Write with Respect

by limebirdkate

I teach creative writing to children as part of an after-school enrichment program. One child, let’s call him Burt, is a bit obsessed with bodily functions. Burt wrote a story entitled, “The Battle of Pooey Land.”

Okay.

As a teacher, I try to pull out the story that’s buried deep beneath all the references to ‘poo’. I know kids must explore this part of life, and some get into it to the point they must write about it. As long as there’s a plot going on, a story that comes full circle, then I can ignore the gory detail.

However, I have my limits.

Burt used a fellow writing student (who’s also his so-called friend) as a character in his story. He did not change his friend’s name in the story, but I’ll refer to the friend as Ernie.

Burt wrote a scene where Ernie was captured by a band of poo soldiers, tied up, and peed on in a variety of ways.

I was appalled.

Now, maybe I’m reading into this story too much. Maybe I’m overreacting. After all, it’s a fictional story and Burt’s making things up. Right?

I pulled Burt aside, and I told him he couldn’t use his friend’s name in the story. I explained to him that because the character is mistreated in the story and there isn’t any difference between character Ernie and real-life Ernie, anyone reading it would guess he was writing about joyfully peeing on his real-life friend. I asked him to think about Ernie’s feelings and whether he thought Ernie would feel privileged that he was a part of Burt’s story, or embarrassed.

Writing has always been a form of escape for me, and I know that’s true for a lot of people. When I was a kid, I wrote stories for fun where I used both friends and enemies as characters – and I didn’t change the names. But I kept those stories private. The times I wrote a story for school, I was certainly careful about what I wrote.

In my class, we share the stories. I type, print and bind them. Then they are displayed in the school library. Teachers, students, staff, and parents read the stories. In essence, my writing students are experiencing what it’s like to have a ‘published’ story that’s read by the general public. The difference between writing for fun and writing for the public means we have to be careful with our content.

I don’t want to censor kids. I don’t want to hinder their creative process or ban their imaginations. I want to encourage them to write freely and to learn different skills and to be proud of themselves when they complete a story that they can share with others.

I know that I can’t stop Burt from writing about Ernie on his own time, for ‘fun.’  But I can teach him about taking responsibility for his subject matter.

Burt may only be 8 years old, but it’s important to always write with respect, even if the story is about Pooey Land.

Have you ever put real-life people in your fictional stories? Did you disguise them?

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64 Comments to “Write with Respect”

  1. I think I’d read ‘The Battle of Pooey Land’. This bit – ” Burt wrote a scene where Ernie was captured by a band of poo soldiers, tied up, and peed on in a variety of ways.” genuinely made me laugh out loud. I’m terrible.

    Haha, *imagines Kate’s face for a minute….* This is a great post Kate, really interesting. I can see why you were in a bit of a predicament with that situation, but I think you handled it well. To be honest, I think we all put a bit of our own experiences into our writing, especially in the beginning! B

    • You’re not terrible, B. Just young at heart! 🙂 I only hope that putting a bit of our own experiences into our writing doesn’t mean Burt actually peed on Ernie!

  2. Hmm, my lack of parenting experience leaves me with no idea whether Burt is a typical eight-year-old or not…. 😉 I make an extreme effort not to put anyone I know into my stories. I’ll take an experience I’ve had with someone or some element of their personality and put it into a character, but everything else about the character will be different. I go so far as to avoid the names of people I know well. And when it comes to the few people from life that I wish I didn’t know, I won’t even use their names for any character in any work!

    Of course, if some people ever read the stories, they could recognize an event I describe. And some people will then think the character is them, even though nothing else fits the real person. There’s no escaping that—after all, we want readers to “identify” with our characters, and a “shared experience” will easily do that.

    But by ensuring our characters aren’t too much like a real person, we protect ourselves from hurting others’ feelings — and possible lawsuits (as happened with The Help.)

    • Hey JM, I think Burt is a typical 8-y-o boy, to be sure. Most kids at that age crack up at this kind of thing, so I do know that’s pretty normal. I just don’t like how he used his friend as the ‘victim’. Of course, at his age he won’t think twice about changing names, so I feel someone needs to at least give him fair warning that when he gets older, this sort of thing definitely won’t fly!

