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There are many books about the craft of writing that can help gifted students understand how authors develop their ideas into interesting stories, essays and articles. The examples presented here are concerned with describing how an individual's life experiences can influence one to become a writer. These life experiences are related to family background, cultural and environmental influences, and the books which have made an impact upon writers' lives.

For the Love of Books: 115 Celebrated Writers on the Books They Love Most (2000) by Ronald B. Shwartz (Editor). Berkley Books, New York.

Outstanding writers such as Diane Ackerman, Dave Barry, Jacques Barzun, Art Buchwald, Anne Fadiman, Clifton Fadiman, Alfred Kazin, Doris Lessing, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Cynthia Ozick, John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut discuss the books that have been influential in their lives and work. The most interesting parts of these brief essays are the surprising choices which reveal something about their personalities and sensibility to various areas of literature. In this regard, Diane Ackerman, an outstanding nature writer, discusses how the poems of Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens and Randall Jarrell affected her life. On the other hand, many writers make selections parallel to their writing interests. For example, Dave Barry, an author of humorous essays, was influenced by the works of Robert Benchley and P.G. Wodehouse. Some specific books that caught his attention were The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger and Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller. In addition, these comments provide information on the development of writing skills. Thus, Arthur Miller says two books, The Castle (1926) by Franz Kafka and The Bothers Karamazov (1880) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, helped him to become a playwright. By reading For the Love of Books, gifted students will learn about many influential writers and books that could have a positive influence on their lives.

The Open Door: When Writers First Learned to Read (1989) by Steven Gilbar (Editor). David R. Godine, Boston.

These excerpts from autobiographies and reveries are fascinating accounts of when different authors started reading. Included in this book are accounts by Benjamin Franklin, Charles Dickens, Frederick Douglass, W.B. Yeats, H.G. Wells, Gertrude Stein, Winston Churchill, C.S. Lewis, Richard Wright, M.F.K. Fisher, Eudora Welty, Stephen King, Annie Dillard and many others. Yeats was egged on to literacy by his strict father and listening to church hymns. His father started reading poetry to him when he was about nine years old. H.G. Wells attributed his creative writing career to a reading bout that occurred as an eight year old when he had a broken leg. This temporary injury gave him time to develop the reading habit and to become an avid lifetime reader and writer. As a slave in Maryland, Frederick Douglass's curiosity about the "mystery" of reading was awakened upon hearing his mistress read the Bible aloud. She helped Douglass to master the alphabet and spell. After hearing about his progress, his master forbade further reading lessons with the statement that, ". . . .Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world." (p. 14). Douglass emphasized that his master's antagonism served as the primary motivating force to escape from slavery and become a writer. The Historian, Will Durant, recalled how, as a child, he became enthralled with the Pickwick Papers (1837) and David Copperfield (1850) by Charles Dickens. These books stimulated a lifetime interest in reading, literature and writing. ". . . .Whenever everybody else in the house was asleep I would read on, despite a thousand admonitions about the injury I was doing to my health, and the cost of gas. . . .I no longer lived in prosaic New Jersey; I wandered around the world with my heroes and my poets. . . ." (p. 58). Eudora Welty talked about the influence of fairy tales, relatives and the public library upon her burgeoning interest in reading. "Trouble, the backbone of literature, was still to me the original property of the fairy tale, and as long as there was plenty of trouble for everybody and the rewards for it were falling in the right spots, reading was all smooth sailing. At that age a child reads with higher appetite and gratification, and with those two stars sailing closer together, than ever again in his growing up. . . ." (p. 88). Finally, Annie Dillard, the great nature writer, summarized the essence of the reading process when she said: "What I sought in reading was imagination. It was depth, depth of thought and feeling; some sort of extreme of subject matter; some nearness to death; some call to courage. I myself was getting wild; I wanted wildness, originality, genius, rapture, hope. I wanted strength, not tea parties. What I sought in books was a world whose surfaces, whose people and events and days lived, actually matched the exaltation of the interior life. There you could live." (p. 118). The Open Door was published by David R. Godine in association with The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. It is a wonderful description of the struggle to expand one's imagination and knowledge through reading.

Family Portraits: Remembrances by Twenty Distinguished Writers (1989) by Carolyn Anthony (Editor). Penguin Books, New York.

