senior Editor at Hawthorne Publishing. Click back to the website to see her prize-winning historical novels and non-fiction books about Indiana history.