      I know what you mean about bringing in events from real life and changing the names and qualities of the people involved in the event. I have done that, too. But I have shied away from really damaging scenes where people could totally pick it out and know exactly who I’m writing about.

      Oh, I didn’t hear about The Help. There was a lawsuit?

      • The maid’s character appeared to be based on the maid of the author’s brother (down to the name being only one letter different). The woman sued, claiming the author used her life story without permission. The case was thrown out of court, not because the suit was frivolous, but because the statute of limitations had run out.

      • Ahh. Interesting. I bet the author is breathing a huge sigh of relief! (Deserved or not.)

  3. I try to not use real people as characters in my books. However, comments from friends have indicated that they see themselves or other people I know in my characters. In fact, one person said, “Oh, I liked how you portrayed so and so in your book.” I said, “Really?” Because so and so never entered my mind while I was writing. 🙂

    • Hey TeacherWriter (great username, by the way 🙂 ),

      Isn’t that funny how people thought they knew who you were writing about–especially when it was never your intention. I think when we know the author, we would be curious to see if we “know” any of the characters. We probably search hard enough to the point we’re sure we’ve uncovered the true identities!

      Thanks for swinging by.

  4. I wonder if boys are more interested in scatological humor than girls. We never really dealt with that with our girls…but my nephew rolls into a laugh riot whenever pooping, weeing, nosepicking, or farting comes up. He’s five, so probably about the “right” age.

    Okay, I admit it. Farting can be pretty funny. Perhaps that’s the lowbrow in me. 🙂

    Getting back to seriousness, I think you handled that situation well, especially with engaging “Burt” about “Ernie.” Hopefully, it helped Burt to consider Ernie’s feelings, and to think on how he would feel if Ernie or someone else had written the same story about him.

    I certainly take inspiration from people I know, and use that inspiration for characters. My main characters are basically me, though, no one else. I’ll sometimes homage friends as incidentals: the grocery cashier, the baker, the hospital porter. Usually as only a name and an idea for what that character looks like in my head, though. I try to stick to relatively common names in those situations, too. Apologies to the Jens and Chrises – and Kates – in my circle. 😉

    Great post!

    • Mayumi, you lowbrow you! 🙂

      I have one of each, and they both get giggly but not overly so–and not to the point of writing about it. So, I think some kids just have that obsession where others don’t.

      Burt agreed to change the story so that Ernie wasn’t included in that scene. I hope that I got through to him, and that he didn’t just focus on the fact I made him change part of his story.

      I think I’m like you, drawing inspiration from others but not using people directly or fully. Besides, I don’t know any real-life people interesting enough to write about! 🙂

      Oh, okay, so the next time I read one of your writing challenges and the gorgeous published author is named ‘Kate’, I won’t think anything of it. 😉

      • I don’t think I’ve ever been so direct in a reference. It could be more name association, than anything. For instance, growing up, I’d never liked the name “Abigail.” Scarlet Letter backlash, I presume. But, when I went to university, I met a woman named Abigail, who became a friend. When I needed a name for a peripheral character, I chose Abby, because I’d come to associate good qualities with that name. Abby the character had very little in common with the woman Abigail – no one except me would have recognized the homage – but I couldn’t imagine her with any other name.

        I think I’ve strayed enough off-topic of your post, though. 🙂 I seem to remember LimebirdLaura had a post about my tangent a while ago, too… how the character Ross Geller ruined her story… so, maybe I should head over there for a refresher read. 🙂

      • No worries, Mayumi. Tangents are always welcome here. 🙂

  5. I generally feel uncomfortable with censorship of creativity. However, in cases where the product of creativity would cause harm to other people (against their will) or the environment, I would approve of intervention.

    I have clear memories of incidents in my childhood when my friends and I would make up fictitious worlds that, as an adult, would be considered sadistic, politically incorrect or otherwise in very poor taste. We, entirely innocent of these society-bound restrictions, found these worlds hilarious. I’d guess Burt viewed his story as a comedy and didn’t give a second thought to it.

