At the start of my lyric writing process with the Humperdincks this year, I had some ideas I thought would be great ways to invite their literary voices out to play. With the right prompt or writing cue, I was certain I could tap into an inexhaustible supply of excellent, silly, original material. Is the witch always evil? Do the owls have to sleep in a nest? What kind of food would King Giraffe serve to his guests?
But asking my students, for example, to use a pencil on a piece of paper to write about emotions and relationships and the contours of a character’s personality (complicated and nuanced stuff for any writer to tackle) was like making a beeline for the most recognizable thing on the landscape — the ordinary ways of describing something: good, bad, sad, scared. That meant there were few detours on the way to the hive. It was a good start, useful in gathering momentum, but ultimately too circumscribed.
This is not to say that commonplace means uninteresting; it just means more obvious. I was being too technical with my expectations, too literal for the little ones. I also realized it wasn’t exactly “freeing” for the kids to write spontaneously when every other word represented a new spelling puzzle they had to solve.
I believe writing is an interactive art: what we write has to come from somewhere, has to have its root in some place, even when we write about something unprecedented, wild or unfamiliar to us. It demands that we act and interact, and engage dynamically with a story.
And oddly enough, acting has always been a kind of writing for me. It allows the chance to inhabit a space with more possibilities than are apparent when you’re just staring at a blank page. What I didn’t think about till a little later, humbled by my students’ honest responses to my “brilliant” invocations (“Miss Eva, this is boring”), is that inspiration doesn’t appear because we ask it to, or even when we ask the right question, necessarily. It happens when we are connected, when we are communicating with our experience of something, and letting it dictate to us.
I decided to give the kids an opportunity to “walk around” in our opera first, and connect with it from a place that relied less on their ability to match cause to effect and more on their instinct to stretch the truth. I introduced acting games that gave the kids a means to expand their view of what the characters in our opera might be thinking and feeling, anticipating and dreaming about.
Beginning the process of writing lyrics to our dramatic moments by first enacting those moments proved a perfect segue. After that, the kids were more eager to playfully push against the traditional ways to tell a story with language. At that point, metaphors came out to play, as did wacky rhymes and funny poems. I realized, too, that I could assume the role of scribe, while they could write by doing — acting, drawing, dancing, singing — and leave the perfect spelling to me.
– By Eva Langman
Lead Teaching Artist 2014-2015