5 Fiction, Distance, and Control

LENSMIRE: Emily, why do you think that everybody in the class writes fic­tion, instead of writing like, you wrote a couple stories that were really about yourself, you know, like you and your dog and stuff like that. But most people write fiction.
EMILY: Well, it’s probably because they really make up things to make it more interesting, that’s, it’s mostly why they, it’s mostly why they write about different people, like James, the story he wrote about Lisa.
EMILY: Well he, like, I think he just wanted to have the story more inter­esting.
LENSMIRE: More interesting than what? So, are you saying that stuff that happens to people isn’t interesting?
EMILY: Well, not really, but if you make it more exciting like sort of add more things to it, it can be kind of interesting, it’s not–
LENSMIRE: Do you, I’ve been wondering if you think sometimes people are a little bit afraid of, of talking about themselves in front of class­mates, and so they–
EMILY: Yeah, that’s, that’s mostly it. They’re probably afraid of talking about themselves.
LENSMIRE: You think so? I mean, you don’t have to believe what I say.
EMILY: Yeah, that’s, that’s what I thought at the beginning because no,
mostly nobody was writing about themselves, they were writing about, stories about like, James, he wrote about Lisa and Kurt.
LENSMIRE: Did, so you think that they’re, you think they’re, some kids just don’t want to write about–
EMILY: They’re just scared that people will laugh at them because they’re writing about themselves.
LENSMIRE: So, how, why did you have the guts to write about something that really happened to you?
EMILY: It, it was so much, so interesting that I didn’t want to just keep it in all my life and not talk about it. (Audiotape, 3-29-90)

Near the end of my teaching in the writing workshop, I became especially interested in how risks associated with writing were related to the writing children did in the classroom. A week and a half before the above conversation with Emily, I had asked, in my fieldnotes, “who writes personal narratives?” as I puzzled through the incongruence between the topics and stories I discussed with James, Ken, and Bruce in writing conferences, and what they actually wrote about in the workshop (Fieldnotes, 3-19-90). In these notes and others like them, I named and brought to my own attention an aspect of the writing children did in the room that I had noticed before, but had not seriously considered: Almost all the texts children wrote, and especially those they published, were fictional narratives. And this was despite the fact that, in whole group activities and writing conferences across the year, I had consistently attempted to help them identify and write about topics and stories that rather directly expressed their own experiences.

In what follows, I argue that fictional narratives offered children sev­eral advantages over personal narratives and other topics and genres. One advantage fiction offered was distance. By writing fiction, children could avoid directly exposing themselves and their experiences and val­ues to the scrutiny of peers and teachers. Above, Emily said that children were “just scared that people will laugh at them because they’re about themselves.” A second advantage was control. Children seemed to value fiction for the control it gave them over their material. Emily noted that writers of fiction could “make it more interesting.” Children felt less restricted by their material, felt they could shape their texts in ways that would please their audiences, and felt that fiction was more enjoyable to write than nonfiction. Fiction helped children avoid risks associated with the presence of more and less trusted audiences in the classroom, and allowed them to manipulate their material in ways that satisfied their audiences and themselves as writers.

a hand-written document depicting a child's answers to prompts
Figure 5.1. Ideas for Topics handout.


I used the handout reproduced in Figure 5.1 with children early in the year to help them find things to write about. I did not expect that they would fill in all the spaces, only that they would use the sheet as a tool for identifying stories to tell and meaningful topics about which to write. The handout captures, in fairly stark fashion, the type of writing I was encouraging children to do–writing that Britton (1978, 1982) would label “expressive.” Temple et al. (1988), with reference to Britton, char­acterize expressive language as

Language that is close to the self, used to reveal the nature of the person, to verbalize his consciousness, and to exhibit his close rela­tion to the reader. Expressive language is a free flow of ideas and feelings. (p. 131)

In addition to the expressive function, Britton (1978) identifies two other functions that language can serve: transactional and poetic. Language serving a transactional function is used to do something: inform, per­suade, solve problems, or theorize. Within the transactional function “an utterance … is a means to some end outside itself, and its organization will be the principle of efficiency in carrying out that end” (p. 18). In con­trast, language serving the poetic function is used to create something with words. In this function, language itself becomes the focus of atten­tion, as when we gossip, tell stories, or write novels for the enjoyment and satisfaction they give us as verbal objects.

Expressive writing often precedes, in a child’s developmental his­tory, writing in transactional and poetic modes (Temple et al., 1988). Within such a conception of writing development, children gradually gain control over their expressive writing and shape it toward the demands of transactional and poetic functions, as well as continue writ­ing for expressive purposes. This progression can be used to character­ize a child’s overall writing development, but can also be used to char­acterize the history of individual texts. As writers, we may identify important themes and stories for future development through expressive writing, with writing that is “informal or casual, loosely structured” (Brit­ton, 1978, p. 18)–perhaps by brainstorming, writing letters to friends, by doing some “free writing” (Elbow, 1973). And then, we may gradually build on and manipulate these earlier texts, and shape them toward more public and formal ends in transactional and poetic discourses.

My teaching assumed similar progressions. The handout in Figure 5.1 anticipates poetic and transactional functions fairly directly, asking for sto­ries (things that have happened) and topics that could be identified and gradually shaped toward poetic and transactional ends. But the handout begins with and emphasizes the expressive function. These stories will be things that happened to “me,” topics that “I” know a lot about.

