This book on writing, aimed at elementary-schoolers, opens with a quote from Joan Didion:
I write to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
While I wouldn't say I disagree
with this sentiment -- those are valid reasons to write and things I'm sure most writers get out of the process -- it does not speak to me. It is not why I write and does not typify the sort of things I prefer to read. Which is probably why neither Didion nor MacLachlan are favorites of mine. Oh, don't get me wrong, I don't think they are bad writers, they're just not to my taste. They exemplify an approach to writing, as illustrated by the above quote and by this book as a whole, that focuses on personal feelings and the expression of interior experience. This seems to be the sort of writing that most schools encourage in our post-hippie touchy-feely education era, and it produces writing exactly like the poems MacLachlan includes here; really, despite having pretty much all the same voice (one of my complaints about this book) the poems reminded me amazingly of the stuff we were made to write when I was in school. And you know, I thought it was boring and fake then, too.
Here are some problems with writing primarily about personal feelings:
It really requires a high level of writing skill. If you are writing a plot- or action-driven story and have the occasional awkward phrase or moment of flatness the story can carry it. But if your focus is entirely internal you really have to main a consistent and convincing voice that is both believable and (here's the second aspect of the problem) interesting. Because really, you have to convince me that I care. This is a made up person gushing about made-up feelings. I am willing to listen to Virginia Woolf do this because her writing is superb, but I am not interested in listening to a fourth-grader or, god forbid, a teenager, do the same. I edited enough writing journals in high school and college to know what kind of self-absorbed derivative crap this produces. While it may be valuable as a writing exercise, that doesn't mean you need to publish it.
As far this specific book goes, it was at an awkward length for this interior type of writing. There wasn't time for enough character development. The kids mostly sounded the same to me, and often did not sound convincingly like 9-year-olds. The parents did not seem entirely convincing, either, especially in the last section where they read their kids' poems and oh! the revelations! the tears! Seriously? It did not occur to you till you read her poem that your daughter would be sad and scared that you were dying of cancer? You didn't think your kids would be upset that you moved out of the house* and never called or visited? I don't think parents with that level of indifference usually show up for classroom activities.
But I don't want to totally harsh on this book. I did like the basic idea, encouraging kids not only to write but to think of themselves as writers
, as having something to say to others rather than just doing a school exercise. I liked that they weren't forced into really specific assignments, even if they did produce the same generic poems that our rule-bound writing did when I was a kid. I wish MacLachlan hadn't repeated the phrase "word after word after word" quite so many times, but that is a minor quibble.
Maybe younger kids will like this more than I did. And if it gives even one kid the encouragement to write, then I guess it is worthwhile.
*Other than the one mother who briefly moves out, all the families seem to be white-middle-class-two-parents, but I'm not getting into that here.