269. Confidence and Originality

As a young child, I brought home a poem I’d written for my mother for Valentine’s Day. She was so moved by it. I didn’t tell her that whoever had written my spelling book had also written that poem. I told her I’d made it up. I wanted her to know just how special she was, and how special I was. The fact that I hadn’t made up the poem seemed to be a minor, insignificant detail, and I didn’t want to trouble her with it.
People do that all the time. That is, they send people cards that contain heart-felt messages they didn’t make up. There are entire aisles in pharmacies, supermarkets, and elsewhere that are full of very personal messages written by strangers. Part of the reason may be that people don’t have time to write their own messages, but I suspect that a bigger part of the reason is lack of confidence.
As I help young children write stories now, occasionally I encounter children who want to write stories they’ve seen in movies, or read in books. Sometimes they want to write about characters they’ve seen on television shows, or in video games. I don’t lecture them about copyright law, and if I don’t manage to elicit totally original characters and plots from them, I don’t take any legal action. They eventually need to know about plagiarism, and they need to become more confident in their own creativity, but there’s time.
Adults who write usually know about plagiarism, and if they don’t have confidence in their own writing, they tend not to write much. In school, that’s not an option. And some children don’t believe in themselves enough to look inside themselves to find the stories that are there. Maybe some spend so much time absorbing the stories created for books, TV, and movies that even when they do look inside themselves, they find other people’s characters and stories.
And so teachers read stories that are strikingly similar to stories children got elsewhere. Most teachers don’t spend much time watching Saturday morning cartoons, playing video games, seeing children’s movies, or reading Sweet Valley Twins or Babysitters’ Club books, but it’s usually easy to detect ready-made characters and stories anyway. If a teacher knows a child, it very quickly becomes obvious when a story does not come from the child’s own thought and experience.
Then it’s time to guide the child toward originality. Accusing a child of copying someone else’s story is not a very effective technique; children need to learn about the treasury of stories that are in them, and until they are confident that those stories really exist, they lean on whatever resources they can think of.

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