Think of all the words that come to mind when you think of Valentine’s Day. Love, right? Cupid, heart, kiss, like, happiness? How about red, pink, chocolate, XOXO? Also friend, hug, candy, roses-are-red, joy, romantic and perhaps even heartbreak, arrows, and, oddly, fountain?
These and several dozen more were the ideas that my third-grade WITS students came up with last week. Valentine’s Day was a few days away, and I wanted to do a lesson using that theme. They were looking forward to writing love letters to their parents or pets or friends or objects of secret admiration. They were not as excited, though, when I crossed out each of those words on the board and told them they couldn’t use a single one of them. I asked them to add a new word to their writer’s toolkits:
cliché (n.) an overused expression
Once when we were trying to resolve a plot issue in one of our screenplays, my friend Dave warned that we couldn’t use the first thing that came to mind, because it would probably reflect a common trope that we’d absorbed into our subconscious from other movies or stories. If it came too easily, he believed, it was probably clichéd.
When I posed writing a love letter with no love language as a challenge, the students regained interest. We brainstormed original ways to express friendship and admiration, exchanging predictable words and expressions with sparkling new ones. The results were funny, witty, silly and sometimes poignant.
But more than their poems, it was their willingness to reject the easy solutions to a creative problem that inspired me. I am at the beginning of a new draft of my novel THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO, which I thought I’d written to the best of my ability. But the story needs something, and to do that, I have to rethink the structure I’d originally envisioned for it and have been unwilling to let go of. It isn’t that the arrangement was clichéd, because it’s not at all, but it was the first idea I had and I thought it was the only possible one. But with the guidance and encouragement of my enthusiastic, talented new agent, Jesseca Salky—not to mention the support of my first readers, especially Tobey—I am going to follow my own instruction and try something new.
Meantime, here are two of my favorite non-Valentine’s love poems by my fearless, 9-year-old students William and Mia.