Acclaimed novelist John Irving, whose Last Night in Twisted River opens with the beautifully written account of the drowning of a young man, said that he begins his novels with the last sentence then writes backwards. I was struck by how interesting an approach that is. His acknowledgment is rare in that authors generally have a focal point or idea that they write around, whereas Irving’s is a linear progression, even if it is from end to beginning. One wonders how he then creates the rest of the work: does he imagine scenes, characters, or link images? It’s obvious that he has a strong narrative voice that guides the process, too.
As writers, it’s important that we find a way to develop an idea or inspiration in a way that works naturally for us. Irving’s voice is strong because he’s figured out his story line and has confidence in the way he wants to tell it. I’ve found that when I’m not sure, my words lack energy and crispness, and my voice is stilted, insincere. My best remedy is to stop and image the person I’m writing about by asking, “Who is this person?” In this way, I try to visualize a real person in action. I look for how the person might dress, walk, talk and why it all comes together in this way. I’ve learned that the big mistake is to fight my inner eye and try to only select those traits that fit the story. Inspiration, like a bubble rising to the surface, bursts into my conscious thought; if I were to ignore the others to follow, then I’d do a disservice to the narrative voice inside me.
It has taken a while to trust the narrative or, in my case, the first person voice that likes to visit me, but I'm glad I do. Confidence in one's voice makes writing so much more fun, unpredictable and rewarding. Irving’s unusual backwards design reminds me that our voices -- and our trust in them -- are unique to writers who listen well.
Interestingly, the goals for creating readers (self-motivation, fluency and critical self-awareness) are the same for writers. Giving a writer time, encouragement and choice of topic is essential—no matter what level of instruction—to achieve the same goals. By using a writing workshop approach that includes the use of a writer’s notebook, the blank page anxiety that all writers face is eliminated.
A writer’s notebook is a combination of a daily journal and launching pad for ideas that helps writers build written work from the ideas and observations in them. As a journal, it records thoughts and feelings that when used daily, helps them transcribe thought to paper—a key component of developing fluency. When writing becomes as easy as talking, the student is much more receptive to writing instruction.
The process to build a writer’s notebook varies from elementary to secondary levels, but the similar idea is that it is the writer’s private place to explore feelings, thoughts and emotions as well as to develop thinking. Generally, a notebook split into two sections works best. One part is for private journal writing done daily, and the other is for class notes or assignments. Every day, without a prescribed topic, students write about themselves and their lives. These entries can be as mundane as what they did prior to coming to class or as passionate as venting about life. In either case, these are not read by the teacher, but a grade is given for exerting effort during the five minutes of class time (usually the beginning) to quietly write and no just sit and stare at the ceiling or out the window.
Later, a journal entry can relate to reading, a class assignment, or an observation that can lead to a short written piece. Taking students to observe the action in the school library where they are asked to note what they see, can then lead to a short essay retold from their notes.
What’s amazing is that creating both readers and writers is the same process and the beauty of it is in its simplicity.
Kafalas' fiction captures the wonder, sadness, irony and joy of life. His characters are unlikely heroes who find courage and inspiration in the lives of others. His writing belief is that less is more—his characters can tell their stories better than he can.