    As Beth said, we draw on our personal experiences when writing creatively. I’m not suggesting that Burt has been pissed on, or has pissed on anyone else, but, being young, he may have a limited toolset to pick from – I think I would be afraid that banning the use of potentially two of his tools (writing about his friends and writing about poo and wee) might have effects on his ability to write creatively. Of course, it might have the opposite effect; I often find that trying to write about stuff that I’m not familiar with opens up whole new avenues of thinking that I never thought existed.

    Having said all that, there is a point at which a child will have to learn real-world boundaries. I’d usually say the responsibility to teach these boundaries would rest with the parent or guardian. However, all too often you see cases where parents are absolving themselves of any responsibility for their children; relying on teachers and state processes to do this for them.

    Finally, if I was Burt and a bit cheeky, I might edit my story to include the following at the top: “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” 😀

    • Hey Scree,

      It’s a fine line to be sure. I think that if circumstances were a bit different, and I could be assured that Ernie’s parents would never read that story, then I might not have intervened. However, because the stories are visible to the public, I have no control over who sees what. Fellow writing students might not see a problem, but parents of a child who is portrayed as the bullied character in a book? I think they’d see a problem.

      I guess I see my job as a creative writing teacher as one that helps to expand a writer’s toolbox. You may be right in that Burt knows only how to write about friends and defecation. My challenge then is to teach Burt how to find other topics to write about.

      Unfortunately, many parents and/or guardians don’t catch a lot of these things that go on because it’s fairly covert. Unless the child is showing his writing to Mom, then what he writes isn’t necessarily monitored. Who knows what the boundaries are at Burt’s home. Perhaps this is normal behavior for Burt at home, writing or talking about peeing on friends.

      Haha! I love your final thought. I think that is totally perfect for this discussion. One point for Scree! 🙂

  6. Kate what a wonderful post. Working with children must be so very fulfilling. I remember my daughter being in school when that young, the little boys all loved the bathroom humor, the girls not so much. I love your determination not to censor them while being sensitive to the subject matter. Such good lessons!

    • Hey Neeks,

      I do enjoy working with them. And I love their imaginations at this age. I was uncertain the whole time I was talking to Burt, though, because in the back of my head I was thinking I was being too strict, too mean, overly sensitive. But letting it go didn’t seem right, so I made a gut call. I think I’d do it again. Thanks, Neeks!

  7. Children can be very weird! I’m wondering how “Burt” responded to your counsel. Did it register with him – make sense to him – or did he just give you a blank stare, like “I have no idea what you’re talking about”? Writing such a thing would have never occurred to me as a child! However, I do recollect thinking when I got a little older that it was odd that fictional characters never went to the bathroom, at least not in the books I read. Can you remember any instance in Tolkien where one of his characters has to “relieve himself”? If so, I’ve forgotten it!
    I have never written about a real person – all my characters are fictional. They might include characteristics drawn from people I’ve known, or from myself, but they are definitely the product of imagination.
    Some of my characters do use the bathroom from time to time, however! Very discreetly! Scatalogical events are more common among my termites in the “Labors” series. They are earthier and less inhibited.

    • Hi Lorinda,

      Yes, children do have a weird outlook on life, don’t they! The first time I ran into this kind of incident, I didn’t know what to do, if I was going to get in trouble with the school administration for letting the kids write about death and war and, now this, poo.

      Burt seemed to understand what I was saying. He nodded, agreed to change the scene, and immediately went to work. I like to think that somewhere in their crazed little minds there is a sense of morality and good judgment, and that they just need a little bit of prodding to access it.

      I guess it’s not very interesting for grown-ups to write about characters going to the bathroom. Unless there is a bomb planted in the john, the story isn’t going to move forward with a scene showing us a bathroom trip! Haha, I’m glad to know that you have taken care to write accurately about your termite’s bathroom habits. We need credible books, after all. 🙂 Thanks for commenting, Lorinda.

  8. I had an experience when I was in a primary school during my teacher training (I did three weeks in a primary school before going off to university to do my PGCE for secondary teaching). In one lesson I read a humourous poem, I think it was a Pam Ayres one, then I asked the kids to write one at home (they were 10-11). They all said it was too hard and so I had to promise to write one too. Then we had to come up with a title, we ended up with “The Day the School Fell Down”!

