Gunston Day School Presentation

Last Friday Laura and I presented at In Celebration of Books at Gunston Day School in Centerville, Maryland. Gunston School has been around for over 100 years. It was founded in 1911 by Sam and Mary Middletown when they wanted a high quaility education for their daughter Emilie, disabled by polio. The school was originally all girls, but in 1991 Guston became a co-ed day school. No more boarders. The campus is on the Corsica River in a gorgeous setting with beautiful old trees. The original Middletown house is still there along with other buildings tucked into the landscape.

The school makes an effort to recruit international students from Europe and Asia. We were told that they do not board at the school, but are housed with faculty or members of the larger community. “Would you like to host a student?” we were asked.

The international students lend diversity to the student population, but the kids from China, one faculty member told us, have been so programmed toward math and science that they are, unfortunately, not readers. These students are sent by their families to become more fluent in English and then will go on for university degrees (in math and science fields) before returning back to their home countries.

Because of a two hour fog delay in the morning the schedule was rearranged and we presented after lunch – in my experience the worst time to try to hold anyone’s attention. We were pleasantly surprised by the kids who chose our workshop. They were focused and attentive and seemed to enjoy our presentation – with the exception of the one student who checked out for an after lunch nap.

The title of our workshop was “Writing as Lasagna” and it was inspired by a blog post. It was about making subsequent passes over your first draft to include layers which add interest to your writing. To create a story we gave the kids forced choices.We asked them to choose two characters from a list of six choices we provided. They then picked a setting, a plot line, a conflict, a resolution and an ending from our lists. Those story essentials gave them a basic story.

We were surprised at how many of them in each of our two workshops chose serial killer as one of their characters. Not sure if that has any import whatsoever. One of their instructions was not to over think their choices in trying to make the story go in a particular direction. Be flexible with what you get, we told them.

Then we demonstrated how you could begin to include the details that make a story richer, more interesting, and more engaging to the reader. We asked them to make a character pass – choose names for your characters, gender, ethnicity, age, etc. Then we asked them to make a pass for a sensory layer (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste). We talked about dialogue layers and how we usually do dialogue passes for each character. We also do a pacing layer, an ins and outs (paragraph, scene, chapter) layer, and a stopper layer.

There are other layers, but we wanted the students to understand how they can continue to make their writing better after the first draft. We had some of them read their stories. It was amazing to hear what they could do in 45 minutes. One could have been a fabulous illustrated children’s story about a hippo and an orphan who escaped from the zoo and the orphanage on the same day. Another (with a serial killer as one of the characters) would have made a great film noir script. It was an honor and a pleasure to work with such smart, creative kids.

All in all it was a successful day even though the last event had to be cancelled. This was a time when all the day’s presenters were to read from their work for five minutes. Laura and I had prepared the opening scene from our play, The Santa Dairies. Oh, well, being flexible in writing and in life is key.

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