Whenever I prepare to talk to kids, regardless of the subject, I think about what they’ll find interesting. I consider what will grab their attention and hold it beyond five minutes – much like a writer must captivate readers from the very first page of a novel and keep them turning the pages. So when I spoke to three 5th grade classes about my career as a journalist and writer a few months ago, I didn’t start talking to them about why I became a writer or what I love about my job. I began by asking how many of them had ever been to Disney World.
As hoped, most of their hands flew up. Then I began asking each eager hand-raiser a specific question. What was your favorite ride? Why? Did anything unusual happen during your visit? What? What was the best part of the trip? The worst? Before they knew it, I had demonstrated how a journalist gathers information by asking people all kinds of questions. The more engaging the questions, the more detailed and thoughtful the answers. And they were hooked, listening to me as I explained that the details they were telling me about their individual vacations were what made stories worth telling. Whether the story was a real-life account of someone’s experience or a made-up tale with characters from lands that only exist in the head of the creator, those details were what made stories worth reading.
Then the real magic began to happen. The kids began asking me questions – terrific, specific, thoughtful questions. Our conversation quickly turned into a discussion about how everyone has a story to tell. Each of them had ridden the same rides, watched the same shows and met the same famous mouse at Disney World. Yet, each of them experienced those things in their own unique way. A boy who had to wait 30 minutes to get off a ride that stalled mid-way through had a very different experience than a girl who rode it for the 10th time in a row without incident. The 9-year-old girl who got pulled up on stage to sing with a Disney princess had a much different take on the show than her 13-year-old brother who had to suffer through it already so he could go back to the Tower of Terror. And before the classes even realized it, we had covered the power of point of view and how compelling stories with empathetic characters will carry readers through to the last word written.
I spoke to the 5th graders for their Career Day back in December. But it wasn’t until last week, when their teacher delivered to me some belated thank you notes from them, that I realized how much I had inspired them. In one note, a girl shared some details of a story she was writing and asked my opinion as to whether it was a story I would want to read. Another said she was encouraged to interview her friends to lend authenticity to her writing. A handful asked me to write back to them to answer some specific questions they had. Many of them asked where they could read more things I had written. Their letters came at a time that I needed a super-sized dose of encouragement. And, man, did they ever deliver it. If I can inspire kids simply by talking about writing, imagine how I might touch their lives by writing something they want to read? What more motivation does any writer need?