The writers included here discuss their most important family influences. Some examples are: Margaret Atwood writes about her great aunts; Louis Auchincloss tells of his mother, Priscilla; Daniel Boorstin reminisces about his father, Lawyer Sam; Alfred Kazin describes his cousin, Necháma, who was a Russian immigrant and Anarchist; May Sarton looks back at her father; and Isaac Bashevis Singer tells of a sacred memory, his mother. May Sarton's reminisces concerning her parents are in contrast with today's world: "How can I not miss the richness of their lives together? I do not see any people now who have such passionate interest in the arts, music, gardening, literature, as well as politics. The only real luxury in their lives was travel. What I miss, what fills me with nostalgia these days, is how small the frame of reference is in many Americans and how large it was in my parents' lives. . . ." (p. 203). And Joyce Carol Oates explains how her writing has been influenced by her parents: "Though frequently denounced and often misunderstood by a somewhat genteel literary community, my writing is, at least in part, an attempt to memorialize my parents' vanished world; my parents' lives. Sometimes directly, sometimes in metaphor. . . ." (p. 155). Family Portraits is an excellent lesson in how family backgrounds have influenced authors' works. These beautiful reminisces will provide gifted students with insights into the types of environments that can nurture writing talent.

On the Teaching of Creative Writing (1988) by Wallace Stegner. University Press of New England, Hanover, New Hampshire.

The author, a Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote many excellent novels about the American West, e.g., The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943) and Angle of Repose (1961). In this book, he responded to questions from an audience of students and professors at Dartmouth College. Stegner concentrated on such issues as whether creative writing can be taught, what signs to look for in determining a person's potential for becoming a creative writer, whether individuals can be taught to write at too early an age, and if a teacher can develop a student's creative writing talent. In response to this last issue, Stegner said, "A teacher probably can't, but a class sometimes can. No, let me qualify that. Talent can't be taught, but it can be awakened -- by reading, by contact with other talents, by exposure to an environment where the expression of talent is valued and encouraged. And once it is awakened, it can be guided -- unless it happens to be too headstrong, as it sometimes is. (If it is absolutely headstrong, it must be allowed to go its own hard way.)" (pp. 70-71). Stegner had some excellent insights into the writing process that would be informative to gifted students. ;;;

Narratives of Mentoring the Gifted: The Life of James Baldwin and the Movie Finding Forrester

by Michael E. Walters Center for the Study of the Humanities in the Schools

Recently, I have encountered the role that mentoring plays in the lives of different individuals through narratives in both written and visual forms. The print narratives were about the African American writer, James Baldwin (1924-87). I read both a biography about Baldwin and several of his own writings, e.g., Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), and The Fire Next Time (1963). The other narrative was a film which is presently very popular -- Finding Forrester (2000).

James Baldwin is acknowledged by critics and colleagues as one of the most important writers in the last fifty years. His essays are among the best examples of expository writing. Baldwin represents how despite his impoverished background in Harlem, the public schools were effective for him personally. His mentoring encounters started as early as elementary school. At Public School 24 his mentor was his principal, Gertrude Ayer -- the only African American to hold that position in the New York Public Schools during the early 1930s. His other mentor, a drama instructor named Orilla Miller, took him to see his first theater performance. At Frederick Douglass Junior High School, his French teacher was the famous African American poet, Countee Cullen, who also introduced him to Black writers such as Langston Hughes. Another mentor there was his mathematics teacher and faculty adviser to the school newspaper, Herman Porter. He traveled with Baldwin to the main branch of the New York Public Library to explore its massive collection. Baldwin attended De Witt Clinton High School (located in the Bronx) beginning in 1938. Here, one of his mentors was his fellow student, Richard Avedon -- later to become a world famous photographer. Near the end of the 1940s, Baldwin received a Rosenwald Foundation grant and was published in leading literary journals (e.g., Partisan Review and Commentary).

Finding Forrester is a fictional account of mentoring that has struck a chord among many inner-city teenagers. They identify with the African American teenager who shows both literary and basketball skills. He becomes a disciple of a famous Scottish American writer living reclusively in the South Bronx. The writer is played by Sean Connery who also came from a poor environment.

The life of James Baldwin and the movie Finding Forrester emphasize how important it is for gifted individuals to be recognized and encouraged. One of the best ways to satisfy these needs is by being mentored. Despite students' personal disadvantages, mentors can release the gift of genius. We are blessed by and appreciate these mentors for enriching our artistic enjoyment.

Maurice D. Fisher, Publisher, Copyright © by Gifted Education Press, February-March 2001