Many children noted problems with exactly this sort of expressive writing, exactly because it was “close to the self” and revealed the “nature of the person.” Some commented, as Emily did above, on the risks of talk­ing about yourself in front of classmates. Marie, for example, said that “maybe people would come up to me and start laughing at that,” if she wrote about herself (Interview, 5-16-90). William wrote several stories about himself playing sports at the beginning of the year, but went on to publish only fiction. When I asked him about this, he responded:

WILLIAM: I don’t know, people would probably laugh at me.
LENSMIRE: You think so?
LENSMIRE: That’s, I was always worried about that. So you, do you think other people felt that way in class?
WILLIAM: Maybe, maybe not. I don’t really know.
LENSMIRE: Yeah, because some other people told me that they were scared to write about themselves because they were worried that other people would laugh at them or not like it.
WILLIAM: Me too. (Audiotape, 5-18-90)

Other children seemed less afraid of peer response, and more con­cerned with keeping private things private. In other words, fear seemed less a motivation than a wish to protect their privacy. Suzanne, a child who moved with power and confidence among children and her teach­ers, and who did occasionally write personal narratives, said that she did not like to write about herself because it was “too personal”:

Like if I were supposed to write about when I grew up, when I was born and things like that, sometimes I think that’s personal. (Inter­view, 5-18-90)

But often, the wish to keep private things private was linked to a fear of exposure. Rajesh attributed such a fear to Jessie and her “bad past”:

RAJESH: Because somebody might have had a real, a bad past, and so they didn’t want to tell about that past and so they just want to write about fiction.
INTR: Don’t you share things like that with–
RAJESH: Everybody, almost everybody in that class, including me, knew it.
INTR: So you don’t think she [Jessie] would like to write about herself then?
RAJESH: Yeah, she just writes sequels of Sleeping Beauty. I mean, she is more in her own group. (Interview, 5-18-90)

In his last comment, Rajesh suggests the isolation Jessie experienced in this class: “she is more in her own group.” He attributes to Jessie a “bad past,” and gives this as a reason for her to write fiction instead of per­sonal narratives. Rajesh was correct that Jessie wrote her own version of “Sleeping Beauty”–I discuss it at the end of this chapter–but he was incorrect in his suggestion that Jessie typically wrote fiction. Jessie pub­lished four books across the year. One of them was her retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” and another was a retelling of a scary story called “The Big Toe,” that she found in a book from the school library. But two of her books were personal narratives: Misty told about adventures with her dog, and My Friends told the story of her rather rocky friendships in kindergarten and later grades with Jil, from this class, and Barbara, from the other third grade. One of the ironic “benefits” of Jessie’s alienation from and rejection of her peers seems to have been the opportunity to write some important stories from her own past. In other words, one way to solve the problem of exposing yourself to peers was to not let them see your stories. In this, Jessie seemed to be following the advice Jil offered to children who were afraid to write about themselves. Jil believed “it was good to write about yourself. It’s fine.” If you were afraid of people making fun, “Keep it in a safe place, take it home, put it in a combination steel safe” (Interview, 5-23-90).

Most children, however, did not lock personal narratives away in a safe. Most children wrote and published fiction. Perhaps the easiest way to suggest the prevalence of fiction in the room is by categorizing and counting the books that children made available to each other by plac­ing them in the writing workshop library. I have records of what books were checked out of the library from the sign-out book. Although there were probably a number of books that were never signed out officially­–this all was rather informal and fluid–the list of books I compiled from the sign-out book should be fairly representative of the books in the library across the year. Of 21 books checked out of the library, repre­senting 20 different student authors–some, such as The Fake Line Leader trilogy, were collaborations and some authors were represented by more than one book–17 were fictional narratives, 2 were personal narratives, 1 was an ABC book, and another a book of jokes.

In the workshop library, fictional narratives clearly outnumbered other genres. I have not tried to categorize and count all the rough drafts and texts children wrote during the year (I do not have all the drafts, and the effort is unnecessary for my purposes here), but my impression from watching the children write across the year and casually perusing their writing folders in preparation for this writing, is that there were more personal narratives, proportionately, written than would be suggested by the workshop library. Some children, such as William and Robert, wrote rough drafts of personal narratives they never published or shared; oth­ers, such as Suzanne, wrote and shared personal narratives in sharing time, but did not publish them; and still other children, such as Jessie, published personal narratives that they did not share with peers in the library or in sharing sessions. Of course, there were other genres written that were not represented in the library–poetry we often published by giving the poets ten photocopies of final versions for them to distribute to whom they wished; and Sharon, one of the authors not represented in the library, wrote a series of biographies of children and teachers in the room. Sharon read her work to classmates, and shared published work outside of the library.

The workshop library, however, is a good place to look for a sense of what sort of texts the children in this room valued. Children with books in the library made at least two major decisions that suggest the desirability of fictional narratives to them. One decision was to publish a specific rough draft, often from a number of other drafts. A second deci­sion was to put the published piece in the library. In making these deci­sions (as well as in their decisions of what to write in the first place) most children chose fictional narratives.

One reason children chose and valued fictional narratives was the distance it afforded them. By writing fiction, they could avoid the close identification between author and story that personal narratives involved. Fictional narratives offered them a way to distance themselves from the experiences and values expressed in their stories. Britton (1982) dis­cusses a key way this distance is accomplished:

Literary discourse … IS concerned with the private thoughts and feelings of the writer, but in “bringing them out of hiding” he objec­tifies them and may explore them through the creation of a per­sonae, so that “we cannot assume that when a literary writer uses the first person he is describing his own experiences or making a confession.” (p. 158; quotations are from Widdowson, 1975)

Fiction lessened, for children, risks associated with self-exposure. As Britton notes above, we do not necessarily assume, when reading fiction, that an author’s own experiences are being related in a direct way, or that the author is making a confession when telling a story. We assume that the writer is creating, making up characters (their experiences and values), events, and things, engaged in crafting an acceptable sort of lie. Authors of fiction tell, as David said in his interview, “fake stories” (5-25-90).

