A Writer’s Notebook: My nephew’s assignment

Yesterday, my sister sent me an e-mail which contained a story my nephew Aidan had written.  His story was about a string, and it reminded me of my own string story, which I began to write for my nephew.  And then–because Aidan’s story was a school writing assignment–I realized this would make an excellent Writer’s Notebook.  So I am telling that story here.

Below:  the assignment itself.

Once, when I lived in Denton, I found a string in the parking lot of the UNT campus. This is a true story. The string stretched from the art building clear across the parking lot to the street–and then it crossed the street. It had broken where traffic had run it over so often it wore thin, but there on the other side of the street was the string, and it continued on down the road. I went inside the art building and found some students and asked them about the string. They told me it was an art project, and that anyone who noticed the string was supposed to follow it. So I did.

The string carried on down Mulberry St., zigzagging across the street and twice dropping into the deep runoff culvert.  It was broken in a few places where the traffic had run over it, but it was definitely one continuous string.  The final break I found was in the culvert behind a funeral home on the corner of Mulberry and Carroll Blvd, and because I was wearing nice clothes, I couldn’t stoop and crawl through the pipe under the wide, busy street, but I knew the string was in there, so I decided to cross Carroll.  On the other side of the street, where a large government building provided some shade, I dropped back down into the drainage ditch and sure enough, there was the string.

I followed it along the ditch until it rose up the concrete wall and draped out across the parking lot.  In the middle of the parking lot, however, the string simply stopped.  I stood in the middle of the lot and looked around.  This couldn’t be the end!  The sun was high and hot in the early afternoon, and I wiped sweat from my brow as I squinted in the sunlight and looked for the string.  Finally, I found it, white string coiled around the trunk of a small tree at the edge of the parking lot.  From there, the string continued across a small grassy lot and into the drive-through of a bank.

As I made my way across town, I had to stop several times and turn circles with my hand shading my eyes as I looked for the string.  In the busy traffic of downtown Denton, the string was broken in many places, the ends blackened from the tires rolling over it in the streets.  Occasionally, I noticed that someone had come along and coiled the broken ends, sometimes around sign posts or fire hydrants, once around the wheel on a dumpster.  In the worst places, I had to hunt for the ends of the string across 30- and 40-foot gaps.

For most of its cross-town journey, the string trailed down Mulberry, ducking through parking lots and drainage ditches here and there.  Along the way I discovered side streets and shops I’d never known had existed.  I’d driven these roads many times, but from the window of my car, the buildings had drifted past unnoticed.  On this day, walking through the streets and looking carefully at everything around me so I wouldn’t lose the string, I saw the town in a way I’d never seen it before.

I passed at least two small art galleries, a coin collector’s shop, a furniture importer, a travel agent.  I saw graffiti on the walls and stickers advertising bands stuck to stop signs and dumpsters.  I saw trash on the sidewalks and picked some of it up as I walked, dropping it in the trash cans I passed.

Finally, just past downtown, the string turned diagonally across an empty lot and ended at an abandoned auto shop so old it was shaped like a barn.  And there, tied to the end of it, was a tin can with a bell inside.  I lifted the can from its nail-hook and held it to my ear, like the “telephones” I made as a kid from cans and a string.  The bell jingled.  I held the can by the string and shook it, ringing the tiny bell several times.  I looked around but no one was watching.  I was completely alone, but suddenly, I felt surrounded by everything and everyone–I felt connected to the world.

It was simple and silly, but I got the biggest kick out of that string.  I grinned the whole way back to my car, and even today, I think about the string and smile.  I’d been on a  small adventure, and I was proud of myself for finding the end of the string even over the broad gaps where it’d broken.  All I’d found was a can and a bell.  But I felt like I’d found the world.

Aidan’s homework was to write a story using words from his weekly spelling list.  My sister wrote me that “he was having a hard time getting motivated so I told him I’d email you the story when he finished.  That got him going!”  I’m not sure which of the words in his story were on his spelling list (Aidan is 9), but his story involved finding a string on the street, which is what reminded me of my own experience.  (If I get his permission to share his story, I’ll post it in a future post.)

For exercises using lists of words, check out the several versions Lori Ann Bloomfield posts on her blog First Line (by synchronicity or coincidence, today’s post is one such exercise).  Or check out the exercises in the excellent Writer’s Toolbox, which is ideal for writers of all ages (I used it several times when I was leading teen writing workshops a few years ago).

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