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Opening Letters

COLUMN: Watermelon and Seeds

how first-grade writing workshops help us grow

Katie Venit, illustrated by Grace Pedersen |

I’m taking creative writing lessons with my six year old.

Every day, we watch Ms. Lisa – a teacher who sounds like maybe she’s from Brooklyn. We give a thumbs up when we agree with something. The videos are pre-recorded, but Ms. Lisa says she can see a lot of thumbs up, and we feel a little less alone with our thumbs in the air. Ms. Lisa teaches us about watermelon and seed topics. Watermelon topics, she says, hefting an invisible watermelon in her arms, are big and heavy and hard to carry.

Perfect, I think. I know lots of watermelon topics that would make gut-wrenching essays. Family and love and disappointment and aspirations and life ...

Wait, now she’s telling us not to write about watermelon topics. Too heavy, too hard to carry. But, she says, within each watermelon are hundreds of tiny seeds. Those are the stories we should tell. Easy to carry, easy to write. My daughter and I scratch our heads.

“Do you have any ideas?” I ask.

“Summer,” she says.

“I think that’s a watermelon topic.”

“Fall.” I shake my head. “Watermelon.”

She howls, chucks her pencil, and then joins it, prone, on the floor, neither pencil nor girl capable of writing a thing at the moment.

“I know, sweetheart,” I sigh. “Writer’s block is a bear.”

I stall. This past year has been all feelings. Despair, euphoria, guilt, love, wonder, stress. Meta-emotions about those emotions: guilt about feeling overwhelmed; relief about feeling sad; sad about feeling angry.

KATIE VENIT

I scroll through my photos and come to one from last May of my kids at Devil’s Punchbowl, our first trip there. A seed story, for sure. My daughter writes about a surprise gift she got from a neighbor.

Our first drafts are OK. A little flat. Ms. Lisa teaches us to analyze mentor texts and learn about expanding our drafts with step-by-step exact actions. I scribble notes – this is good stuff!

We work with Ms. Lisa for a couple of weeks. Every day, my daughter goes through a brief creative crisis, but she always manages to put words on paper. I admire her grit. These are challenging lessons even for me, and I’ve been able to print my letters for decades. But there she is, writing a seed story, like a boss.

Ms. Lisa’s mentor text uses ellipses to build tension, which my daughter loves and adds on every page of her story. I find a place to add one.

I do all these lessons faithfully. But then Ms. Lisa tells us to bring the inside out, to share our feelings.

I stall. This past year has been all feelings. Despair, euphoria, guilt, love, wonder, stress. Meta-emotions about those emotions: guilt about feeling overwhelmed; relief about feeling sad; sad about feeling angry.

If I crack open this seed to excavate the inside, a watermelon’s worth of juice will run out and everywhere.

I put my essay aside. My daughter goes on without me.

I’m brushing my teeth one morning when she knocks on the bathroom door. She hands me her finished story, illustrated and everything, and skips away. She makes good use of ellipses and sound effects. That ending, though.

I study her ending like one of Ms. Lisa’s mentor texts. She brings the inside out in an elegant, declarative, uncomplicated sentence, which was truthful to that specific moment. No meta-feelings, no review of how she felt before or after. Just precisely and honestly how she felt the moment she received the gift and played with her friend.

T.S. Eliot said, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal,” and who am I to argue with T. S.? Her seed’s ending is good enough for mine. So I stole it.

“I felt happy.”