The distance that writing fiction accomplishes is similar to Elbow “closing his eyes” and Karen asking someone else to read her text to classmates–it involves placing something between author and audience so that the author does not have to confront them directly. In expressive writing, authors face their audiences in the fairly direct expression of their experiences and values in texts. One of James’ comments about a problem he had while writing The Fake Line Leader seems particularly interesting in relation to this discussion:

Yeah, in my, in my like, my third edition of it, it was really, I mean, I wrote something that wasn’t, I mean I wrote myself into the story, and I’m like, wait a second, that can’t happen. (Interview, 5-29-90)

Unfortunately, the interviewer did not pursue the problem James raised here. But James seems to have been worried about violating the convention Britton discusses above: Authors of fiction objectify their experiences and thoughts in indirect ways that do not speak directly to their audiences. James said, “I wrote myself into the story,” and he did. In the second and third editions of The Fake Line Leader, he was a char­acter in a fictitious series of events, along with other characters named after children in the classroom. What is most interesting to me is what James could have meant when he said, “that can’t happen.” Obviously, it did happen so he was not saying it was an impossibility. He seems to have had a sense for the conventional disjunction in fiction between author and personal experiences and values, and was concerned that writing himself “into the story” would in some way violate this conven­tion. Why would he be concerned about this? Was it simply that he did not want to be unconventional in his writing, or, was he perhaps con­cerned that James, the character, would be perceived as a rather direct representation and expression of James, the third grader? In other words, would writing himself into the story be similar to writing personal narra­tives, with its risk of self-exposure?

In any event, James and other children wrote predominantly fiction, and, apparently they were not alone in their preference for fiction over writing that was more directly revealing. Barnes and Barnes (1984), in their study of English classes in British secondary schools, found that many students responded to requests for what they called “personal writ­ing” with fiction. The reasons students gave for avoiding personal writ­ing and embracing fiction were similar to those given by my students. Barnes and Barnes concluded that students used “fiction as a way of dealing with first hand experience, since it freed them from the danger of giving too much away or of adopting an unacceptable persona” (cited in Willinsky, 1990, p. 168). These students, as well as my third grade writ­ers, were aware of, and depended on, the partial disjunction between author and material that fiction provided.

But my students valued fiction for more than its avoidance of identi­fiably personal material. In fact, the most common responses children gave to questions about why they wrote fiction were similar to the initial ones Emily gave above: Fiction was more exciting and interesting than nonfiction. I will explore these responses in relation to children’s control over their writing, and argue that fiction afforded them a degree of con­trol that they did not believe they had in other genres. They used this control to satisfy themselves as writers and to satisfy their audiences. I should note that distance and control are not unrelated. In my discussion of distance above, I emphasized the relation of writer to audience, and argued that fiction distanced authors from audiences in a way that less­ened risks of exposure. In what follows, the relation of writer to material is an important aspect of control. With distance from the material, chil­dren enjoyed a control over their material that they did not enjoy with material more closely tied to what “really happened” in their lives.

SUZANNE: It [Fiction] is, it’s more interesting, because some people have boring lives.
INTR: Do they?
SUZANNE: And they don’t like, I think fiction is more exciting because you can write about anything you want. (Interview, 5-18-90)

Suzanne suggests several themes that run through children’s com­ments on the relative superiority of fiction over writing about real life. The dominant theme is that fiction is more exciting and interesting than nonfiction. Sometimes, personal narratives were denigrated because the lives themselves were deemed inadequate as material–people have bor­ing lives. William said that “nothing really happened” that was worth writing about (Interview, 5-18-90). Other times, the inadequacy seemed to result from children’s not being able to identify things worth writing about from their own histories. There were probably things that would be good to write about, but as Ken said, “it’s pretty hard to remember. … I couldn’t think of anything to write about myself” (Interview, 5-31- 90). I am reminded here of Dewey’s comment that there is all the differ­ence in the world between having something to say and having to say something. Children had to say something, and it might have been eas­ier to move to fiction than to find something in their pasts or presents to write about.

But the adequacy of lives or memories cannot be divorced from chil­dren’s sense of what their peer audiences might want or enjoy to read. As I noted above, a consistent response to interview questions about why children wrote fiction was that fiction was more exciting and interesting. Below, I discuss this response as a positive affirmation of fiction by young writers, because it was more enjoyable for them to write than nonfiction. But this response has something of a defensive posture in it as well; that is, real life was not interesting enough for peer audiences who would be reading and responding to those texts. There is a sense of this posture in Emily’s comments that introduced the chapter–she talked about spicing up personal narratives to make them more interesting to read. Part of the risk of writing about themselves was that their lives would not be interesting enough for peers. In their conferences with me, Ken, James, and other children often told me stories that I thought would be great to write down, and I told them so. But children often did not write them down, and if they did, they usually did not publish or share them.

Another theme that ran through a number of children’s interviews was that nonfiction (including personal narratives, but also transactional writing such as reports) was more restrictive than fiction. Part of the restrictive nature of nonfiction for children seemed to come from a per­ceived restriction of possible material. If you wrote about your own life, they seemed to reason, you were limited to things that had happened to you and to things you knew. In other words, you had to use your memory instead of your imagination. John thought that, in contrast to nonfic­tion, “you have a lot of ideas with fiction … you can have more cre­ations” (Interview, 5-21-90). A related reason children thought that nonfiction was restrictive was because children saw it as demanding a fidelity to the truth and to what really happened in a way that fiction obviously did not. They expressed a rather severe referentialist stance to the relation of language to the world in nonfiction, in which the words used had to match up fairly directly with what had really happened. I had the sense, from their interviews, that my students might very well believe that there would only be one correct way to tell a personal nar­rative, and that the challenge of telling such a story was to get it right. John, for example, asserted that “with nonfiction you’ve got to be stricter with things that happened.” Marie said that she did not really like writing “real stories”: “Because, um, if I’m writing something that happened a long time ago, I could be close to the, like in the middle, and then I could forget something and that could ruin the story” (Interview, 5-16-90). Sharon stated that

It’s funner to make, um, things that aren’t true because it, you can do anything you want if things are not true. If they are true, then you have to make it really true. (Interview, 5-30-90; my emphasis)

Children felt they could manipulate their material, that they were in control, when they wrote fiction. But some felt that the material con­trolled them when they wrote (if they wrote) nonfiction. They seemed to have little sense that they could shape personal narratives or expository topics to different ends, or that the “same story” could be told many dif­ferent ways.

