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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Learning to write by writing with kids: my Bedminster story

On a bookshelf here I have a booklet with a faded blue cover and the title “I Wish Truth Could Be a Wish” — Student Writings from the Bedminster School 1977-78. I had spent a weekly lunch period, that year, leading a writing workshop with a group of students in the small K-8 school in Bedminster, N.J., a town best-known today for having a Trump club. I was on my first job as a reporter, covering Bedminster for the weekly Bernardsville News, when I got involved with the local school. At the year’s end my publisher, Cort Parker, kindly offered to print a collection of the students’ work. I’m paging through my old copy now, remembering.

When someone at the Bedminster School suggested the project, I thought why not? Even though I had about one year’s professional writing experience at that point, I figured I’d go in and share all that was important to me about this important work. I may have mentioned The Elements of Style. The kids stared at me, and fidgeted.

This went on for another session or two, until some kind soul suggested that the students had come to a writing workshop to write — and that I might look into Wishes, Lies and Dreams, a book by a poet, Kenneth Koch, who had taught poetry writing in New York City schools. Koch had sort of stumbled onto his first idea, which was to invite each student to write a poem whose every line began “I wish,” and to make the wishes either real or crazy. I went in the next week and said we’d try this, and the kids all grabbed paper and started to write.

The title of the collection I pulled together at year’s end came from the last line of one boy’s fine poem; and that day was just the start. Each week I’d come in with another idea to take off on (I didn’t know the word “prompts”; I didn’t really know anything), and they’d just go. We wrote about cheese, places we’d never been, fruits we’d never heard of. “I criticized very little — told them not to worry about rhyme, paragraphs, spelling, that we could fix the mistakes up later,” I wrote in a wordy introduction to our booklet. “I did not believe I could or should replace the conventional teaching style ... I believed, or hoped, I could reinforce in my students the child’s natural delight in writing, to help them survive all the years of learning to write well.”

I don’t know if any of my long-ago students got anything from our time that stayed with them — but I did. Writing is scary. It’s risky, it’s revealing yourself. Our sessions helped me learn how to deal with that: look for a way to begin, let go of what you think you know, and just start. I’ve been just-starting for a long time now. Each day it’s new, and generally it’s still scary. I try to do as the kids did, and just start anyway.

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