As a writer, I thought that my children would burst from the womb thinking in haiku, stretching for writing implement, and begging for more time to write. The Von Trapp family of the pen, perhaps. The five of us giddy and spinning. Rolling along on clover fields, somewhere near Dover, and southeast of Shakespeare’s birthplace. Writing, writing, writing…
The reality looked very different. They loved storytelling but they hated the act of writing. Much of the angst was due to a volatile mixture of giftedness, overexcitabilities, and learning disabilities. Dante Alighieri says it best in Inferno, “In the middle of the journey… I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost.”
When it came to helping my gifted and twice-exceptional (gifted and learning disabled) children with their writing, we were lost. We were in a very dark woods. There was no straight way.
My children fought grammar, tantrumed convention, monstered punctuation, and nearly died when asked to practice their handwriting. Seriously. Death. Nine circles of horrible, burning death.
I didn’t want to be Virgil leading my little Dantes through inferno. I wanted Von Trapp. I wanted the clover. I wanted the sunshine, smiles, and joyful which come from successful writing. I wanted that for my children, too.
I suspect there are other Virgils out there, leading little Dantes, and searching for some Von-Trappiness.
So let’s find it.
C.S. Lewis said, “You can make anything by writing.” If my children knew that, really understood that writing could “make anything,” how could they not want to write?
Writing isn’t easy. It isn’t innate (even when it is). So when I noticed that many of my children’s issues and hindrances when writing could be matched with Dabrowski’s five overexcitabilities, I started mapping out the connections and my responses to them.
Below are the connections I made to overexcitabilities and the solutions which worked for my children. I hope they help to turn some Virgils into Von Trapps; or better yet, into C.S. Lewises!
Even the gifted child who does not typically present as having an intense surplus of energy seems to hit the psychomotor overexcitability mark just about the time they sit down with pencil in hand. Suddenly, movement seems enticing and talking incessantly becomes top priority. Focus is next to impossible and it seems that nothing you do will quiet them down, help them sit still, or finish the job at hand. So, how did I conquer this impulsive, bouncing, barking, snapping, humming, groaning semblance of my child and get him to write? The answer: I didn’t.
That’s right… my first piece of advice for parents and teachers who ask how to get their reluctant writers to write happily is: don’t. As a writer I can tell you there is nothing more frustrating than having to write when I don’t want to.
I sense protest coming on, so let me say that when it comes to your child’s homework you must ask yourself what the worst case scenario could truly be. What I would say is something like, “I can see that writing is difficult for you right now. Let’s go outside and play for thirty minutes and try again and if you still can’t get the words you want out on the paper, we’ll come back to it tomorrow.” And if they still can’t get it done then try other options: let them type it out or let them tell you the story and you write it (trust me, this won’t last forever, but it will excite them).
Keep trying and allow them to fail a few assignments. If their bodies can’t stop moving, it might mean that their minds can’t slow down either. If their hands get too tired, they will eventually build endurance. Once their fine motor skills, keyboarding, and their desire to write catches up with their mind, and once they realize writing isn’t a battle to stop their movement, the writing will come. Breathe.
A child with a sensual overexcitability seems like a writing dream child. After all, they appreciate the beauty around them, melt at the perfect tasting food, tear up at the softness of a kitten’s fur, and feel a connection to art, music, and the entire world. It sounds like a recipe for writing success! But the parent of a child with sensual overexcitability knows that writing can be an overwhelming task on multiple levels: their inability to express in words the depth of their feelings, their intense connection to their writing which makes it difficult to follow rubrics and prompts, and their physical responses to external stimuli which often gets in the way of their work, all lead to a giant brick wall with STOP written on it.
Help them to define and then understand their own writing process. It can be difficult for gifted children, who feel so connected to the world, to approach writing from a structured and organized perspective without feeling like something is lost along the way. This is especially true for those with heightened awareness of their senses. When you force structure into their writing they may feel detached. This leads to distraction by environmental factors (the hum of the light, the dog barking next door, the birds chirping, the tag on their shirt, the light hitting their paper just so). Make the environment quiet, pleasing, and child-led. Allow them to define their process and then help them use it each time until it becomes easier.
Finally, and this is a big one, praise their effort! Nothing feels better for these kids than seeing someone connect with their writing at an emotional level. This is as relevant for the emerging writer as it is for the intermediate and high school writer.
While this overexcitability is the most recognizable in a gifted child, it seems like it is also the least understood when it comes to writing and producing materials. A child who is intellectually overexcitable may appear distracted when he sits down to write. He may start discussing his paper more than he writes it; or, he may show a greater interest in a related topic and want to focus on that instead. He may become so intensely focused on one aspect of the assignment that he misses the big picture or doesn’t get it done. It would be no surprise to find a IO fighting the validity of an assignment altogether. So many of these kids are excellent writers but decide early on that writing is a waste of time.