I am struck here by the resonances between my students’ self-descrip­tions of what it felt like to write nonfiction, and the way that Calkins (1986) described third grade authors writing personal narratives. Calkins observed that third grade writers seemed unable to jump out of any chain of events they happened to be describing: “They rarely interrupted themselves to reflect on their subject or their text … or to consider alternative paths … writing was a continual process of adding on” (p. 86). Calkins explained these observations with reference to cognitive psychology (specifically, Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1982), and argued that third graders seemed to lack a ‘”central executive function’ that would allow them to shift attention back and forth between reading, writing, talking, thinking, writing, and so forth” (p. 86). I cannot help wondering if what Calkins observed was at least partly a function of the genre and material her third grade research subjects were pursuing–personal narratives. Perhaps these students were just trying to tell the truth, enacting a sort of intuitive philo­sophical stance on the relation of language to the world, and in so doing, they were restricted by their material and task in ways that did not allow them to be more flexible. Would Calkins have observed the same “contin­ual process of adding on” and moved to the same inference of limited mental functioning if she had watched children writing fiction?

Children at least felt in control when writing fiction. They consistently noted that they could “write anything” they wanted, could do any­thing they wanted in their fiction. And this sense of control seemed to give them pleasure. There were numerous comments that fiction was more exciting and interesting than nonfiction. Both James and Sharon, in their interviews, said that it was “funner” to write fiction than nonfiction; David and Leon used the word “enjoy” when talking about why they wrote fiction. When asked why so many people in the room wrote fic­tion, Robert replied, “Well, maybe they just wanted to have fun with what they wrote” (Interview, 5-29-90).

Britton (1982) suggests one source of pleasure for children writing fiction that seems in tune with the sense of control my students valued:

It has often been pointed out that in one sense a tiny infant is lord of his universe, and that growing from infancy into childhood involves discovering one’s own unimportance. But the world cre­ated in the stories children write is a world they control and this may be a source of deep satisfaction. (p. 165)

When we, and children, tell stories, we are taking on a “spectator role” (Britton, 1978; 1982), an evaluative stance (Bakhtin, 1986), in relation to our own, others, and imagined experience. In stories, we evaluate that experi­ence according to our interests and values, and express those interests and values in the stories we tell–in the objects and events we focus on (and ignore), in the stance we take in relation to those objects and events. With stories, we attempt to make sense of our experience in the world.

The human capacity to tell stories is one way men and women col­lectively build a significant and orderly world around themselves. With fiction, we investigate, perhaps invent, the meaning of human life. (Miller, 1990, p. 69)

At least part of the pleasure my students took in writing fiction was related to the chance to “build their own worlds,” to say for themselves, in stories, what the world is like and/or what the world should be like. Fiction allowed children to express personal visions of the world and their places in it.

Sometimes the worlds children created in their stories were very sim­ilar to the worlds they lived in and experienced. Marie’s The Cloud That Smiled, for example, described the everyday life of its main character (not a cloud) in some detail, and this everyday life had a strong basis in Marie’s own experiences. As in some of James and his friends’ texts that I discussed earlier, Marie named several of her characters after children in the classroom. In fact, along with Carol, Marie herself appears in the story as a secondary character and friend to the main character, Lisa (who, if you remember, also appeared in The Fake Line Leader). In her interview, Marie said that she liked to work with Lisa during the writing workshop, and that Lisa was one of her friends. In addition to appearing in Marie’s story as a character, Lisa had another role in this story–she drew the illustrations for the final published version of Marie’s book. Through Lisa, as a character, and with her as an illustrator, Marie looked at and evaluated the world around her.


The Cloud that Smiled

Once there was a girl named Lisa. She was 8 years old. Something strange was going on that day because nobody would smile or talk to her. She would smile at them but they just wouldn’t smile at her. So that day she went to the playground. She sat on the twirly-slide steps thinking about why people won’t smile at her or talk to her. She looked up and thought she saw a cloud smiling! She was amazed.

Then her mother called her and she ran to her mother. She looked up again. She didn’t see anything but a cloudy sky. Then her alarm clock went off, then she woke up.

Getting Dressed

But once she woke up she remembered it was Saturday. She was relieved. She looked at the clock–it was 11:00! She quickly got out of bed. Then she went downstairs to eat breakfast. No one was down there, so she figured that they were still sleeping. But it was 11:00. 0h! She heard a noise outside. “What if it’s Freddy Krueger?” she thought, but she looked anyway. “Thank heavens!” she said. Her parents, her lit­tle brother, and her dog were out there having a snowball fight.

Then she went to the table so she could make herself some Chee­rios. So she made herself some Cheerios. After that she went upstairs to get dressed. She was going to wear her jeans and her smiling face shirt. So she got her jeans and she got her smiling face shirt. Except when she got her smiling face shirt it was frowning. “Am I missing something?” she thought. “This better not be a joke.”

So she put on her smiling–or frowning shirt and her jeans. After that she went outside. Carol and Marie were playing in Marie’s back­ yard. She asked them if she could play with them. They said no. And after that they said, “Get out of here.”

“What’s wrong with them?” she thought.

So she went back inside. Then she sat down. She turned on TV. Ninja Turtles were on. She didn’t want to watch that. She looked out the win­dow. She couldn’t believe her eyes. She saw a cloud smiling! Just like in her dream! Her parents, her brother and her dog interrupted her as they came in. “Who won?” she asked.

They giggled. Then finally her dad said, “The dog did.” She started to giggle too. Then she remembered tomorrow was Christmas Eve.

“Mom!” she yelled. “Can I wrap presents?”

