My favorite elementary writing lesson I ever taught was about breaking rules. At the time of the lesson, state 5th grade curriculum guides were heavily pushing structured 5-paragraph essays for expository prompts, complete with outline guides and rubrics that my students quickly memorized and adhered to. They knew to begin their essays with an introduction, presented with a catchy “grabber” like a question or a quote; to state their 3-point topic sentence by the end of their introduction; to support their topic sentence with three subsequent paragraphs filled with “good examples,” “meaty details” and transitions; and to finish their essay with a nice conclusion that neatly wrapped everything up. It wasn’t long before my kids were meeting those goals and following the rules, but the result? 5th Grade Robot Writers, just checking off all the boxes. Every single essay sounded the same: “Do you have a favorite vacation place? I do. I like going to Hawaii because the weather is beautiful, there are many exciting places to explore, and the food is delicious.” Sometimes, words like delicious would be crossed out, replaced with “ambrosial” or “delectable,” and that always made me smile—they were trying so hard to spice it up!—but for the most part, the writing rubrics and forced outlines were handcuffing my creative little writers to a boring formula that gave them few ways to shine their unique styles of writing.
So I wrote a similar essay and checked off all the boxes on the rubric. I slipped in a few 5-star vocabulary words, alternated sentence structure and grabbed my audience with an interesting question. Technically, it was an “A” paper. But it was still a robotic piece, perfectly organized to follow directions but lacking my personality, my edge, my humor, my exploration of style. I projected the essay on the wall and gave each student a copy of it. We read it together, graded it together and talked about all the things that made it good. I asked my students if there was anything interesting or funny or extra special about the essay other than the fact that it followed the rules. No one had anything to say. And then I ripped up the essay in front of them, telling them that who they are as writers and how they see the world is more important than adhering to all the rules.
“That was a really boring thing to write,” I admitted. “Who’s ready to climb out of the box and start making our essays fun and exciting and highlighting who we really are as unique writers?” My students were smiling. “Who wants to rip up this boring essay that follows all the rules but tells you nothing about who I am as a writer and how I see the world?” They smiled bigger. “Who wants to make a mess?! Go ahead. Rip up that essay in front of you. Rip it up and throw the pieces everywhere. I want to see the old writing style all over this classroom so we can make room for the new style. Go ahead. I brought my vacuum, I’ll clean it up later. ARE WE ROBOTS?”
“NOOOOO!” they shouted, shredding those papers with gusto and flinging the scraps toward the ceiling, at each other, all over the floor, laughing, breaking rules. After about 60 seconds of Student Writers Gone Wild, we settled back into our chairs among the shredded remains of 27 sheets of paper and wrote another essay, together. It wasn’t perfect, the organization needed to be tidied up and with the collection of shout-outs from so many different students, it wasn’t exactly a cohesive piece. But it had personality. It made you raise your eyebrow, chuckle, want to keep reading to see what that next sentence held.
I’m not sure administration would have approved a continuation of this method. I never found out as I quit at the end of that year and had my first baby a year later. But I needed to teach that lesson…for me.
I have this thing about sitting down to write—rules I’ve made up in my head like I have to have my office clean and I have to have my other work completed first and I have to have at least two hours set aside and a good idea of what I’m going to say. I have a lot of rules for other things too—who I think I need to be before I put something out into the world, what my house needs to look like before I invite people over, how old my kids need to be before I make time for a new hobby or goal.
With all these new resolutions and intentions, you might need to rip up some rules first. In fact, instead of resolutions, here are a few fun things to do this weekend if you’re not the Richard Simmons type, igniting your first goal at 12:01 A.M. 2016, with a zippy little high-kick in your neon leggings. Don’t worry. I’m a late New Year’s bloomer too. And I only made three of these because Calm Down, Richard, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
A Good Way to Start a Year
1. Rip up a rule…5th grade style. Grab a sheet of paper, write the rule down in permanent marker and then rip that mofo up. Shred it. Throw the pieces all over the floor and leave them there a minute before you clean them up because STOP FOLLOWING ALL THE RULES. There’s something beautiful and intentional about the physical ritual of ripping something up. What’s your rule? That you have to have your house perfect before you host a dinner party? That you need to have a complete plan for your creative dream before you make that first step? That you have to be a certain weight before you go buy yourself a cute pair of jeans, dress up and look in the mirror to see a beautiful woman? R. I. P. Rip.
2. Start saving quotes…and display them. I’ve highlighted so many amazing quotes in books and created quote folders on my computer, but I can never find the one I want later and often forget the inspiration of a quote once it’s gone. When you see a quote that gets to you or read a passage that makes you come alive, write it down. Put it in a quote jar. Display a few of these quotes at a time–on your bathroom mirror, taped to your refrigerator, above your desk, and switch them out with other quotes in the jar from time to time. I keep a stack of Instagram prints (I print the ones with lots of negative space for room to write) in my desk, and write favorite quotes on them when I find them. There are always three of these taped above my desk and a stash ready to be switched out. A fun project to carry you through the year!
3. Make a List. I love lists. Even if I never do anything on the list, there is such satisfying art in making the list itself. List making is a form of writing with NO RULES. This is your fun list for the year. Nothing huge and daunting goes on this list, just fun things you want to do or try this year. Like “Write a children’s book for my own kids and publish one copy of it with a nice cover (more on this later!).” Or “Invite 5 friends over on a Friday night for wine and cheese and journal writing.” Or “Make an Inspiration Board.” Or “Take a Cooking Class.” Keep the list where you can always see it. Next time you’re bored or fidgety or only have an hour before you have to pick up your kids and are trying to figure out what to do in that hour, pick up the list. Make a dent on one of those things. Set the date and send the e-mail for that Friday night journal writing so that you have to follow through.
Happy Friday. Let’s break some rules. Rip shit up. Make room for the best parts of who we are to shine through.