    So we all wrote our poems, some of the children included actual teachers as the butt of some of the humour – some were very good poems and the kids even wrote them out again for me to take with me!

    My tutor at university questioned whether I should have used real people in my poem (until I explained that my characters were all fictional. He made no comment at all about whether the children should have used real people! Perhaps he was just worried that the teachers were going to complain to him about me!

    Like Mayumi my protagonists are sometimes basically 'me' or at least, for example, the 12 year old female me from a parallel universe!

    • Hi Dennis,

      That’s great that you wrote a poem with your students. I think they respond better when they see the grown-ups working too. 😉 Isn’t that interesting about your tutor’s reaction. I think there probably is a fear of what someone else might think. I know that fear was on my mind when I imagined Ernie’s parents reading the story. They wouldn’t see the humor, I don’t think.

      Yes, I think a lot of us draw from ourselves to build characters but we stop short of totally duplicating ourselves. I can only imagine what a 12 year old female you would be like, Dennis! 🙂

    • Absolutely, Dennis! 😀 I’ve loved exploring my male jock id with this latest story!

  9. Ooops! Missed the final >

  10. Great post! “The Battle of Pooey Land” may be the best title ever penned. Thanks for making me laugh out loud before even finishing my tea as well as applaud you for your deft handling of your young creative comrade.

    • Hi Laurel,
      Well, I’m thrilled that I got you laughing first thing in the morning. That’s always a nice way to start the day. I have to admit, I was a bit uncertain whether to talk to Burt or not. Part of me was afraid I was being ‘anal’ (forgive the pun!) but another part of me imagined what would happen if Ernie’s parents read the story. You never know what another adult, especially a non-writer adult, might think.

      • It’s so true that when your encourage young writers and any writers in a classroom setting, you never know what you’re going to get from them. Your point about walking the line between mentoring how to be a respectful writer without feeling censored is well taken. It’s a line we all have to decide how to walk, so it’s a good lesson to learn early on. I’m still chuckling over it though, imagining the way that kids can just engage in rowdy play and if they’re writers, it’s going to come out on the page.

      • Yes! I have learned a lot about kids and their habits, likes, dislikes, hobbies, simply from reading their stories. They don’t have much of a filter. 😉

  11. Reblogged this on Dogpatch Writers Collective and commented:
    Good morning from the Dogpatch, and fair warning: Only read this fabulous and hilarious post from Limebird Writers if you A) Love Kid Writers and B) Are Not Overly Offended by Poo.

  12. Yes and Yes. Usually, for me, a character may have bits and pieces of two or even three real people in them. Only after careful consideration do I use someone that would be easily recognizable.

    • Hi Dennis,
      Bits and pieces, yes, I agree. That’s what I do, too. Never a full-fledged person, and always changing the names. Thanks for your input. 🙂

  13. Ah, yes. Writer’s revenge. My thought is that it’s okay, provided the character and the actual person are only the same person in your mind. No one else should be able to make the connection. In fact, I find changing the character enough to make this true also helps me to distance myself, emotionally, from the person I’m enacting vengeance upon, making it more of an elaborate form of venting than anything else.

    It usually just makes me laugh at myself.

    • *Shh!* I totally did this, too, dex. It’s cathartic. Like Kate said, though, those sort of revenge/venting stories are meant for the desk drawer, or hidden beneath the pillow.

      I once wrote a revenge story so foul, I had to burn it after I was finished. Writing the words got out a lot of anger and frustration…but I felt rather terrible leaving it “alive” and readable. The burning of it actually helped, too – it completely cleared those feelings from my gut.

      • Wow, Mayumi. You burned it? That must have been one vengeful story. But I can see how writing it, then getting rid of it would help you deal with those terrible feelings. I love writing!!

      • Behold, the power of the written word! I love that you wrote it…that it was scathing…and that you burned it. What if it came back, though? What if the story took on a life of it’s own, and you, the writer, couldn’t kill it off or make it stop? Story idea, anyone?

    • Hi Dex,

      Exactly, as long as we’re not incriminating anyone then I think it’s okay to put real-life people in our stories. Writer’s revenge can be so highly charged, highly emotional though, that we don’t disguise the people enough. It’s like writing a letter or an email to someone you’ve just fought with — don’t send it right away! Let it sit for a few days first. Then, reread it. More often than not, we either don’t send it at all, or we tone it way, way down!