“Sure!” she yelled back. She wrapped the present that she got her lit­tle brother. She got him a remote control car. By the time she finished wrapping presents, which took her 4 hours, it was 8 o’clock pm, time to have a bedtime snack. After she finished her bedtime snack she went to bed.

The Next Day, At Night

Finally it was Christmas Eve night. It was dinner time. They were having Chinese, her favorite. Once she was finished with dinner, they went out looking at Christmas lights. When they got back it was time for Lisa and her brother Phil to go to bed.


Her alarm clock went off. She jumped out of bed and ran downstairs. She looked at the presents–there were a lot of them. She opened most of them. Finally she got her last one. She opened the present. It was a crystal and a smiling face was carved in it. Her mom said, “How do you like it?”

The End!


In her story, Marie drew on and responded to objects, people, and events from her own experience: the twirly-slide steps on the playground behind Clifford School, Carol and Lisa and her family, Cheerios, figures from popular culture (Freddy Krueger, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), school (“it was Saturday. She was relieved”), traditions surrounding Christmas. One of the reasons I find Marie’s story so attractive, I think, is exactly because she created a believable world with her details of and observations on the experiences of an 8-year-old girl. This believable world was the counterpoint to the world of dreams she began with, and then sustained with inversions (friends that would not talk or play with her, a shirt with a smile turned upside-down), and repetitions of the dream world in real life (a smiling cloud, a crystal with a smiling face).

My sense that the world Marie created in her story was closely mod­eled after her own is strengthened by my knowledge of the rough draft of her story. In the rough draft, Marie had used third person consistently, until the beginning of the second section entitled, “Getting Dressed.” From there on, she wrote in first person. In fact, the main character of the story shifted in this section from Lisa to Marie herself:


So I put on my smiling–or frowning shirt and my jeans. After that I went outside. Carol and Lisa were playing in Lisa’s backyard. I asked them if I could play with them. (Rough draft, “The Cloud”)


When I pointed this out to Marie, she said that she wanted Lisa to be the main character throughout, and she edited her draft.

Marie’s story told a very “personal” narrative, even though it was done in third person and contained improbable elements. In a fictional narrative, she named and evaluated important aspects of her experience. The story world she created strongly resembled the world she experi­enced each day.

Many children, however, used fiction to create imaginary worlds and play with magic, horror, and even, in John’s case, time. Of all the children in the room, John pursued some of the most intriguing themes–his The Second Stories Club is an excellent example. From the title, you might expect a story about a group of children who meet in the second story of a building, or something like that (there was a movie about teenagers called The Breakfast Club). Actually, John’s book was a collection of five short narratives. The five narratives shared a common theme: a specific duration of time–the second. Thus, his book was a collection (the Club of the title, I think) of narratives (Stories) about a duration of time (The Second): The Second Stories Club.

In the final version of his book, each of the five narratives was fol­lowed by an interpretation of that narrative, written by John. When John first wrote his rough draft, I was already aware that his classmates often complained to him that they did not understand his writing. In a writing conference, I suggested that John accompany each of his narratives with a brief discussion of the joke or trick he was playing with that story. I told him that his stories reminded me of abstract paintings, and that artists sometimes included written material with their paintings that discussed what they were attempting to do on canvas (and that some artists con­sidered this written material part of the artwork itself). From this discus­sion, we decided he would write accompanying material for his narra­tives, and call these discussions “interpretations.” As you will see, John could not resist being playful even in his interpretations.


The Second Stories Club

1. Rosie’s Long School Holdup
One day Rosie’s mom said, “It takes longer time to get there than you’ll be there.” So, it took a year to get there ’cause of the swirling road. They were there for one second. So Rosie’s mom didn’t see her for two years and one second.
1. Interpretation
Why doesn’t Rosie take a short cut! It would only be one year and one second until Rosie’s mom saw her.
2. The Very Short Lesson
“Oh silly,” said Tom’s father. “You won’t take lessons from Ai Sekind.”
“I don’t follow directions.”
So the next day he took lessons from Ai Sekind. It was like here, snap, go ahead.
2. Interpretation
The “from” acts like a “for” in “The Very Short Lesson.” “Ai Sekind” acts like “a second.”
3. A Lot in a Second
One day a baby scribbled all over everywhere. Two judges erased and the dumb, idiotic baby scribbled all over the judges and he ended up as a naughty 6 year old. Even though that was a lot in a second, he ended up in the juvenile home.
3. Interpretation
You know the secrets: a baby cannot hold a marker without getting very messy. And, it would be impossible to scribble that much in a second.
4. The One-Second-Year Old
“Oh no. I’m pregnant. I’m having a baby boy.” So eight and a half months went by and he was born. One second after someone else was born. He was a one second year old.
4. Interpretation
It is funny to think of a one second year old.
5. A Long Time to Wait
“Well, this is a long time to wait.”
“A second?”
“No. A day.”
“A day and a second?”
“No. A day.”
“You’ve got to have some second doing.”
“O.K. 1 day and 59 seconds.”
5. Interpretation
The guy said, “some second doing.” So that’s why he did one day and 59 seconds.


John drew on aspects of his experience in his narratives. For exam­ple, school and music lessons (John was a serious piano student) figure in his first two stories. He played off a fairly common expression in #1 with his “It takes longer time to get there than you’ll be there,” which he pushes to an extreme. He told me in one of our writing conferences that he thought that “Ai Sekind” (#2) looked like Arabic names he had seen. And the inspiration for #3, I think, was a story I had told to the class about my (then) 1-year-old son, John Jacob. One morning before school, I had left John Jacob drawing pictures in the middle of the living room with washable magic markers, while I took a shower. When I got out of the shower, I found he had filled a portion of our hallway wall, approximately three feet high (his reach) by six feet wide, with broad, graceful lines in black, not-so-washable (we found out) marker. My third grade John draws the moral for me in his interpretation for #3: A baby cannot hold a marker without getting very messy. And I, too, thought it impossible that my son could “scribble that much” in the time I was in the shower.

