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Jennifer Trafton is an author (The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic) and a popular creative writing teacher in the Nashville area. She has recently expanded her reach through the advent of her new website, Sleeping Giant: Creative Journeys For Kids, which features online classes. I hope you enjoy our interview, which may not be precisely majestic, but it is interesting and even contains threats of violence! Seriously, Jennifer is very insightful and her words are well worth our time and consideration. Thanks, Jennifer. –Sam
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SW: You have recently launched a website centered on your creative writing classes for kids. What do you love about teaching kids creative writing?
JT: I love existing, for a few hours a week, in a world where imagination has no ceiling and no floor. Where the most discombobulated spelling can frame the most marvelous and hilarious thoughts. Where self-consciousness and criticism have not yet squeezed creativity into a box.
I love reading stories about talking cats, portals, ninjas, dinosaurs, giant sloths from outer space, adventurous pizza delivery boys, treasure chests, princesses who go on quests, skeletons who wear high heels and chase butterflies, fiddling skydivers, screaming flowers, and bizarre creatures no one else has ever imagined except for one small extravagant brain.
I love watching kids play with words and ideas as if they were toys instead of computing them as if they were equations. I love the fact that they have not yet grown into the cynical and literal worldview of adults.
I love being reduced to tears when I see a student’s heart blossom in a poem that I know goes far beyond what she ever thought she could write. Yet that poem was in her all along. She just needed the words—and the encouragement—to express it.
SW: A cool, new feature that excites people (like us) who don’t live near Nashville is the online classes you now offer. What should parents expect from your online classes?
JT: I’m such an interactive, hands-on kind of teacher that for a long time I couldn’t imagine how an online class format could work for me. But I heard enough requests that I was willing to give it a try. Now I’m sold. I found a great platform called Schoology that offers a secure, private Facebook-like environment in which a teacher and group of students can experience a class together, chatting together about questions, collaborating on activities, and sharing assignments, pictures, and videos. A group of kids ranging from age 8 to 13 took my first class (“Painting with Words”) on a test drive this summer, and the responses from both students and parents were overwhelmingly positive. This fall I’m offering “Painting with Words”—an introduction to a writer’s way of looking at the world, complete with spy missions, play dough sculptures and, um, carrots—as well as a new class, “What If?” which will let students explore story-writing from a number of different angles. Teaching online gives me an opportunity to work with a much broader spectrum of kids beyond my little Nashville neighborhood, so I am eager to see where this leads.
SW: What is one thing you feel like most parents overlook in efforts to foster imagination in their kids?
JT: I definitely don’t have the authority to answer that question, since I am not a parent and don’t spend time peeking over parents’ shoulders at what they are doing or not doing. So all I can say is that I hope most parents are fostering a culture of reading in their house. It’s cliché to say it, but it’s absolutely true. In my classes and workshops I can tell almost immediately which kids are the readers and which aren’t. Those whose imaginations have been soaked in books have the rhythms of good writing in their heads, their vocabulary is richer, and they instinctively understand the contours of conflict and growth that make a story a story. I get very concerned about the number of boys I’ve encountered whose imagination has obviously been shaped by video games—mindless successions of fights with no sense of character whatsoever—and girls whose childhood has been cramped by premature obsessions with boyfriend stories. Please, moms and dads, give their imaginations solid food to feed on.
SW: Your fans are eager for another book (for instance, one is pointing a dart gun at me right now). What’s next for Jennifer Trafton? What are you excited about?
JT: I do apologize for the dart gun, but I’m glad I have some passionate little fans!
I wrote my second novel (not a sequel to Mount Majestic, but a stand-alone book) three years ago and have been revising it ever since. It’s a story I love, with images and conflicts that resonate deeply with what I believe to be true about imagination and art. I’ve noticed that the themes of my books always seem to be threaded through the themes of my life at the time of writing. (Mount Majestic was all about fear of the future for me.) This unruly second book is, at its heart, a story about the unruliness of art and the bravery it takes to be an artist and to send one’s imagination out into the world. Though this book’s journey toward publication has been a lot longer than I expected, I’ve been growing as a writer in the meantime, and I trust that when it does finally come out it will be much better for the time I spent taming its waywardness.
I’m also in the middle of two new novels at the moment, one drawing upon classic fairy tales and the other tapping into the American tall tale tradition. Both have slightly younger protagonists than Mount Majestic. I kind of have a crush on third and fourth graders, and I’ve been growing more convinced that that age level is my sweet spot, both as a writer and as a teacher.
Lately I’ve been reminded again and again of why I’m writing in the first place. Is it to get my name on the shiny jacket of a book? It is to be on a bestseller list? No. It’s because I love stories. I love words. And honestly, I just want to make a child smile. If that means only three children, and those children take their smiles out into the bleak unsmiling world and change it into something more beautiful, then I’ve done my job.