      Thanks for commenting.

      • Excellent point, and good advice. It’s always good to wait a few days and revisit any piece that includes this kind of…tactic?…just to be sure you haven’t been more transparent than you meant to be.

      • Yes, tactic is a good word, no matter how ‘subconscious’ it might be.

  14. Most of my story characters — in whole or in part — are based on real people. That said, none of these characters have ever been peed on — not because of any moral objection on my part, but because I never thought of it before. 🙂

    In all seriousness, I think you handled the Ernie and Burt situation quite well. Toilet humor can be a hoot at any age, but using real names in such a context feels a bit too much like bullying to me. Burt might not have meant to hurt Ernie (and, for all we know, Ernie might know of and be OK with his role in the story) but Burt’s story could also be used by another child as a weapon to hurt Ernie at a later time. Whether he knows it or not, Burt is playing a dangerous game.

    • Well, by all means, feel free to use this nifty storyline if you’re ever in the need for material. I’m sure Burt wouldn’t mind. 🙂

      You know what, I’m actually glad you said that about bullying. That’s really what went through my mind, but the terms ‘bully’ and ‘bullying’ are thrown around so much that I think their real, true meanings have been lost or at best, skewed. My mind went to the same places you suggest – what if another child read this and used it to his advantage? What if Ernie’s parents read it?

      Because Burt changed the story without fuss, I’m inclined to think he meant no real harm. However, that doesn’t mean that harm couldn’t have been done if the story had gone unchanged.

      I hope I did right by him. I hope that what he takes away from the class isn’t that I made him change Ernie’s name, but that he learned a valuable writing lesson–one that we all have to learn at some point if we want to write for an audience.

      Thanks for swinging by!

  15. I’ve never put real people into my fiction, though I suppose certain personalities we’ve encountered are stored in our subconscious only to reemerge later when we create our characters. I’d be hesitant to make it anyone too obvious though. And I also wouldn’t have one character pee on another. 😉

    • Hey Carrie,
      That’s a very good point about subconscious. I am sure that happens a lot. I know that images will come to me out of the blue, but they feel too grounded to be pure imagination — if that makes sense.

      Carrie, I think that you may have missed a valuable scene in The Seneca Scourge. Surely you could have gotten great use out of a character peeing on another character??? 😉

  16. I think it’s only natural to merge traits from people you know into characters. There are certain element my characters that are people I know, but not an entire character and certainly not NAMED!

    • Hey Pete,
      You’re right, it is natural. I know I get great ideas from watching my family and friends. My only problem is that they know I’m a writer, so if I ever whip out a notebook in front of them and madly scribble something down, they get a teeny-tiny bit self-conscious. 🙂

  17. What a wonderful post – I have to admit that I did have to bite my bottom lip to try not to let that smile emerge… However, I think you handled it admirably. I’ve been writing about Mildred the cat lately – do animals count? Ha Ha! Keep these stories coming, I love them.

    • Hey Loony,

      I’m glad that I have entertained you! 😉 I figured this would be good for some laughs, while still getting an important message across. It’s the best way to learn.

      Mildred the cat counts, absolutely! I bet you’ve got some great stories. 🙂

  18. I tend to use real people as the starting point for my characters, and then I’ll start changing aspects of them, both in terms of their physicality and their personality. I’ll often end up forgetting who I based the character on because they are so far removed from them, but it helps me to start with that base person rather than start from scratch!

    I think you handled the Bert and Ernie situation well – my only concern would be whether Burt is actually being the victim of any bullying in real and he is using his writing to express it in some way by directing it on to someone else, albeit a friend. But maybe I’m just reading too much into it!

    • I felt a bit the same way as Vanessa here. Is there some personal traumatic experience going on in this child’s life that would lead him to inflict something like this on someone else? Like vicarious getting-even. It would worry me. I would think you would want to discuss it with the parents. But maybe I just don’t understand the psychology of little boys, having had very little experience with them!

