An exercise every writer should try

NaNoWriMo & Google Docs
NaNoWriMo & Google Docs

We can do some pretty amazing things with technology these days. We can build self-driving cars and 3D-print chocolate, but technology also gives us more outlets and tools for what we can accomplish with pen and paper: creative writing. NaNoWriMo is one example. Google Docs is another.

Last month, Google for Education partnered with National Novel Writing Month to help three authors from across the country write a short story together — in an hour.

At over 1,600 words and with three illustrations, the story about a memorial service set on an emu farm combines the imaginations of Edan Lepucki, Tope Folarin, and Mike Curato. The video below shows how it was done — in Google Docs, with the authors taking turns and a Google Docs user named Lauren providing the opening line. You can read the full story here.


The result is a great exercise for growing writers: Have someone think of the first sentence for you, and then work together with one or two other writers for an hour and see what you get. This teaches us to work without worrying about what we’re putting on the page and to allow our imaginations to roam free, uncensored. After all, the writers involved don’t have time to be afraid of what the others might think of their ideas. Their only job is to respond to what the person before them wrote to keep the story going.

So have fun, and give it a try! Free up an hour some afternoon — or better yet, do it tonight when you would otherwise be watching TV. Let me know how it goes in the comments. It’s good practice, and you might find that you and the other writers have a lot to teach each other, both while you’re writing and when the story’s done.

Children and censorship: How much is too much?

The wonderful blogger Valerie Lawson wrote an excellent post recently about how censorship shelters children from reality. After reading her thoughts on the subject, I started to form a comment in response, but found that although I initially agreed with many of her statements, the more I wrote, the more my feelings differed from hers.

Valerie poses a very intelligent and provoking perspective, and before I delve into my counter-view, I’d like you to read some (or all — here’s the original post) of what she had to say. Then please weigh in with your own ideas on this controversial matter.

I love a good probing discussion, and while I do understand that some people think certain topics are unsuitable for children, I must say that I am firmly against censorship in any form. Period.

This stance of mine makes for a lively debate. Sometimes the challenge of my view comes from other writers – which I must say is so odd. I would assume that all writers would be completely open-minded and fully against censorship in all forms, but that is just not the case.  Maybe they would take these words literally:

”Obviously, the danger is not in the actual act of reading itself, but rather, the possibility that the texts children read will incite questions, introduce novel ideas, and provoke critical inquiry.” Persis M. Karim (The New Assault on Libraries)

I’ve had some enlightening discussions to say the least – some within my own local writing chapter. Here’s a fictionalized version of how one of these conversations might go:

My Fellow Writer: Do you think children/teenagers should be allowed to read books with so much violence, especially a book about children killing each other?

Me: Absolutely. Whether that book is Lord of the Flies or The Hunger Games or some other book.

MFW: But don’t you think the violence is gratuitous?

Me: No. I actually think it’s toned down compared to reality. Haven’t you heard of the Invisible Children? This kind of thing is actually going on today, but on a much more brutal scale.

(Side note: This isn’t all happening in Uganda either, despite the wonderful media coverage Kony has received. According to Amnesty International’s website, “worldwide, hundreds of thousands of children are recruited…” And according to another website, this one for the SOS Children’s Villages, “Since 1998 there have been armed conflicts involving child soldiers in at least 36 countries.” )

MFW: Okay, but what about books with frank discussions of sex and characters making bad choices? Would you let your daughter read them?

Me: Definitely. I think books like Twenty Boy Summer and Beauty Queens (or whatever Ellen Hopkins book we’re talking about) encourage interesting conversations with her.

MFW: You talk to her about sex? ACK!

ME: Of course! Don’t you talk to your child about sex? If not, where does she go with her questions? The internet? Her friends? I’d much rather she felt comfortable coming to me and getting accurate information than risk her going elsewhere and believing that she could get pregnant from a toilet seat or something stupid like that. Or worse…having her end up pregnant. Period.

As forward as some of Valerie’s answers are, there’s a good point to them. While I think keeping mature books out of kids’ hands stems more from our wish to “protect” them than it does to condemn those very materials (although obviously, some people want them to disappear entirely), we have to face an important reality: Even we found out about this stuff on our own, regardless of whether our parents sheltered us. And most of us turned out okay, or at least functionally damaged.

Perhaps it’s better to openly allow children and teens access to this sort of content because it invites a controlled scenario, rather than one where they’re forced to resort to more unreliable and dangerous sources of information — like the Internet or friends who might not have someone’s best interests at heart (including their own).

However, my problem with her argument comes mainly from her claim of disagreeing with censorship “in any form.” When I think about the kinds of things I want — and don’t want — my future kids exposed to, an inherent part of me clenches up: No way would I show them a PG-13 movie when they’re seven! But most of my reservations originate from my awareness of how frightening and disturbing some images can be, especially to women and young girls. For females, once certain parts of the world are opened up to us, they’re hard to deal with — and for any of us who are filled with sadness and anger over the gender issues that women must grapple with every day, that’s a lifelong struggle. On a basic level (and one that relates to the topic at hand), I’m talking the sexual treatment and portrayal of women in film and other media (not to mention actual society). Some of those depictions are abusive, and others reinforce inflexible expectations and unrealistic standards. They don’t teach girls the right thing; they don’t empower them. Quite the opposite.

If one day I have a little girl, I don’t want her seeing that sort of degradation and injustice at an impressionable age and getting the wrong idea. Most of all, I don’t want to sit her down in front of it and encourage her to watch. And I don’t want my little boy to grow up thinking certain behavior is okay. When I think of monitoring books and movies and other content for kids, I don’t automatically equate that with “censorship.” Censorship to me is trying to block something out of existence entirely — putting it out of anyone’s reach, trying to stifle and condemn its messages, and instructing everyone to forget it’s even there.

Valerie gets this next part right: If you’re going to allow your children to explore everything the world has to offer, then you better damn well be prepared to talk with them about it afterward and teach them right from wrong and good from bad. Because at a young age, they don’t know the difference. They’re innocent and developmentally bound to repeat what they see and hear from us, so how could they? Sure, they’ll learn, and I feel that books are more trustworthy than other material, but they’re not substitutes for parenting. You wouldn’t drop a kid into a third-world country and leave them to the dogs so they can “learn about the real world.” You take them by the hand, make sure they feel safe, and tell them this is how things are, this is who they are, and that’s okay. It will be okay.

Maybe the people who want to ban books from schools and bar children and adolescents from sensitive media are those who don’t know how to explain why their contents make them uncomfortable — or don’t bother with making the time to. Maybe some people are just ignorant and stuck-up. But I think there are those who have grown up, suffered, and learned how the world is, and want to spare children from that reality as much as possible because it’s painful. We can never take back our childhood, and we’ll always wish some of the people in our lives had loved us more than they had. There’s a preciousness in giving our children sanctuary for as long as the world will let them have it — to allow them to believe, with unshakable certainty, that they’re safe from those who would do them and others harm.

It’s not important to give children free reign of all that’s before them. But to shape them into moral, intelligent human beings who will have to live every day in the sort of world we live in, it is important to guide. Think of the best literary parents, even adoptive ones, and note the careful balance of self-discovery and protection they provided their children. And when those parents went away, the children were prepared with love, confidence, and understanding. They could look toward all the darkness in the world and hold onto the small amount of good their parents had fostered within them.

Too many people worry about what their children will get their hands on because information is as much an implement of “power” as it is a means of destruction. And too many people would let their children explore the wild on their own, without any safe retreat.

What are your thoughts on what we should and shouldn’t grant children access to? When is it okay, and when is it not?