Guy-Write: Chatting About Male Writers with Ralph Fletcher
Anyone who has ever read Ralph Fletcher’s books for young writers (e.g., A Writer’s Notebook, How Writers Work, Live Writing), will find his newest book, Guy-Write: What Every Gut Writer Needs to Know (Holt), to be a welcome addition to a classroom’s writing center. Fletcher writes this book for boys who love to write who may feel, if any of their friends, share their passion.
Ralph talks directly to boys about writing on the pages of his book. He levels with them, telling them how to write without upsetting their teacher. He explains how to be funny. He helps readers understand how to create strong, emotional writing. He even has an entire chapter about how to keep a writer’s notebook in the service of becoming a better writer. All this time he’s talking directly to his reader, a guy writer.
Upon finishing Guy-Write, I had some questions for Ralph. I’m sure you’ll agree that his answers are thoughtful and thorough. I hope they’re useful to you as you work with the male writers in your class. (To that end, if you haven’t read it yet, then pick up a copy of Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices. That’s Ralph’s book for teachers about nurturing the male writers in your classroom.)
Stacey: How can we best work with guy writers in a school setting?
Ralph: I wrestled with this question in BOY WRITERS (Stenhouse). This big, sprawling issue is hard to crystallize into a few pithy nuggets. However, let me share a few the principles I’ve come to believe in. I think with boy writers we need to go for engagement first—the quality will come later. If they’re not engaged, if they feel discouraged, overwhelmed, turned off—you’re sunk.
With boys writers I think it’s important that educators are willing to walk a mile in their shoes, to understand school from a boy’s point of view, as they might experience it. Schools are one of the few places left where we as teachers encounter “the other”—different ethnic groups, other social classes, ages, sexual orientation, and of course a different gender. Let me suggest how this might play out in a writing classroom. Let’s say a teacher has always emphasized memoir writing—and her male students typically don’t like that. In this case, she might look at her curricular calendar and include genres that boys might find more appealing: humor, graphica, sports commentary, horror, for example.
Stacey: I’ve always had the stomach to listen to disgusting stories, but rarely write about the disgusting things that happen in life. However, your chapter “Riding the Vomit Comet” inspired me to take on some gross writing. You mentioned to your male readers that they shouldn’t gross out readers unless it serves a purpose in the story. How do you think teachers can nurture (guy) writers to write about gross things in a meaningful way
Ralph: We might ask boy writers to consider the question: why do you want to include this gross part? What purpose does it serve? But grossing people out in a story may not be “meaningful” as you or I may define the word. A boy writer may want to include a gross part to create a mood, to deepen a character, or just because it’s funny. For instance, consider an example not from writing but from the movies. There’s a scene in Along Comes Polly where Ben Stiller plays basketball and ends up guarding a sweaty, hairy guy. There are slow-motions sections of him getting his face rubbed into this guy’s chest. Even now they make me shudder. Why is this included? True, this scene emphasizes the prissy/careful of the Ben Stiller character. But let’s face it—the main reason is that it’s laugh-aloud funny!
Stacey: On a related note, you write about using blood effectively in one’s writing (pg. 40). Would you boil down the ways to create bloody scenes for our readers, who are teachers, so they can use these ideas as a means to talk with students about gory scenes?
Ralph: In Guy-Write I explore this issue in a chapter titled Writes of Blood, Battle and Gore. Blood is real. People get hurt. Hockey players get into fights and have their faces stitched up. And there’s plenty of blood in ordinary life. When I was a kid, a neighborhood dog attacked and ate most of our chickens, leaving behind a horrific scene. After a deer has been shot, it must be gutted and dressed. (This task is not for the faint of heart!) There’s no reason our writers can write about this, so long as they treat blood in a respectful, matter-of-fact way.
I suggest that teachers use mentor texts that model effective but not over-the-top use of blood. High school students might look at “The Ball-Turret Gunner,” for instance. Middle school kids could look at the scene where Brian finds the body of the dead pilot in Hatchet. There are gory descriptions of warfare in the Redwall Series by Brian Jacques. Students might look at Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and do a close reading of the first few pages (the very first chapter). We should also show them examples where bloodshed is handled in a more subtle way. It’s illuminating to see how little blood can be found in a story like “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe.
Stacey: Many of the boys I’ve taught have written personal narratives about baseball, basketball, or soccer. The chapter on sports writing really made me think about the way young writers can portray themselves or their teammates in writing by thinking of them as people first. How can this concept lift the level of the personal narratives students write in the fall? Also, what are some teaching points teachers can use when they confer with boys who are writing personal narratives about sports?
Ralph: Lucy Calkins likes to say that when a boy and his father climb a mountain the real story is not what happens to them, it’s what happens between them. Isn’t that true about strong sports writing?
