Lost Then Found
by Corinne Manning
A literature teacher once told me that all stories touch on at least one of three elements of human concern: love, death, and money. It was something I hadn’t noticed before I was told, but sure enough, soon after I saw these themes repeat again and again in most stories that I read. As a writer, I don’t purposefully think in these terms when I start a story, so why should I expect 8th grade writers to?
The past few weeks I’ve been reading short fiction written by the 8th graders I’m teaching. They were given the assignment to write a piece of 3 minute fiction inspired by the NPR contest prompt from this summer: “Write a story where a character finds something the/she has no intention of returning.”
The mentor text that we used didn’t touch on love, death or money—but revenge. A girl finds her brother’s finger and decides that she won’t be returning it. In a moment of glory she throws it into the lake behind their house where the cat fish will “pick it clean.”
I was nervous with a mentor text like this, would these 60 young writers each create a story of revenge? Would there be a finger found in every story?
There were no body parts, thankfully, and only a few stories of revenge (the revenge usually having to do with a stolen diary). Otherwise most every story was about grief or money.
A wallet is found and the narrator, whose father just got laid off, must decide whether to return it; a pair of new Nike sneakers are abandoned in an alley and would be a much better replacement for the phony Adidas (4 stripes!) the protagonist had to wear; a character found her best friend’s necklace and decides whether to keep it for herself or offer it to the mother who is mourning her daughter.
There was not a single romantic story, but there were a few about finding lost dogs and deciding how to care for them, which I think most people would agree, counts as a love story.
Without being told anything about the elements of human concern, the students naturally wrote towards them. It’s exciting to see how an unconscious of stories beats in all of our hearts. Already, at thirteen and fourteen, these writers are speaking to our greatest concerns.
“The dog was much skinnier than he thought dogs should be and all he felt when he touched the dog was brittle bone. He thought about giving it back, sneaking out enough food would make his uncle suspicious. Also the fur was so matted and patchy that he couldn’t run his hands through it without stopping in fear of ripping it all out. The shed was old and rickety with splinters and bugs covering every inch of it, he couldn’t make the dog suffer. If he gave the dog away then he would be alone again and he couldn’t lose the only chance he might ever have for a friend.” By Joseph
She found the dog in the playground by the swings. Its ear poked out from the thick snow, the contrast of gray and white had made it easy to spot. The dog itself wasn’t that special, not really. It had no elaborate details or expensive feeling fur; it was cheap, maybe something you could pick up from Walgreens. Yet when she lifted it from the snow she couldn’t help the feeling of warmth that surged through her.” By Karla