      • Hi Lorinda,

        Yep, I had the same concerns. I didn’t go into those details in the post, but I do know the child outside of school. Communicating with his parents is a priority for me, and the best that I can do is relay my concerns. From there, it’s up to the parents. Thanks for your thoughts!

    • Hey Vanessa,

      Me too. If I start off with a character based on someone, after a few drafts the character evolves into his/her own person.

      Yes, bullying did occur to me. I am familiar with the boy outside of school, so I know some things that I would consider ‘yellow flags’. As someone in a teaching position, we’re supposed to look for these kinds of signs anyway, and I’d say writing about peeing on another child is strange enough to warrant some further questioning. Thanks, V!

  19. I have done this in secondary school. I made several mistakes in this exercise, too. The first was assuming only the teacher would read it. The second was using two real life people’s names that happened to be the same. It caused no end of confusion. (The 3rd to 957th mistakes are beyond the scope of this comment!) After we wrote them the teacher declared that a random classmate would read our stories. NOOO!!! The chance of the teacher knowing who I described was remote but the chance of a classmate knowing them was a lot higher, being in the same age group and living in the same area despite attending a different school. The girl who read my story wasn’t my favourite person and she owed me no favours. She said it wasn’t very good and was very confusing. She didn’t hold back. Had I known the teacher would hand them out to class mates I might have been more reserved in what/how I wrote. Perhaps that was deliberate on her part…
    Since that little failure in my earlier years I’ve been more careful about who I use for inspiration for characters.

    • Yikes, Richard. You must have been sweating bullets! I think teachers are a lot more strategic than we give them credit for, and she probably did do that to stir up a hornet’s nest. 😉 It’s no accident when we learn quickly from our mistakes. 🙂

  20. Ohhhhhh my goodness! I can see kids doing that and maybe just not realizing how much the other kid would be embarassed by it, but holy cow I’d fall over if I read something like that. I have put folks in my stories before, once my husband as a small child character. I even named him David which is my husband’s name. It wasn’t a literal translation of my husband but the characters had characteristics like him, and the story was supposed to have a message to him….,.and it did not involve anyone pooing on him 😀

    • Hey Laura, I know, right? I was flabbergasted, but I always worry that I overreact with things. Children stymie me in a lot of ways, even though I do work with them on a creative level. I think over time we learn how to treat people in our stories, so hopefully this was a lesson no lost on him.

      I’m glad you didn’t have anyone pooing on your husband. That’s be a tough one to explain. 😉

  21. I think you dealt with this situation very appropriately, Kate. Fun fat: the anal stage come after the oral stage in kids, which means he’s developing in his pooland story. 😉

    I’m so so so glad that you didn’t use shame as a means to teach him “right” and “wrong” and that he could use his friends and people he knew consciously. (It would have happened unconsciously, anyway. This way it -can- be controlled.)

    A few months ago, I wrote a story and posted it to my blog that involved a very bad incident at the time, with my friends and I. I used the story to a) tell the tale, and b) deal with my own emotions. It didn’t use a real name, the situation had to be changed so the characters could all interact in physical space together – but, a, well, then we were friends, who was involved in the incident read my blog and was irate that I’d used the story, even though the only people who knew it was “all of us”, were, well, us.

    Lesson I learned? Don’t let your friends have that much control over you. That situation was bad, bad times.

    • Hey Ottie,

      It’s a tricky balance with kids. You want to teach them right from wrong but you don’t want to do it in a way that makes them feel badly about themselves or their actions.

      I’m sorry about the incident you experienced. It’s difficult when you want to get something off your chest, but it means involving someone else who may not appreciate your need to vent. There is no easy answer.

  22. The first story I wrote was inspired by a desire to thank friends for their gift to my life. Because of that I used their jobs, some names, etc – but always in positive characters. I had to wonder if Burt, in his fascination with bodily functions, somehow saw this as a positive thing. And, of course, that reminded me that our ideas of positive can be seen differently by the reader.

    Anyhow, great article, and thanks for following my blog.

    • Yes, Burt probably had no idea that what he was writing could in fact be hurtful to someone else. Kids get so caught up in their humor (they are their own best audience) that they often don’t stop and think about the ramifications.

      Thanks for swinging by!

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