A Monthly Column by Anthony D. Fredericks
Recently, I met with a former student. Over tall cups of coffee, she told me about the challenges and difficulties she experiences every day as an inner city teacher. She regaled me with her vexations of working with a disconnected administration, parents who provide little in the way of academic support, and colleagues who are just putting in the minimum in order to survive. Having been in her classroom many times, I know the passion and dedication she puts into the job and the positive changes she engenders in her first grade students.
But, she is frustrated!
She is looking for change, but she is not sure what that change might be. She solicited my insight on where she should be going and what she should be doing. Instead of offering her a panoply of “professorial directives,” I invited her to craft a “Reverse Autobiography.” I asked her to imagine where she wanted to be, professionally, on the day of her retirement—34 years in the future. I encouraged her to write that goal at the top of a sheet of paper. Then, in three- or five-year increments, she should design a “backward hierarchy” of professional goals that would eventually lead up to that final goal. The last entry on this autobiography (at the bottom of the page) would be where she is right now. I also shared this quote with her: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up somewhere else.”
As writers, we often find ourselves in similar situations. We turn on our computer, access our word processing program, and begin typing. Somewhere along the line we stop—derailed by that old monster, “writer’s block.” The plot isn’t working, the character is not well developed, the setting isn’t clearly defined, and the point of view is disjointed. We are frustrated by the fact that a tale beautifully conjured by our mind is barely surviving when transferred to a computer screen. It’s just not coming together.
Several years ago, I began a new book project—a story about the amazing variety of life found in the Sonoran Desert of California and Arizona (where I grew up). I wanted to share the beauty of the geography, the diversity of lifeforms, and the splendor of the geology. But, I also didn’t want this to become just another Wikipedia entry—a collection of facts without emotion or enthusiasm. I wanted young readers to construct an affective bond with this ecosystem—a literary relationship that would transform a seemingly lifeless environment into a memorable reading experience.
But, I was frustrated.
Each draft and each rendition began with a simplistic listing of facts. And, each of those drafts was subsequently extinguished by the “delete” key on my keyboard. I didn’t know what to say or where to go. I hit a literary wall each time I started out. And so, in an effort to move away from a prescribed and comfortable way of writing, I decided to write the story in reverse. I began with the ending and wrote the story backward, finishing up with the beginning. The process and the results were transformative. The story reformatted itself into a dialogue between an anthropomorphic region and an inquisitive explorer. Here is that ending:
I am a land of discovery.
For here, there is much to learn.
Come and look.
I will share with you my rock-ribbed valleys,
my crimson cliffs,
and my layered miles of spine-studded plants
and brilliant creatures.
Come find my beauty!
I am the desert.
What I discovered was that an emphasis on the end of a story frequently sharpens my focus on what will transpire before that ending. I have pinpointed an exact termination for a tale—whether it be fiction or nonfiction, a picture book or a YA novel—by clearly delineating the end and then making sure that everything that leads up to that end is clear, precise, and necessary. In so doing, I eliminate extraneous dialogue, unnecessary characters, unfocused details, and meandering plot diversions. Just like in that great song by Johnny Nash (1972)—“I Can See Clearly Now” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FscIgtDJFXg)—with the end established, you too will be able to “clearly” see all obstacles in your way.
A retired professor of education and resident of York, PA, Tony is an award-winning writer of more than 50 children’s books, including I Am the Desert (https://amzn.to/2KY4fdS). He is also the author of the forthcoming (Spring 2020) adult trade book Fizzle: The Hidden Forces Crushing Your Creativity (https://amzn.to/2rsbJPs).
Great angle on how to approach the writing process. Thanks!