Any progress I make as a writer in the next week or two, I feel I will owe to No Child Left Behind.

I suppose I should explain.

A literary agent of my acquaintance was ruminating recently on the poor sales prospects for simply told, old-fashioned children’s nonfiction and historical fiction:

I called one editor who is passionate about historical fiction to talk with her about it, and she said it’s due to No Child Left Behind and the standardized testing that has become prevalent in American schools. For a couple of decades, the whole language movement has dominated, and teachers at all age levels have used trade books–picture books, chapter books, and fiction–to expand and underscore the lessons they teach in all areas, not just for reading classes or library time. The way standardized testing has come to dominate the educational landscape has caused the pendulum to swing away from the whole language approach, and now teachers are relying, again and unfortunately, primarily on textbooks, which better prepare students for those multiple-choice questions, supposedly. Even institutional publishers who specialize in the school and library market are finding they cannot do historical fiction and other nonfiction subjects terribly successfully outside of textbook form, and so naturally, trade houses are also pulling away from nonfiction, history, and biography–unless they are such strong stories that they would be successful whether they were truth or fiction, and the truth-behind-the-story aspect becomes just a bonus, rather than the point. [emphasis mine]

I tend to write nonfiction in a pretty straightforward form and with a pretty straightforward voice. I would be hard-pressed to describe that voice, other than to say that it sounds an awful lot like the way I talk.

But once I read this theory about the impact of NCLB, I realized that I’ve been undercutting myself by not paying anywhere near as much attention to voice and form as I do to the facts and themes of the lives I write about. And I immediately resolved to do something about it — in some unspecified project at some point in the maybe not-so-distant future.

Just a couple of days later, I was talking with my wife about all this when I two-thirds-jokingly suggested an off-the-beaten path approach I might take to Pasta. To my surprise, the idea rang in my ears like I’d struck a tuning fork — it felt just perfect for the stories I’ll be telling in this project. The next morning, it still did, and a few days later — now that I’ve actually begun writing — it still does.

So there you have it: Whatever else one can say about NCLB, it has jolted me out of my narrative rut. And I don’t even have to take a standardized test to prove it.