I teach creative writing to children as part of an after-school enrichment program. One child, let’s call him Burt, is a bit obsessed with bodily functions. Burt wrote a story entitled, “The Battle of Pooey Land.”
As a teacher, I try to pull out the story that’s buried deep beneath all the references to ‘poo’. I know kids must explore this part of life, and some get into it to the point they must write about it. As long as there’s a plot going on, a story that comes full circle, then I can ignore the gory detail.
However, I have my limits.
Burt used a fellow writing student (who’s also his so-called friend) as a character in his story. He did not change his friend’s name in the story, but I’ll refer to the friend as Ernie.
Burt wrote a scene where Ernie was captured by a band of poo soldiers, tied up, and peed on in a variety of ways.
I was appalled.
Now, maybe I’m reading into this story too much. Maybe I’m overreacting. After all, it’s a fictional story and Burt’s making things up. Right?
I pulled Burt aside, and I told him he couldn’t use his friend’s name in the story. I explained to him that because the character is mistreated in the story and there isn’t any difference between character Ernie and real-life Ernie, anyone reading it would guess he was writing about joyfully peeing on his real-life friend. I asked him to think about Ernie’s feelings and whether he thought Ernie would feel privileged that he was a part of Burt’s story, or embarrassed.
Writing has always been a form of escape for me, and I know that’s true for a lot of people. When I was a kid, I wrote stories for fun where I used both friends and enemies as characters – and I didn’t change the names. But I kept those stories private. The times I wrote a story for school, I was certainly careful about what I wrote.
In my class, we share the stories. I type, print and bind them. Then they are displayed in the school library. Teachers, students, staff, and parents read the stories. In essence, my writing students are experiencing what it’s like to have a ‘published’ story that’s read by the general public. The difference between writing for fun and writing for the public means we have to be careful with our content.
I don’t want to censor kids. I don’t want to hinder their creative process or ban their imaginations. I want to encourage them to write freely and to learn different skills and to be proud of themselves when they complete a story that they can share with others.
I know that I can’t stop Burt from writing about Ernie on his own time, for ‘fun.’ But I can teach him about taking responsibility for his subject matter.
Burt may only be 8 years old, but it’s important to always write with respect, even if the story is about Pooey Land.
Have you ever put real-life people in your fictional stories? Did you disguise them?