…and I am in the middle of a delightful week teaching creative writing to eighth and ninth graders at a program run by Butler University, where during the academic year I’m an adjunct professor, working with MFA candidates. The difference between teaching middle-and-high-school students and twentysomethings, I’ve learned, is mostly about presentation—the content is more or less the same. That’s because there are only maybe fundamental truths to be taught about imaginative writing, so you present them over and over again in new ways.
So for now, and probanly for the rest of my life, I’ll be presenting the same straightforward pieces of advice about writing (for excitement, look to conflict—the engine of the story is the want—a character cannot simply be, she must change—a couple more), in ways that are engaging for adults (“read and analyze three key scenes from Middlemarch”) and ways that are engaging for kids (“do a silly improv scene and talk about how conflict emerged”).
My favorite thing I’ve been talking about with these kids, this week—and they’re super-smart kids, and I love the fact that they have chosen to go to creative-writing summer camp, which is exactly the sort of defiantly nerdy thing I spent my childhood doing—but my favorite thing we’ve talked about is what we call The Magic But, which just means: the moment in a story, or in a chapter, or really in a sentence, where the complicating factor comes in, that magical moment where the conflict arises. Without the Magic But, you might have a pretty piece of scene setting, or a cool character, but the story comes in borne upon that mystical “but…”
Plus it sounds like we’re saying “butt” over and over, which both the kids and I enjoy a lot.
Anyhow, here’s an example we dug into. (And it’s not just number 7, by the way: Shakespeare’s sonnets are littered with Magic Buts:)
Lo! in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty;
And having climb’d the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage;
BUT when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, ‘fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract and look another way:
So thou, thyself out-going in thy noon,
Unlook’d on diest, unless thou get a son.