Obedience School

life-size-male-yellow-labDogs can teach us about the writing life. They can focus on a worthy idea and they can catch it in midair. They live verbs and love nouns. Dogs don’t walk. They saunter, scamper, scurry, and lope. A dog’s nouns are her people, her places, her things– loved hard. Dogs have good instincts– but they need some rules.

Teachers taught me about rules. I learned not to start a sentence with and. And yet I still do. I learned not to begin a sentence with but. But sometimes it just sounds right. I learned to avoid sentence fragments. Most of the time.

It is important to know rules, and it is sometimes important to follow them. Don’t run in the hallway– it isn’t safe. Move your soup spoon away from you as you eat soup– if someone is looking. There are times to show that we know the rules — like at a state dinner, or on a state writing test.

Our favorite writing teachers in Room 204 are our favorite authors. They play fast and loose with the rules, and we like the way their writing sounds. To play with rules you have to know the rules.

Now it is our turn. This week, my third graders will put sentences on leashes. That’s right! This week our sentences are going to obedience school. We will learn to groom them until they are the show dogs of writing conventions. Before we let them off the leash, we must be sure they will respond to commands. We can let them run back into the lively writerly woods of our imaginations–confident that they will come, stay, and heel if necessary. It’s all about the rules.

My mother is 80 and belongs to a writer’s group at her local community center. When I phoned her this weekend she read me her latest piece — The Road Not Taken. I listened to the lovely and familiar cadence of her writing, her humor, and the rich storied meaning of her words. As the daughter of a Naval Officer and the wife of a diplomat, she spent a lifetime learning conventions and rules. She has spent a good bit of her life learning how to break them. But she doesn’t break writing rules– she makes them sing.

As I listened to her read, I realized she taught me to write, just as she taught me to move the soup spoon away from myself when I eat soup. And to place the spoon on the plate that holds the bowl, never in the bowl. At least when someone is looking.

Who taught you to write, and what did you learn?

About Annie Campbell

Annie Campbell is a National Board Certified teacher and loves her work. After a forty year career in the classroom, she continues to support teachers. Annie enjoys cooking for family and friends; she likes to lose herself in a good book; she loves discovering new ideas, restaurants, perfect picnic places, and movies with her husband, Ben.
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4 Responses to Obedience School

  1. Wendy Martin says:

    I love the idea of putting sentences on leashes. Wonderful imagery. Hopefully they will respond to obedience training better than our mutt (who came to us with lots of bad habits that needed breaking).

    Who taught me to write?

    I think, like you, genetics made me predisposed for it.

    Certainly my dad taught me how to tell a story.

    But grief (following my mother’s death when I was 21) taught me how to write, because I was compelled to write volumes in the dark of night while my college roommate lay sleeping. I learned how to express what I was feeling. Through writing, the persistent hum of grief exited my head through my fingers.

  2. Lorna Knowles Blake says:

    I love this post! All my life we have had dogs– dogs that lived verbs and loved nouns. Right now I have a new dog whose verbs are “frolic” in the snow or grass and “gambol” whenever the air is crisp and cold. He also bounces, like Tigger. My new dog loves nouns: “cookie,” “ball,” “out” and “toy” to name a few. I never thought about the connection between training a dog and writing, but it makes perfect sense. If we want to be writers, we have to show the reader that we know what we are doing. Imagine if a dog at the Westminster Show went crazy and pulled and barked and sat when they were supposed to stand because their handler didn’t know the rules! That dog would be out of the show ring before you could say “Woof!” Take your sentences to obedience school and then let them strut— that is the right idea.

    I learned to love to write from reading other writers. One of my favorite writers was Lucy Maud Montgomery who created the character Anne of Green Gables. Anne just loved to tell a story (although she didn’t have a lot of leashes, her descriptions are funny, honest and true) and I loved her voice so much I wanted to write just like her. She was my “kindred spirit” and made me want to be a good enough story-teller that other kindred spirits would find me and I would find them.

    My dog Marley graduated from obedience school this fall and is a wonderful family member– a pet that makes us proud. I know you will be proud of your writing as you take it through all the obedience school training it takes to get a championship sentence and a good, obedient companion who knows just when it is time to frolic, gambol or bounce and just when it is necessary to sit, stay or lie down.

  3. Lloyd says:

    I was taught how to write by all my teachers throughout grade, middle, and high school. When learning how to write, I too was told not to start a sentence with “because,” or “and,” or “but.” BUT, just like you, I do start some sentences with these words. I figure if great novelist can do it, so can I!
    I agree that we need to follow the rules when it comes to writing because if we didn’t, everyone’s writing would be all over the place! We need structure. But that doesn’t mean we can’t break the rules once in while, especially when it comes to bringing voice to the piece of writing or emphasis to it as well.
    But like you said (I’m going to paraphrase), make sure young writers know the commands of good, structured, writing…then let them off the leash and see how they will grow from it!

  4. Gloria Maldonado says:

    It is good to know the rules of writing but when necessary you can to break the rules to add a twist to the writing. I loved how you shared that special connection between your mother and you. The last questions get the reader to ponder about after they have finished reading the post. It got me thinking. I am still in the process of becoming a good writer. Everything takes time.

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