John’s interpretation of story #4 seems perfect–it is funny to think of a one second year old. As for #5, even with John’s interpretation and several discussions about it, I still have not figured out what he was trying to do.

In other stories, John played with numbers (The Three Thousand Musketeers) and with human nature (The Dog Human), and wrote of above-ground elevators to Miami and Tampa (The Elevator). He inspired a host of haunted house stories by other children in the room before Hal­loween with his Haunted Horror, which, within a larger narrative, told the ghastly story of the newspaper man:


One day a man sneaked in for a report. He was a newspaper man. He pushed the button, the house laughed, and a bat went out. The cats opened the gates and chased him. A witch answered the door and the vampires got him and he was never seen again.


In his fiction, John could create worlds held together by idiosyncratic interests in time, word play, numbers, Halloween. This was what he val­ued about fiction–as he said in his interview, “you have a lot of ideas with fiction … you can have more creations.”

Personal creations. Above I argued that one of a complex of reasons children wrote fiction was because of the disjunction it afforded between author and material. Fictional narratives lessened risks of self-exposure because they were “fake stories,” lies. Within them (and behind them) children could explore real and imagined experiences through the cre­ation of characters who might or might not speak for them.

But fiction also afforded children control over their material, a con­trol they appropriated more and less effectively to express their individual interests and values. They could do “what they wanted to” in their writing within constraints set by, among other things, the perceived expectations of peer audiences for interesting, exciting stories. Thus, fic­tional narratives could also be very personal narratives, offering, in the selection and affirmation of this and not that, an expression of the writer’s vision, her thoughts and desires.

Children knew and depended on the distance fiction provided to avoid self-exposure. At the same time, they also knew that they were exposed in their fiction, that they put themselves at risk in the telling of even acceptable lies. The words of children I quoted above–speaking of trusted and untrusted audiences, how it felt to be teased about stories– came from children who wrote primarily fiction. Karen stopped reading a fictionalized account of Mrs. Parker’s childhood, not her own child­hood, when Ken joined us out in the hall. John ended up in the princi­pal’s office for reading and defending a story he wrote about an imagi­nary elevator that transported people to Florida. Jessie would not share her retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” despite my efforts to create a class­room in which young authors trusted their audiences.


Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess. and her name was Jessie. One day, she was sleeping, and she heard a noise so she got up and went upstairs to the room upstairs. When she opened the door she saw a spinning wheel.

When she was spinning at the spinning wheel, she poked her finger. Suddenly she fell asleep, and everyone fell asleep too. Just then a prince came.

He snuck into the castle and found the princess and kissed her. And suddenly everybody awoke and the prince became an empire.


Bruner (1990) believes that the stories we tell and write “mediate between the canonical world of culture and the more idiosyncratic world of beliefs, desires, and hopes” (p. 52). If I understand him correctly, Bruner is saying that our stories represent a sort of compromise between how we think the world is (given to us in the “canonical world of cul­ture”) and how we, as individuals, would like the world to be. When we tell stories, we both draw on given, cultural narratives about the world and our place in it, and manipulate and twist them in ways that express our “idiosyncratic worlds.” The twists Jessie gave to a more canonical version of “Sleeping Beauty” (from the Grimms, for example) are charm­ing, and suggest self-importance, youth, movement. Her princess is named Jessie, instead of Rosamond. Jessie, the author (as well as Jessie the princess), avoids altogether the angry witch who casts a death spell on the young princess, and the good witch who transmutes that spell to sleep. Jessie seems impatient with sleep, so she has her princess “sud­denly” fall asleep, only to be awakened almost immediately by a prince who “just then” arrived. In the Grimm version, the two live happily ever after together. Jessie’s princess and prince may do likewise, but Jessie leaves this open. Jessie, however, is not content with some sort of romantic bliss for the two. Her version ends with the rise to power of her prince: He became an empire.

Jessie’s story may also be read against another “canonical world of cul­ture”–the peer culture in which Jessie participated. The rift between canonical peer world and Jessie’s more idiosyncratic one is wide, and leaves the peer one looking anything but charming (a little grim), for Jessie. In that culture, Jessie was not beautiful in the stories others told about her. She labored to avoid those who would cast spells to “cut her in half” or turn her into a “jar of slime.” The school year was long, and she had little chance of association (nor did she say she wanted it) with the powerful.

Writing felt risky for children in the writing workshop, and it seemed riskier to some than others. Children responded by seeking out trusted audiences, be they peers or teachers, and by turning, often, to fiction, writing themselves onto the page from a slight distance.

Jessie wrote herself and a vision of the world on the page, sometimes through personal narrative, other times through fiction. But others seldom heard her voice or saw her vision, at least not in the public spaces the workshop provided. Jessie thought that those spaces were for people with “lots of friends.”

Jessie did not assert herself, with her texts, in the public spaces of shar­ing time and the writing workshop library. Other children toward the bottom of the informal peer hierarchies, however, did. Janis and John were among the most frequent readers during sharing time. William had two books in the library, and Jil’s story, Kittens, and Janis’s book of rid­dles and jokes, The Funny Book, were among the more popular, and most checked out, books in the workshop library.

But there was an interesting, and ultimately disturbing, difference between the public texts of these children and the texts written by chil­dren with more status and power in the room. Children with little status tended not to write themselves or their friends into their stories as char­acters. Children with more status did. The result was that only certain children regularly appeared in the stories read by children during sharing time and housed in the workshop library–children with the most status and power in the room.

The contrast can be sharply represented with the opening pages from books written by children toward the bottom and the top of the informal pecking order in the room. The first two pages of William’s book, The Junkie House (“junkie” from “junk,” not a reference, at least not a direct one, to drug users), are reproduced in Figure 5.2. The open­ing page of Carol’s book, Spies, appears in Figure 5.3.

a child's drawing depicting a cat attacking a person
Figure 5.2. From William’s The Junkie House: “There were two black dogs and two black cats. They lived in a junkie house. One day a person opened the door and stepped into the house. And the cat jumped on him. The person threw the cat.”


a child's drawing of four women dressed in unique clothing
Figure 5.3. From Carol’s Spies.

