I’m channeling my inner Sophia (anyone remember the Golden Girls?) so hang in there with me.
Picture it: northern Michigan in the spring, a tiny, quiet lake where the only residents are retired couples, a dead-end dirt road in the middle of nowhere (literally). After a day of work around the house, the neighbors have gathered around the bonfire pit in their lawn chairs for a cool drink in the warm spring afternoon sunshine. A van drives slowly up the road and comes to a stop in front of a tree-filled, empty lot. Every door opens and the troops file out…a thirtyish couple - the wife very pregnant, and then…a thirteen year old, a twelve year old, an eleven year old, a ten year old and finally grandma and grandpa.
I often imagine what this scene must have looked like to the by-stander birds and squirrels. I imagine the neighbors mouths hanging open as the people kept coming out of the van. It must have looked like a clown car packed full! And imagine the noise level that must have accompanied all the kids who had been riding for two hours in the van and were finally free! It must have been something to witness. I can also imagine the feeling of dread as the thirtyish couple began to look at the empty lot with the for sale sign. What was this huge group of people like? Where did they come from and were they planning to stay?
The thirtyish couple was my parents and the yet-to-be-born baby was me! Just before I was born, my parents bought the empty lot and cleared much of it for their “cottage,” which was actually a house. My dad and his friends built the house from the ground up. It was built as a weekend/vacation home with thoughts of retirement in the distant future.
It turns out that my dad had worked with one of the neighbors and found out about the property from him when my dad mentioned that he was looking for a lot up north. The group of neighbors became an influence in my life immediately. They were like extra grandparents to me. They watched out for me (and my siblings), they celebrated birthdays and milestones with us, and teased us about boyfriends and girlfriends. Some of my first words were “Take a walk Carl” because Carl liked to tease me and that was my feisty comeback.
We spent nearly every weekend and family vacation at the cottage for the next eighteen years of my life. When I went to college, my parents retired and moved to the cottage, which then officially became known as “the house up north.” When I went home for the weekend as a student that is where I went. When I met my future husband that is where I took him to meet my parents (and the rest of the neighborhood). This place was a cornerstone in my life. It was the tranquil place in the middle of nowhere that I resented a little for its lack of excitement and young people as a teenager and the place that I miss dearly now.
I realize, looking back, what an important role the place and the people of that neighborhood played in my development. It was at the cottage that I learned how friends interact by watching the adults. It was at the cottage that I learned that people outside of my family cared about me. It was at the cottage that I learned about relationships. It was at the cottage that I learned about storytelling.
While all the lessons I learned there were important, it is the storytelling that really stands out. Each weekend, as we huddled around the bonfire and looked at the stars, I listened to hours of stories told by my parents and the neighbors. I heard about the “old days” when they had to walk to school uphill both ways in the snow. (Has anyone else heard this story?) I learned about why Carl called the refrigerator an icebox when he told about how he used to help his dad get blocks of ice to put in the bottom of the fridge/icebox before they had electricity in his house. I learned about how thick the ice needed to be on the lake before it was strong enough to ride snowmobiles on it. I learned how to tell a joke and how to weave a story for an audience. I learned more sitting around that bonfire that I did in some of my classroom experiences, even though I didn’t know it at the time.
As I look back at my journey as a writer, it most certainly started around the bonfire every weekend since before I was old enough to understand the stories. How lucky I was to experience such a thing! I truly learned to write by learning oral storytelling first. Now I try to give my students that same experience. We spend the first months of the school year learning to tell a story. We practice rehearsing our stories, practice thinking through the important parts of the story, and we practice telling a complete story from start to finish. We tell stories orally to a partner, a small group or the whole class. This is the way I launch writing because I know there is much value in learning to tell a story and without that piece, writing becomes an even bigger opponent to tackle. From storytelling, my students are able to transition into drawing their stories. I teach some guided drawing lessons to help with this transition as well. By the time November arrives, the kids are so good at telling and drawing stories, they are able to concentrate their efforts into getting the letters and sounds down on the page. I may not be able to recreate the bonfire but I can certainly recreate the storytelling experience.
I can only hope that my students get as much from their writing experience in our classroom as I did listening to stories around the bonfire. I owe a lot to that little northern Michigan lake in the middle of nowhere.