Nancie Atwell was the first person to influence my thinking about the power of writing workshop. It wasn’t until I began college myself that the whole notion of a writing territories list began to take shape inside my writer-mind.

I can still remember how odd it felt to tote around my first list of budding ideas, relieved at last to have a container for the ones that would easily escape me, but uncertain about how I would ever use it. My territories list grew and evolved though, and as it did, I was able to choose more meaningful topics for the pieces that I would produce.

As a blogger, I still keep up with that practice, jotting potential post topics into draft templates and saving them for the future. That’s how this post began two weeks ago. Shortly after a writing conference with one of our middle school writers, I opened up my dashboard and popped this quick reminder into a draft:

Courage changes EVERYTHING.

It does. I watched this happen just last week, during a conversation I was having with Eliza.

“What makes a writing idea a good one?” I often ask. “What makes something worth writing about? What makes it worth reading?”

Sometimes, kids will scramble to find their rubrics, excited to have language that helps them describe the craft of writing. Others will recall their favorite stories, movies, and songs. They will think about the things they’ve written, and the pieces that were best received.

Eliza said something incredible last week though. She had a real breakthrough, and it wouldn’t have happened had we not been exploring how our dispositions influence writer’s process and craft.

“I need to pick more courageous topics,” she told me. “This is my goal for this year. I’ve written some good pieces in the past, but the topics were not courageous enough. If I make having courage as a writer my goal for this year, then I think I might be able to write things people will really want to read.”

This was a huge discovery for her, and listening to her speak, I honestly felt like I was watching her “become” a writer.

Ironically, Eliza’s words ring true for me as well. Founding the Studio a year ago was a tremendous risk that required a huge leap of faith for me and for my family. But it was a good idea: creating a sustainable writing community for kids and teachers and working slowly over time to reduce and eventually eliminate costs for everyone who joins us there. This has become the most rewarding work I’ve ever done, and I know that when we take risks with our writing, the rewards are just as great.

Kids like Eliza are helping me make huge discoveries. She must honestly feel like she’s watching me “become a teacher” some days. I’m grateful for such great company. I’m grateful for such teachers.

How can we coach writers to develop courageous ideas? Perhaps asking questions like this might help:

  • Where have you experienced or witnessed injustice? What stories must be told?
  • What hard truths need to be shared in service to those in need?
  • What have your flaws taught you about yourself? Others? What can be written about this?
  • Which wounds must be turned into wisdom?
  • Talk to the elephant in the room. Share his story.

Conversations like these almost always leave writers confronting this dilemma: which stories should be told, and which ones shouldn’t?

My rule of thumb: if the story you are about to tell will enlighten, empower, and serve an audience well, consider telling it. If it only serves to spread pain around and push trauma onto others, don’t tell it. We need to use our words in ways that elevate thinking and behavior.

Courage has nothing to do with retaliation.

And what if the idea is one that serves readers, but in the telling, it might injure others?

Change the names, the setting, the circumstances, the gender of the characters, and even your name as the author, if the work has integrity and the story must be told.

How do you help writers generate, execute, and grapple with the challenges of writing courageously?


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