Tag Archive for Chris Porter

More Backstory: Writing Spider

Teachers often ask about “the writing process.” That’s an uncomfortable thing for me, since it seems fertile ground for pretentiousness. But to answer the question honestly, “my” writing process is the only one I can speak about with any author/ity. I can’t really talk about IT without dragging MYSELF into it. So apologies in advance if I come off as just another self-absorbed, belly-gazing ninny. I’m not, really. Honest. I mean it!

So in the interest of discussing “the” writing process, I have to talk about my own. When I began Along Came Spider, I started by sitting in on a fifth-grade classroom (previously discussed here). At one point, after a few months, I tried a different classroom of fourth-graders taught by Mary Martin at Glenmont Elementary. Now one of the things I love to do is look at everything hanging on the walls. I copy a lot of it down, word for word. One of the posters I found, evidently penned (markered?) by Mary, was this:

CREATING SOME SMILES

Say Something Nice to Someone

You look nice * Hello! * Thanks for your help * Way to go! * Nice day, isn’t it? * A-OK * Bravo! * Well done * You are awesome * Keep up the good work * Remarkable * You rock * I know you can do it * How are you? * Super * You’re the best * Cool!

Somewhere along the line I combined that poster with a specific character and a specific event. The character was Trey Cooper, a boy who struggled with social cues. I imagined what he might make of such a poster, how he might interpret it, find it helpful, or possibly confusing.

Then I remembered a moment in Chris Porter’s classroom, something I had scribbled about in my notebook weeks previously. This is exactly what I wrote on 2/2/07 while in that classroom, here in it’s crude form, lifted from a spiral notebook:

Here’s Ms. Porter getting the class’s attention for a social studies lesson. She’s explaining something when — whirrrrr — you can see the eyes spin in her head like the wheels of a slot machine. She stops and looks, there’s Lee , sharpening a pencil. Ms. Porter had a rule about that, and it made her crazy when it was broken. She gave her students a lot of freedom — they were fifth-graders after all, the crowned kings and queens of Erstwhile Elementary, and, in turn, Ms. Porter expected her students to behave maturely, to act further along the evolutionary spectrum than the chimpanzees they sometimes resembled.

Of course, none of that survived even the first draft of the book — except for the basic dynamic of the scene. Here’s how that scene actually concludes in the final version, Chapter Two, pp. 14-15. Note that I moved the point-of-view closer to the character (now named Trey, not Lee), and away from the adult teacher’s perspective:

Mrs. Wine was looking intently at him, hands on her hips, lips tight, like she was sucking on a Sour Patch Kid. The tips of her ears had gone bright red. Three rhyming words — hips, lips, and tips — all signaled Mrs. Wine’s unhappiness. Trey was getting better at figuring these things out. Hips, lips, tips. Hips, lips, tips.

“Are you finished?” she asked.

Trey thought for a moment, considering Mrs. Wine’s question. He decided that it was a trick question, one that he had better not answer (since, of course — obviously! — he was not finished, nowhere close, for he still had seven pencils to go). At the same time, she expected a response of some kind. Mrs. Wine stood looking at him, that sour expression still on her face, waiting for something.

Thinking of the poster, Trey blurted, “A-OK!”

“Excuse me?”

“Super!” Trey exclaimed, beaming.

“Please take your seat, Trey. We’ll discuss this later.”

“Mrs. Wine,” Trey answered, “you are awesome . . . and you rock!”

Strange, Trey thought as he made his way back to his seat. Mrs. Wine didn’t smile back.

Something must be wrong with that poster.

Finding the Story: Writing Spider

I plan on writing a series of “behind-the-scenes” blog entries about my experience writing the book, Along Came Spider. My writing process, if you will. Sigh. I have to confess that the thought of it makes me want to hurl, since it borders on self-obsession and pretentiousness. I really don’t want to this be about me, per say, but that’s all I’ve got, my story. Here’s how I came to write a single book.

—————-

A few years ago, two editors at Scholastic, Craig Walker and Shannon Penney, came to me with an idea. They wondered if I’d like to try writing for readers who were slightly older than my Jigsaw Jones audience (ages 6-9, approximately). They also hoped that I could make it a school-based story, probably for grades 4-5. I agreed to give it a shot.

But . . . what next?

I didn’t have a grasp on 4th- and 5th-grade classrooms, so that became the first order of business. I couldn’t begin writing until I could speak with author/ity on that world. While writing Jigsaw, I sat in on many, many 2/3 classes; I enjoyed it, learned from it, was inspired by those sessions of silent watching. The ideas came organically, growing from the specificity of that soil. I contacted a local fifth-grade teacher, Chris Porter at Glenmont Elementary, because I’d known her for years, admired her enthusiasm for literature and her commitment to teaching. With openness and warmth, Chris invited me into her classroom, where I was free to visit any time throughout the school year. Over a period of six months, I came and went as I wished, sitting in the back, silently observing. If something particularly cool was going on, Chris might send me a note. Like, oh, “For our Canada unit, we’re making an eight-foot long paper mache moose. It’s a mess, and it’s crazy, and we don’t really have any time to do it, but it’s so much fun! You’ve got to come and see it.”

I didn’t have a story in mind. I didn’t know what I was looking for. My goal was to sit and absorb the goings-on of a lively, creative classroom, and see what comes of it. I saw the flow of the school day, the way things worked. I filled a composition book with random notes, quick character sketches, hair-brained ideas. No story yet, but I was getting a handle on that world. I soon realized that sitting in a well-structured classroom was not nearly enough. I needed to see the students “in the wild,” meaning: recess, the lunch room, gym, on the bus. That is, all the time they were away from Chris’s watchful eye, when they had more freedom to interact, to be themselves, to mess up.

Eventually the themes in this story — which was to become Along Came Spider — began to take hold. I began deeply interested in exclusion and inclusion, in how some kids didn’t quite fit with the larger group. At the younger grades, eccentric behavior was more easily absorbed. But after a few years — second grade, third, fourth — the students become more familiar with each other. I could see how some of them were in danger of becoming increasingly isolated. I could imagine that Middle School could easily become a problem; they were at risk of becoming lost in the crowd, alienated, separate and alone. I didn’t see students who were picked on or bullied. They were just . . . accepted, tolerated, ignored.

When responding to an email query, Chris wrote to me:

“I know as a fifth-grade teacher, I always hope that the ‘troubled’ student who doesn’t fit in the mainstream group is able to find just one friend. I truly believe you can get through anything knowing that you have someone who likes you and see you for just you — as well as someone who will include you in the most difficult times of the day — recess/lunch!”

I taped those words to the wall beside my computer. And I was on my way. I still didn’t have the story, exactly, but I had the stirrings of what I wanted to write about. Now I needed to do a new kind of research. It was time to hit the books . . .