So many young people write, many secretly and privately, in notebooks, in journals, in folders on their computers, and they never share with others. How do I know this? Because I learned so many good and wonderful things about creative writing by adolescents when I taught high school English for twenty-five years. I learned that there is no such thing as “the teenage writer”. No writer, no matter what our age, can or should be assigned a category, a stereotype. At some point, writers may decide to follow a particular genre or several genres. Best Seller lists contain many writers who are masters of one genre. Still, many will write in another genre just for the pleasure of the writing. But seeing teenagers find their way, find their individual voices is actually a special joy.
In our high schools, sadly, there has never been a great deal of room in the curriculum for creative writing, but teachers who believe in its importance made the space at times. Now that testing rules, most creative writing in the high school classroom has virtually disappeared. Many teachers valiantly squeeze something in, rarely, when they can.
But even before this debacle, creative writing in class was still not a writers’ community. I read a student’s work, then talked about it with them. Many were very creative. But they were still doing assigned creative writing, an oxymoron if there ever was one! Although I gave them wide latitude by giving many choices of how they could respond to a piece of literature or life events, they could not blossom creatively. This really, really bothered me. I felt those who wanted to write were being short-changed. It wasn’t the fault of our educational system. Schools truly cannot give extensive time to, not only the writing itself, but the sharing of pieces and the conversations we have about our work with other writers. Open, non-judgmental, encouraging. But after school was a different story or poem or memoir or rant or whatever was going on within these kids. By peers. I am not a teacher in a writers group. I am a mentor. Yes, I am one of the conversations they have, I do make suggestions as well. But these are their own creative pieces, and all of us are in it together for one another. I even share my own work sometimes when it dovetails.
So every Wednesday after school, we shut the door to my classroom, wrote and shared. We brought revised pieces we had shared and received comments on from other writers in our writing community and had revisited at home. We brought new pieces. There was a lot of emotion, long periods of silence as they wrote and read others, lots of quiet conversation among two or three or four people in a self-chosen group, usually by genre. Then anyone who wanted to shared with everyone at the end. There was also a great deal of laughter and junk food and fun. Writers groups are fun. Serious can be fun. I also had some really talented comic writers over the years. One went on to improv and has his own little venue now in a town near Pittsburgh! Amazing. But I have always wanted them to know that we don’t have to be published to be writers. We write for a number of reasons. It’s highly individual and personal. Whether we ever share, whether we are ever published, if writing is a part of our lives, a part of who we are, we are indeed writers.
I have done a number of creative writing workshops with adult writers over the years. Totally wonderful and revelatory in its own way. I also love doing that. But writing with teens, who are on the cusp of creativity and identity, is and always will be a special joy for me.
So why am I posting this? For a number of reasons. First, I am happy, very happy. Since I retired six years ago, I have taught creative writing to teenage girls every summer at a local Writing Institute. But it’s only two weeks. I loved it, but really we just get started. I do really like the fact that many come each summer, so I’ve really worked with some girls for four years. They have grown as writers, blossomed creatively. Very importantly, they have mentored the new girls, younger writers, who come each summer, as well as continuing to mentor one another. Our anthologies each summer were wonderful. Then, suddenly, the program ended. Gone. It was a sorrow for me.
So why am I happy? Because I have another opportunity. The local library has agreed to let me have a writers group for high school girls there twice a month. I’m excited, but nervous. I have a few teacher friends who will pass out flyers in their classrooms. I have told them that this is not a class. I am brazen enough to hand one to a couple girls on the street at times. You never know who’s a writer. I’m old enough that I really don’t care if kids see me as the batty old lady who wants teenage girls to write : ) We meet for the first time next Saturday. If only one or two show up the first time I’ll think of it as a victory. Almost every teenager I ever had in writers group came by word of mouth. Of course, I started the group with a few of my students that I felt were writers. I did that every year. But I was not the driving force, ever. So please wish me luck : ) There is so much talent out there. I’d love to have the chance again to help foster that.