William does not name the main character in his story after himself or anyone else in the room–in fact, in this instance William’s main charac­ter is referred to only as “a person,” “the person,” and “he” throughout the story. In Carol’s story, the main characters are named for children in the room; specifically, a group of four girls of relatively high status, including Carol herself. Three of the children’s names are shortened and stylized, with the effect, for me, of suggesting characters who are tougher or more sophisticated than characters named by the full names: Car (from Carol), ‘Zanne (from Suzanne), and Lis (from Lisa). (Several children in interviews mentioned that high status boys and girls in the room had better clothes than other children. The attention to clothes and hair in Carol’s illustration is striking, especially in contrast to William’s illustration.)

The situation, of course, was more complex than is suggested by the juxtaposition of William and Carol’s stories, in at least three ways. First, children of relatively high status and influence in the room did not always write stories that included themselves and their friends as characters. Troy, for example, who worked with James on one of the Fake Line Leader sequels, wrote an extremely popular book entitled, The Magic Triceratops. Its main characters were a dinosaur and a boy named Chang; none of the characters in the story were named explicitly for children in the room.

Second, children with little status did occasionally write themselves and/or friends into their stories. However, as with Jessie, most of these stories did not go public. Robert, for example, wrote a fictional narrative about adventures that he and his cousin had on Halloween. Robert had his text typed and bound, and he drew illustrations for the book. But he never shared it in sharing time or put it in the classroom library. He did publish a story about pirates and skeletons, in which the characters were named just that–Pirates and Skeletons.

John, however, did write and share some stories that at least seemed to place him as a main character in his own fictional narratives. I say “seemed” because, unlike stories by James and Carol, John’s stories never explicitly named him as a character in his stories. He often wrote in first person, leaving it unclear as to whom the “I” referred: the author, or a persona created by him. For example, John’s The Elevator began:


One day me, Jimmy, and our two American Saddle horses, Joe and Jack, started a club. We had a secret clubroom, and we two lived there except when visiting our parents.


As in Carol’s story, Spies, the characters in John’s story belong to a club, have an underground meeting place, and are soon engaged in an adven­ture. Unlike Carol’s story, none of the characters (not even the horses) are explicitly named for children in the room. John and his friends in class, in other words, were not present in his stories in the same way that James and Carol and their friends were.

Of relatively low status children, only Jil seems to have named her­self as a character in a public text (I assert this after a close examination of the books that appeared in the workshop library and after a less sys­tematic perusal of fieldnotes and audiotapes pertaining to sharing time across the year). In her book, Kittens, Jil wrote in the first person, and does not identify the “I” of the story as “Jil” anywhere in her text. But she does name the main character “Jil” in an illustration on page eight of her fourteen page book (see Figure 5.4).


a child's drawing of people in a school
Figure 5.4. From Jil’s Kittens.

Finally, we must remember that simply being included (or present) as a character in a story is not necessarily a positive thing. In chapter 3, I discussed several texts in which characters named for children in the room were portrayed negatively by James and his friends, and I noted Sharon and Carol’s sentiments about being included in texts written by boys. The point here (as well as the thrust of this discussion) is perhaps most starkly illustrated with the list of characters Mary and Suzanne drew up for a play they had written. To the left are the charac­ters’ names in Mary and Suzanne’s play. To the right are the names of children Mary and Suzanne thought should play those parts. Except for Joshua, who was Suzanne’s fifth grade neighbor, all the children listed were from the classroom.

Mouse – Maya
Princess – Marie
Stranger – Ken
King – Paul
Prince – Troy
Witch – Lori
Queen – Carol
Tower 1 – John
Tower 2 – Leon
Tower 3 – Robert
Dancers – Suzanne and Joshua
Narrator – Bruce

Not all characters in plays are created equal. Three characters (and only these characters) had no lines in the play: Tower 1, Tower 2, and Tower 3. These roles were assigned, by Mary and Suzanne, to John, Leon, and Robert, three boys at the bottom of the pecking order. Leon and Robert lived in the trailer park, and John, as has already been discussed, was often teased by his classmates. They were to stand on the stage from the beginning to the end of the play, present throughout, but mute.

So where does this leave us? In general, children of high status and influ­ence in the room appeared as characters in the public stories of the writ­ing workshop; other children did not. When these other children did appear, their inclusion did not necessarily suggest positive regard. Cer­tain children were privileged in the content of the public texts of the workshop. The micropolitics of peer relations played itself out not only on the playground and behind my back, but in the writing children chose to make public in the spaces created and authorized by me, the teacher.

It is disturbing enough to realize that children’s texts might reflect, in some way, differences in status and power among children. But we must also consider the active role these texts might play in maintaining these relationships. Texts are rhetorical; they can influence how people think, have effects in the world. When a child is not chosen to play baseball by her classmates during recess, this not only reflects their evaluations of her as a player or friend in some passive way, it also actively produces (and reproduces) those evaluations for the child and her classmates. The classmates’ decisions have effects, make a difference for the future, maybe make recess less joyful, and the child more anxious and clumsy the next day when she is picked to play, and evaluated again.

On some level, children knew this about their texts, knew they were rhetorical. It took longer for me to understand. Witness Lisa during shar­ing time, in November, as she introduces her “soap opera” in which all the main characters are children from the class; note my response that pursues socioanalysis and abstracted relations among women and men, and ignores the immediate relations of children in the room:

Sharing time: Grace gave a little speech about what kind of behavior we expected, and then Lisa shared her piece. I thought it was interest­ing that Lisa, before reading, said the piece was about people in the class, and that if anyone wasn’t in her piece yet, they probably would be later. What does this mean? Is she recognizing the importance of being included in these stories for feelings and status?

