by | Mar 5, 2007 | Approaches to Writing, Literature, Writers

Having my students rearrange their stories is beginning to pay off.  Today, one of my 5th graders apologized because she decided she didn’t like her new arrangement, and was going to have to start over again.  Breakthrough!  I seized the moment to tell them one of my favorite (very possibly apocryphal) writing stories, which may or not be about Balzac.


One day some friends of Balzac’s (assuming it was Balzac and not some other 19th century French writer) stopped by his place to invite him along on a weekend jaunt to another friend’s place in the country.  Despite their pleas, he refused, saying that he was working hard on his latest novel, was at a very crucial spot, and needed to keep his nose to the grindstone.

When his friends got back into town, they stopped by again to let him know what a great time he had missed.  While they were talking, one of them took a look at the manuscript on Balzac’s desk, and shook his head.

Balzac, he said, what is this?  When we stopped by here the other day, and you refused to come with us, this very page was on your desk.  And not only that, but I see that you have not added a single word all weekend.  You could have come with us, enjoyed the countryside, relaxed, drunk new wine, and returned to your desk refreshed, but instead you have sat here the whole time and gotten nothing done.

Ah, replied Balzac, I am afraid you are quite mistaken.  For although you are correct that I have not written a single word, what you do not know is that on Saturday I added a comma, and today I crossed it out; so you see I have actually made great progress.


Of course, I told the story in my most outrageous French accent, with lots of ad-libbing, and lots of stock phrases (mon cher, sacre bleu!) and Gallic gestures thrown in.  Not just because I’m a ham, but also because the kids eat it up, and they’re more likely to remember things that make them laugh.

Europeans in the Middle Ages were very aware of the connection between emotion and memory.  Before forms in triplicate came into being, witnesses to important transactions, especially children, were smacked around or thrown into the nearest river as a way of insuring that the event would be remembered.

In this less overtly violent age, laughter is a good make-do, and is less likely to land one in jail.

Learning the value of re-thinking and re-working a piece is terribly important, but when I tell them, as I am wont to do, about Hemingway and how it sometimes took him sixty drafts before he was satisfied with a story, they tend to nod off.  What do they care about Hemingway?  But a ridiculous story about a crossed-out comma, especially one told in a silly accent, gets them every time.