Workshops and Prompts….Young Writers, Any Writers

One of the great loves of my professional life as a high school teacher was guiding young writers to find their own voices, experiment with genres, find their own best creative process.  For over a decade, I had an after-school writers group once a week.  It was the perfect example of a true writers community.  Kids 15 to 18 years old knew by the strange grapevine of quiet  high school communication.  These were creative, talented, artistic young people, many of whom would never, ever acknowledge each other during a school day, in classes or hallways or cafeteria.  In high school everyone has a persona, sometimes open and genuine, often more closed to their real identity. Individuals can be defined by their group.  But what I absolutely loved was that for that two hours after school once a week in my classroom with the door closed, everything changed.  Everyone changed.  Writing together, sharing together, encouraging one another through thoughtful feedback which each writer discussed with their readers and then decided whether it was useful to them as a writer on that particular piece.  Writers flowered.  And yes, outside of school, they  sometimes met in growing personal friendships. And then, of course, after graduation, we keep only a very few friends over the many years.  Some of these young people are in their the twenties, early thirties, and a few still keep up with one another bound by the intimacy of writing during adolescence.

Even though retired now, every summer I’m lucky enough to be able to teach at a young writers “Institute”, fancy term for learning through teaching, mentoring,  example, sharing, publishing (a small, but lovely anthology.)  By the ages of fourteen through eighteen, most boys have fallen away from publicly participating in arts.  Even talented boys withdraw to private writing with no feedback.  Sigh.  But there are advantages to working with a small group of ten to fifteen girls of graduated ages. By that age, conversation and writing are much freer when alone together. As with my after-school group, they tend to self-perpetuate in that more experienced writers help mentor the rather inexperienced from year to year.  During the summers in particular, I use what we call prompts.  Give a specific idea and suggest a direction, but genre and choice and development are entirely self-directed.  I do know that certain well-designed, open-ended prompts actually serve their purpose…They can prompt young or inexperienced writers to begin a piece.  Even experienced writers can respond to prompts from one another once in a while.

Since we are approaching Halloween, for fun I’m going to post the prompt Something’s Not Right next.  It’s meant to expose them to the mystery/suspense genre. We usually have fun with this.  I have made up so many prompts over my twenty-five years of teaching English.  I love it.  It’s challenging and fun for me, and I love to see what they do with it.  Teachers share constantly. It’s a part of the profession.  So if anyone out there wants to play with this prompt, go for it : )

Personally, I hate prompts. I just go blank and write something else, if I can think of anything.  Otherwise, I doodle discreetly I hope.  I am not a writer who can write under pressure.  I could never be a journalist, for example.   All that being said, I have attended writers workshops led by relatively well-known writers, often poets, often based at Pitt or Carnegie Mellon, but often visiting poets and writers. And on a few occasions I eventually will produce a piece I really love after I take it home and play with it over time.

Very,  very rarely one will actually come out entire by the end of a workshop.  Maybe I’ll post that one in conjunction with writing and prompts.  The prompt was the use of verb tense and specific structure.  When I shared, there was a rather stunned silence.  You would understand if you were there.  Or perhaps when you read it.  It was one of those bizarre days of alignment of emotion, purpose, and means.  It’s titled Go Out, Dark.

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