Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.
It was late at night probably in or around 2006 or 2007. Everyone was asleep, except me. I was furiously sifting through teacher guides and perusing the Internet, looking for creative ways to engage my students using fresh approaches and current events.
I don’t know the exact combination of words I searched that night but eventually I landed where I needed to be: The Learning Network of The New York Times.
The kid in candy store cliche is old (and, on some days, so am I) so I won’t use that one. Let’s just say, I felt like I found my people.
The contributors to this section of the Times create content and “connect the dots” helping to make current events and true-life stories accessible to students of all ages and grade levels. (This works well because I teach and meet writers of all ages, sometimes as young as nine and sometimes up to eighty-nine!) The lists of writing prompts are excellent resources. I especially appreciate the feature “What’s Going On in This Picture?”
What’s going on? What’s that about? Did you ever notice?
In other words: Did you ever wonder?
Here we are, about fifteen years after that late night lesson planning and I’m still a big fan of The Learning Network. Also, on occasion, I’m a member of its team. My service as a contest judge means, along with many others, I get to read thousands of entries for seasonal essay contests. I just completed reading the STEM Writing Contest submissions and from these selections I revisited my love for this short but inviting inquiry: Did you ever wonder?
In these writings there were fascinating claims made about fin whales, artificial intelligence and the sort of bacteria and yeast that I was persuaded to believe may very well modify the entire field of fashion. Don’t get me wrong, I drank up the variety and sometimes idiosyncratic nature of these essays and marveled at the way students chose to write them. The voices on these pages were strong, funny, fierce. But it wasn’t only their voices that moved me. It was the reoccurrence of that simple question: Did you ever wonder?
“We think about stuff in ways that might knock your socks off,” their work whispered and shouted. “And we’re unafraid to put things together that you may not have ever thought to combine.” Mindfulness and Netflix? Music as painkiller? Giving thanks to chameleons?
“We’ll be fine with these kids,” I thought after reading the second batch of submissions.
“Did you ever wonder?” they wanted to know.
I tried to remember the last conversation I had that included that inquiry. No luck.
What an act of compassion. To be curious about what lives inside the imagination, the intellect, the heart of another. And then to ask. How intimate! How inviting!
Did you ever wonder? Again and again and again.
The great Lucille Clifton reminds us: “So you come to poetry not out of what you know but out of what you wonder.”
As demonstrated by many of these emerging essay writers who take a chance and submit their work, the blank page can certainly be a place to assert what you know but also what you don’t. And this applies to other genres and forms, as well.
Did you ever wonder? might free the memoirist, the fiction writer and maybe even the screenwriter. Imagine what it could do to the cartoonist? (I see lots of thought bubbles.) It can very well open stale scenes, flat conversations and nowhere-going plots. It can ignite and engage.
Give it a try. On the page or in person. But get ready, wonder awaits and awe is just around the corner.