How Dirk Nowitzki and I Taught 100 4th Graders to Write Better

Last Friday morning, 100 fourth-graders interviewed me via Skype.
This encouraging experience occurred because one of their teachers also happens to be part of my homegroup at church. Her school had a technology day and the kids had been preparing for their TAKS test (if memory serves correctly). I believe this would also mark the first year they’d be tackling a written portion of a standardized test. Recalling my own trepidation when faced with such a task as a grade-schooler, I was happy to help.
My teacher friend provided me with three of the kids’ questions before the interview. However, the first kid asked the second question. Unpracticed as I am at public speaking, I momentarily lost my place in my notes, which led me to tell the kids that I write things that I think about. I’m sure they were enthralled by that piece of Madden-esque commentary on the writing life. However, I was (mostly) able to regather, and we had quite a fun time. At least I did.
For your amusement or inspiration, here are a few of my answers, with more to come later this week.
How do you decide what you’re going to write about?
If I’m writing for work or for myself, I usually write about a question that won’t leave my mind or a really interesting experience I’ve had. It’s through writing that I start to understand things about myself that I didn’t know before. It’s a way for me to wrestle with things going on in my head. The next time you’re really angry or sad or happy or something interesting has happened in your life, try writing about it. Sometimes when you write, words and thoughts and feelings come out that you didn’t even know you had.
If someone gives me a writing prompt (which happens when I write for magazines sometimes), then I think of something that’s happened in my own life that was funny or sad or weird or happy. Then I try to tell that story in an interesting way, using the fun parts of English that your teachers have been teaching you, like metaphors and onomatopoeia.
Sometimes when I get a prompt, I just start writing whatever first comes to me. It’s kind of like stretching your muscles before you start working out. A blank page can be scary sometimes, so I try to get words onto the page as soon as possible. More often than not, I’ll get past the first few paragraphs and then really get into the article. I’ll re-read the article and typically take out the first few paragraphs. Since those were only my ‘stretching’ paragraphs to get me ready for the ‘race,’ I don’t need them anymore.
How’d you decide to become a writer?

Mr. Nowitzki when we’re not hanging out. (Image via Wikipedia)

I loved to read. You have to be a good reader to be a good writer. When I was your age, I read books like the Chronicles of Narnia and Encyclopedia Brown. I still love those books. All of those words and images and metaphors and stories and similes seeped into my brain so that when I started writing, I could tell what sounded good and what didn’t.
Even though I received a lot of encouragement in school for my writing, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I decided to become a writer, and the way I did that was . . . I told myself “I AM A WRITER.” Being a good writer means being confident in yourself, but not so confident that you don’t ever ask for help. All writers need to learn proper grammar and spelling, and they need to be OK with hearing what other people think about their writing.
Being a writer isn’t necessarily about being good, at least at the beginning. Writing is just like any new sport you may start. You’re not sure what the rules are and you’re going to make mistakes, but that’s the way you learn how to get better. It takes a lot of practice to get really good. If you really want to become a writer when you’re older, you have to write something every day, just like a basketball player has to practice every day to be as good as my friend Dirk.
At this point, I held up a picture of local hero Dirk Nowitzki. Much laughter ensued. (I was later told that one of the kids asked their teacher, “Does he really know Dirk?” I wish.)
Plus, I’ve always wanted to see my name on a book. It hasn’t happened yet, which means I better do as I tell you and start writing every day!

More to come later this week, plus some of the funny things the kids sent to me after the interview.