Be careful not focus on handwriting or structure. My kids often become perfectionists when they write and can overthink that to the point of missing the gestalt, the overall point of the exercise. Next, and this is a big one: learn keyboarding. Fast thinking, analytical thinking, and problem solving happen fast. Typing will ultimately help them express themselves better and faster. Finally, allow the concentration and fixation even if it means they don’t get the assignment done. I always gave my son a small notepad to jot down his ideas and thoughts, his questions and comments, while he was working on another assignment. The process of thinking during writing, even if it’s not on topic, will help them find a little happiness in it; and even though they may not ever become writers, knowing that they can use writing to solve their big questions, present their findings, and change the world will be useful in college and beyond.
If all the raindrops were metaphors and idioms, oh what a rain it would be!! Standing outside with my mouth open wide…. Ah yes, the imaginational overexcitability. There is nothing my imaginational kids love more than a good story; that said, they fight like gladiators fighting lions or knights slaying dragons when it comes to working on their writing homework. As someone who can relate to imagination, I assumed that my children’s imaginations would translate into delightful tales and magical meandering stories. Much to my chagrin, the act of learning to write was not enough to create little authors and homework was still a chore.
My best advice for the parent struggling to get an imaginative child to write is to read to them or allow them to stop working and read for themselves. There is never a time when reading doesn’t spark a desire to be in the story and there is no better way to be in a story than to write it. If you ask them, I bet they have ideas while you/they read. Have them write those down (or write it down for them). The ideas will probably mirror the story they are reading. Imitation is the first step! Praise them for it, don’t try to make it “original.”
Also, it always helped to let my child choose where he wanted to write. Your child may prefer a lapboard, the patio table outside, or they may even being under a table. The act of pretending while writing might just be the ideal unrestricted system they need to produce.
And don’t forget to read! If I could write a book at the same time that I was reading a book…oh what a rain that would be!
A difficult evening spent doing homework can be an emotional roller coaster for child and parent alike. In my house, I’ve seen inanimate homework objects fly, tear, crumble, sail, and dissolve right before my eyes. I’ve watched a backwards P cause a meltdown which cannot be described in words without causing even more distress in this world.
P, oh P, oh, oh E. OE, indeed!
This overexcitability creates anxiety. It breeds insecurity in my children as they compare their work to others. They question what they are able to produce. This overexcitability often comes on the heels of another one, the intensities begetting intensity, until the entire household is braced for the deluge.
Many writers have an emotional overexcitability. It is this very thing that drives them to write. It is what makes sharing so scary, pushing them into a lonely, quiet corner.
The most important way to help a child dealing with emotional overexcitability during a writing assignment is to take the focus off of achievement and place it on method. This is opposite from many of the situations above when I suggested encouraging writing by focusing on emotion because, at this moment, your child has that in spades.
I join my kids. This might mean helping them focus. It could mean listening to what they have so far. The next step is to give them one practical tip to move forward, such as make a tree map, create an outline, or go through and add one detail sentence to each paragraph. The final step is to sit there quietly and allow them to work next to you but not through you. I have found that eventually, if not that very session, they will ask you to move so they can get their work done. This is especially important in a classroom. Good writing takes space. It can be next to impossible when you are elbow to elbow, face to face, with friends.
Virgil, Von Trapp, and Lewis.
Gifted kids are funneling so much information at every moment. They are absorbing the world and determining their responses to it all of the time. Asking them to WRITE that response down can be overwhelming.
Writing asks us to give something of ourselves. Writing asks us to take an idea and expand on it using finite space, time, and structure. Writing asks us to open up our souls but to do so with formatting, rules, and guidelines. Writing is abstract and concrete all at once.
Lewis said writers can “make anything” when they write.
That’s true, Clive. But not when it comes to my children’s writing. I can’t make my children write when they don’t want to.
Maybe they don’t want to write because the moon is in Neptune, the sun is in willows, the tide is in ceiling fans, or because all of this is nonsense. Bottom line: they don’t want to. And, sorry to say, I have no advice for Neptune, willows, and ceiling fans…
Wait, yes I do… write that down!
It is at moments like that one, when nothing makes sense, when words are warriors, when the kids have set up a fort with pencil projectiles and paper targets, that the best stories will be told.
Embrace that moment and “make anything.”
Irene Hila lives in Colorado with her husband and three children. She blogs and publishes under a pseudonym as an alternative voice for gifted and twice-exceptional children. Her alter-ego earned her MA in Creative Writing and is completing her MFA in Creative Writing. She is currently working on a collection of poetry as well as two young adult novels. Her work has been published or will appear in 2e, University Press, and f(online).