She read quickly, and students and Grace asked her to read more slowly (Jil told her if she felt “hyper'” she should still slow down the next time she read her piece). Suzanne said that she thought the piece was “excellent” (quite a contrast here to how she opened her response to Emily the other day–social class, status stuff going on?), but that she didn’t understand the part where the characters of Jessie and Paul were talking about “caring.” Suzanne asked, “Caring about what?”

In the story, the character of Jessie says to Paul, “I didn’t know you cared,” and Paul says, “I don’t.” When Lisa repeated this part of the story, Robert started razzing the real life Paul, pushed his shoulders. Paul looked down, seemed embarrassed, but was smiling. Some­where in here Grace said, “Soap operas come to Mrs. P’s class,” or something like that. And she was right. Given this, some sort of exam­ination of what female and male characters are doing in Lisa’s story, and maybe a discussion of this with her and the class, might be impor­tant (look at anti-sexist pedagogy material). I could do this with Lisa when she is revising. If women and men take on stereotyped roles, we could play with reversing roles and see what happened. Another issue here, of course, is that Lisa has been working on this piece a long time, and I don’t want to discourage her. (Fieldnotes, 1 1-20-89)

I was beginning to wonder about peer relations among children here, but primarily in relation, not to written texts, but to their talk and behavior in class (as when I questioned Suzanne’s motivations for responding positively to Lisa, and negatively to Emily). Lisa raised the issue of the inclusion and exclusion of children in stories explicitly, but I did not develop it here. And at this point in my teaching and research, I do not appear to be very sensitive to the embarrassment and hurt Jessie and Paul might have experienced from Lisa’s textual teasing, and the ensuing discussion of it. Particularly Jessie: In Lisa’s soap opera, Jessie assumed (and seemed to desire) a romantic relationship with a boy, assumed wrong, and was put down (Jessie: I didn’t know you cared; Paul: I don’t). It seems I reported this episode in my fieldnotes only to set up Grace’s characterization of Lisa’s story as a soap opera, which sets up the need for a little socioanalysis. I considered problems Lisa’s mate­rial posed for my response to her, but I did not consider problems Lisa’s material posed for other children in the room.

I do not know why John, Janis, William, Karen, and others, did not publish fictional narratives like Lisa’s, with themselves and classmates as characters in the story. If they had reasons they could articulate, I did not ask for them. I discovered this aspect of their texts long after I was done teaching. My first guess would be that risks these children associated with writing about themselves in personal narratives also attended writing themselves into fictional narratives, and that they judged these risks pro­hibitive. In this interpretation, children of low status were less extreme versions of Jessie, but living with similar concerns. They did not remove themselves and their texts from the public spaces of sharing time and the library, as Jessie did, but they did remove their names. The conventional disjunction between author and material in fiction was not quite enough to make them feel comfortable putting themselves back into their texts as characters. This would not explain all their decisions. Sometimes, perhaps many times, they simply were interested in writing about other characters in other stories: Mrs. Parker as a little girl with a dog and a boyfriend; music lessons from (for) Ai Sekind (a second). Children with more status and influence, from this view, felt less vulnerable. They wrote fiction, but were more comfortable with placing themselves in their stories.

Or, perhaps, the children at the top were also uncomfortable in the workshop, but for different reasons. Sharing time and the library offered less popular children in the room numerous public opportunities to impress peers and teachers with their wit, to influence opinion on what really was scary about Halloween. Unlike the playground or the cafete­ria, or before and after school, these public spaces were somewhat closely watched over by teachers who would not allow these other children to be shouted down or pushed around. Perhaps the pecking order was a little more up for grabs than I have suggested, and the workshop was an open but structured place in which there was

An exchange of evaluations between authors and their readers, an exchange in which reputations are made and lost, influences wax and wane, values gain and lose currency, and the cultural pattern of a social group is sustained and evolved. (Britton, 1978, p. 17)

Children at the top wrote themselves into their texts as an assertion (and reassertion) of their importance, their rightful place at the front of the room and at the focus of attention. From this perspective, they named themselves in their texts in the name of order, in defense of hier­archies that were continually threatened by upstart writers like Jil, John, and Janis. Remember James’ comments, in chapter 3, about Leon trying to be someone he was not, not staying in his place.

A story is a way of doing things with words. It makes something happen in the real world: for example, it can propose modes of self­hood or ways of behaving that are then imitated in the real world. It has been said, along these lines, that we would not know we were in love if we had not read novels. Seen from this point of view, fictions may be said to have a tremendous importance not as the accurate reflectors of a culture but as the makers of that culture and as the unostentatious, but therefore all the more effective, policemen of culture. Fictions keep us in line and tend to make us more like our neighbors. (Miller, 1990, p. 69)

It would be difficult to characterize all the “lines” that fictions in the workshop would keep children within. The texts shared by children from the author’s chair and in the workshop library pursued multiple interests and values. Most children, regardless of their place in peer hier­archies, contributed to the collections of public texts in the room. They chose material that they more or less effectively bent to their wills, and they shared those texts with others.

Still, in their inclusions and exclusions, in their evaluations, these texts valued certain children more than others. And the children receiv­ing valorization on the page were children who did not live in the trailer park, were children who already enjoyed status and influence within the peer culture, even if they had to work to keep it.

In my thinking about teacher response to children’s texts, I had real­ized that children in writing workshops made important curricular deci­sions for themselves, and that some of the material they might work with required critical evaluations by them with my help. But I had thought of children’s decisions about material as private ones, affecting only indi­vidual children’s work for the duration of individual projects. I had not considered how children’s stories became curriculum for other children in teacher-sponsored events and classroom institutions that encouraged (and required) children to listen to and read carefully the texts of other children. I had thought of “questionable” material in children’s texts as the unfortunate traces of societal politics of class, race, and gender. I had not considered how children’s stories might participate, for better and for worse, in the micropolitics of the classroom.

But I would learn.


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