I don’t want to be formulaic, but I do think a good narrative includes three pillars—place, plot, and characters. Boy writing in this genre is typically strong on plot, but light on the other two. In my book I give some good examples of young writers can beef up characters, and more fully describe the place/setting where the action takes place.
One caveat: writing teachers should have high standards, but at the same time we should be realistic. I believe that most young writers will do a lot of bad writing along the way. That’s just a fact. It’s not all going to be great. Whenever kids try a new skill, strategy, or genre, we should try to value the attempt at least as much as the mastery.
Stacey: Your discussion of drawing as an entry point into writing (pg. 90) really seeks to help guy writers that it’s okay to draw in service of writing. How can teachers nurture the boys who prefer to get going with their writing by drawing?
Ralph: Let them draw first. Drawing may open up a part of the brain that’s different from language, but nonetheless rich. Primary teachers let students draw, but drawing is frowned upon in the middle and upper grades. Why? I think teachers may be afraid of opening Pandora’s Box: if we let them draw, won’t they only draw? My experience is that boys will move from drawing to writing. You may want to provide commonsense limits–the first ten or fifteen minutes for drawing–but I haven’t found this to be a big problem.
Stacey: Towards the end of your book you talk about developing routines and rituals for writing. One thing you talk about is a “writing place.” I blogged a bit about creating spaces to write, but would love for you to say more about ways teachers can help boys develop their own writing places outside of the classroom.
Ralph: I suggest that we ask students to share the place where he/she feels most at home. But I also I think it’s important that our students feel “at home” inside our classrooms. This is easy to say, but it’s a profound idea if we truly embrace it.
For years now I have have had a nagging idea that our writing workshops are too static for most boy writers. I was the kind of student who can write at a quiet desk, but lots of boys need to feel like they can move around during their process. Think about it: Hemingway stood up while he wrote! No, we don’t want chaos, but I think we should to invite kids to use the class as they see fit during the writing time. Let them sprawl on the floor if that’s where they feel most comfortable. Let them rope off a corner. Let them see the writing classroom as a place where they can be themselves while they write.
Stacey: I loved the pages about “polishing before you go public.” I especially loved reminder to boys that their writing can be gifted as presents. How do you think teachers can use this in the classroom?
Ralph: The late great Don Graves warned teachers about the dangers of conformity and orthodoxy. The writing process was once a fresh, new, quasi-radical idea, but then the publishers got hold of it, and printed glossy posters of The Writing Process, and it almost became formulaic. Don’s warning is worth remembering today. Instead of teaching students the writing process, I think we should help each student find a process that works for him or her.
That also holds true for publishing student writing. There shouldn’t be just one or two ways for kids to publish. Let’s have a range of ways they can “go public” and share their writing. Teachers should not corner the market when it comes to publishing. We can invite students to come up with their own ways of doing so. (Certainly, the internet has widely expanded the possibilities in this arena.
Stacey: What are the most important things you want teachers to know about working with guy writers in elementary school, middle school, and high school?
Ralph: Let me begin by making an important distinction. I wrote BOY WRITERS for teachers who want to do a better job of reaching out to boy writers. The main audience for my newest book, GUY-WRITE, is boys. I think this book will intrigue teachers, and will provide pithy bits to share during a writing class or mini-lesson. But my real goal was to create a book you can give to boy writers.
Stacey: Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you want to share?
Ralph: I appreciate these questions because they give me the chance to think more deeply about these issues. Just a week ago, Tom Newkirk invited me to visit his summer writing class on Engaging Boys as Readers and Writers. (Tom is the author of Misreading Masculinity, one of my favorites!) We had a stimulating discussion. After the class, Tom sent me an email about Guy-Write. “I like the way your book combines an interest in expanding options with an ongoing focus on craft.” Well-said! That’s exactly what I wanted to. I do want to make writing classrooms boy-friendlier, but I also want to challenge boys to learn their craft, to become stronger writers. If you’re going to get better at anything, you have to put in the time. You have to work at it, but you also have to give yourself permission to play, invent, and experiment.
This giveaway is for an autographed copy of Guy-Write: What Every Guy Writers Needs to Know for one of our readers. Many thanks to Ralph Fletcher for giving away one of his books. To enter for a chance to win a copy of Guy-Write: What Every Guy Writers Needs to Know each reader may leave one comment about this post in the comments section of this post. Feel free to share your thoughts about this interview or thoughts about inspiring male writers in your classroom. All comments left on or before Thursday, August 16th at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time will be entered into a random drawing using a random number generator on Friday, August 17th. I will announce the winner’s name at the bottom of this post by August 18th. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address in order to get your copy of the book to you. Please note: Your e-mail address will not be published online.
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Thank you to everyone who left a comment about Guy-Write. Congratulations to Ramona whose comment number was picked using the random number generator. Ramona wrote:
Whenever kids try a new skill, strategy, or genre, we should try to value the attempt at least as much as the mastery.” A great reminder as we start a new school year. I would love to win a copy of this book for my classroom.