We began the week by playing a few games to get to know everyone. We talked about our favorite books and then interacted with one another to fill in a fun fact sheet about all the books on tap for this week.
At 10 AM our guest author of the day, Ben Winters, arrived and we launched into a discussion of mystery and surprises in everyday life, and about unintended consequences. Ben gave an example of one simple thing that could lead to unexpected consequences. His “what if” scenario was “a camper has forgotten his lunch and so I give him half of my lunch. Turns out the camper is allergic to hazelnuts, which were in my lunch, and so the camper throws up and ends up in the hospital, where he’s taken care of by a doctor, who turns out to be his long-lost brother. They go on a trip and their suitcases get switched with the suitcases of a diamond thief…” And on it goes from there.. Quite a wild story all resulting from a simple act.
Ben asked us to tell about mysteries we’ve had in our own lives and we heard tales of a toothbrush that landed in the cat litter, and lost cellphones found in the toilet and next to the lettuce in the refrigerator! All mysteries. Life is full of small, medium, and large questions, that are raised in your mind, which are later answered or unanswered. That is true of us and should be true of the characters in the stories we write. We are always trying to figure things out. All books are really mysteries.
Ben then asked the campers to talk about any challenges they’ve had with their writing. One challenge that came up was writers’ block. Ben suggested that one way to tackle that is to always begin your writing project writing the part you’re most excited about and when you’re done, put that aside and take that energy and move on to the most challenging part of your story.
How do you come up with ideas? Ideas are everywhere! Ben buys the newspaper every day and finds that the stories there spark his imagination. One of the campers mentioned that she was pictured on the front page of the paper the other day on a foraging trip in the park. Ben started to riff off of that story — a girl goes to the park to forage and … a million different things might happen, if you just ask “what if…”
He said he always likes to make an outline when he begins writing, but then often changes his story along the way.
Then we talked about Ben’s book, The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, and Ben explained that he was inspired by his time teaching creative writing in schools and observing kids’ interactions with their teachers, who may be mysterious to them; he imagined, what if?? Ben said that there are classic mystery stories — whodunits — and then there are the mysteries of trying to figure people out.
He then played us two pieces of music — one sweeping classical piece (Brahms’ violin concerto in D, third movement) and one weird and wild song by Tom Waits from his rock opera of Alice in Wonderland — and we free-wrote reactions to the music or stories inspired by it. Ben told us that the musician Elvis Costello said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” It is sometimes impossible to write about how music makes us feel. Each of us seemed to hear something different in the music — from a great, tragic love story to a tale of a singalong in a bar to a schoolgirl’s conflict on the street to a wacky tale of a Danish man in Iceland doing a hip hop dance!
Finally Ben invited us to write scenes between two people, where one knows something that the other doesn’t know. The results were very intriguing and entertaining.
After we got our books signed and took a group picture, we were off to lunch in the park, followed by enthusiastic games of Capture the Flag and Set and relaxing reading.
Our afternoon was spent talking about the books of the week in mini book groups on the Symphony Space stage.
In pairs we interviewed one another, helping us to get to know each other better.
Then we headed downstairs again for a final writing activity based on Ben Winter’s idea of “unexpected consequences.” Even thought the group started with three basic premises: a girl leaving for camp, a boy boarding a plane, and someone observing others in a playground, the results were so imaginative and varied.
The day really flew by and we’re all looking forward to our visit from Dave Roman, author and illustrator of Astronaut Academy, and our trip with him to the New York Hall of Science.