Awarded the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters
Named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2014
Foreword for Youth Voices in Ink, a publication of Badgerdog Literary Publishing, Inc. Volume 4, Issue 3, Spring 2008
By Elizabeth Crook
When I first agreed to visit one of Badgerdog’s classes, I was a little wary. As an English major I had done my time with taskmasters who made me get the commas right and who cared deeply about dangling modifiers, capitalization and apostrophe misuse. I’d enjoyed my share of professors who cut me loose from punctuation and allowed me to drift untethered into flights of fancy. But over the years I had developed a superstitious idea that writing couldn’t be taught—that the great writers didn’t come from writing programs, they came from nowhere. Their talent was a mysterious happenstance of DNA, an instinct to turn their heads at the right moment to notice the red cardinal flashing across a gray landscape, while everyone else was looking the other way.
What I didn’t realize is that Badgerdog is not just a writing program. It’s a program that encourages that instinct to notice—and better yet—in case there is no cardinal—the ability to imagine one.
The Badgerdog workshop instructor was a writer and musician named Stayton Bonner, a bearded, unassuming character and the author of a biography of Larry McMurtry. He walked to the front of a 4th grade class at Smith Elementary in Del Valle carrying a corked bottle with a piece of paper inside it. He invited students to speculate on where he had found the bottle, who might have put the message in it, and why, and he promised to take the message out of the bottle and read it to them on the following Thursday during their next class.
The students eagerly contributed ideas. One suggested George Bush had written the note. Another insisted a con-artist pretending to be a castaway had forged the note to trick the FBI into sending a rescue squad. Why a con artist would want a rescue squad wasn’t questioned by Stayton: he received every suggestion as if it were possible.
Then he asked them to take their pencils out and write their own messages, beginning with the words “Help! I am— . . . .”
Most of their faces went blank. They dutifully held their pencils over their papers. Some of them shyly raised their hands to ask for further clarification. I felt alarmed on their behalf. How would I have finished this sentence in the 4th grade? How would I finish it now? “Help! I am—” what? Out of my league here?
When I was almost the age of these 4th graders, my family moved from Virginia during the dead of summer to Australia, where it was winter and the school year was halfway finished. Naïve to the academic differences between the U.S public school that I had been attending and Canberra Church of England Girls Grammar School, where students wore uniforms and pledged allegiance to the Queen and had their fingernails inspected every morning, I chose to enter the 4th grade instead of repeating half of the 3rd. After a week of classes I gathered my books together during a timed test on the multiplication tables, and walked the long row to the front of the class to ask the teacher if she would—please?—show me the way to the third grade.
Watching some of the students at Smith Elementary, I could see a similar nervousness—a fear of having too little knowledge for the task at hand. But there was a difference between their 4th grade situation and mine. They had been told to dream things up. They were casting about for ideas instead of counting anxiously on their fingers under their desks. I watched them, little by little, start to enjoy their thoughts. A word or two, then sentences, settled onto their papers.
It has taken me a long time to understand that this lack of clarity has fueled me as a writer—that there are advantages to muddling through. Confusion allows me to find my way into stories instinctively instead of with foresight. Writing is confounding and disorienting by nature, and Badgerdog runs on the premise that this is OK. More than that—this is good. Students can get excited about what they don’t know; they can fill up their own blank pages. In the end this is a lesson in life as well as a lesson in writing.
By the time the children had finished writing their messages, their suspicion about the assignment had changed to a buzz of enthusiasm. I watched them turn their papers in, some of them eyeing Stayton’s bottle curiously, a few of them daring to ask him about the message. But Stayton wasn’t giving them any clues.
“So, then. What’s the message?” I asked him when we left the class together.
He shrugged, as if he didn’t care. It occurred to me there wasn’t a message—that maybe he hadn’t written it yet.
“If you want to know,” he said, “come back on Thursday.”
Badgerdog Literary Publishing, Inc. is a 501 (c)(3) independent, nonprofit entity