I’ve always enjoyed working with other writers, and this month, I was given the opportunity to work with young writers (teens and young adults) and help them understand the process of writing keepsake stories. Remember the premise of my book—everyone has a keepsake, and every keepsake has a story to tell. Yes, teenagers have keepsakes. Whether the keepsake is a trophy from playing on a soccer team or a ring a grandmother gave her granddaughter or a dried corsage from last year’s prom or a stuffed animal that’s been loved for years, teens and young adults have mementoes to write about.
On Monday, April 14, I conducted a teen writing workshop at the Calhoun library for five young women. I shared many of my writing secrets with them—how to brainstorm effectively, how to organize thoughts, how to free write to get a first draft on paper, and how to revise a story. One of the girls, April, was bubbly and sweet and brought her keepsake to the workshop.
“I call him Uni,” she said balancing a unicorn stuffed with dried beans on her head. And then she told me that Uni was lost for a very long time, but she eventually found him in a bush outside of her house when some men came to do lawn work for her family.
Midway through the workshop, I explained “the hook.”
“That first paragraph has got to grab the reader’s attention,” I said. “I want you guys to think how you will hold the reader’s attention."
“I know how I will hold their attention,” April announced. “I’m going to let Uni tell my story. It will use Uni’s voice, not mine.”
“Very clever,” I replied, impressed with her creativity and her fearlessness.
I guess that’s the common thread among young writers—some write so boldly that reading their writing makes me ooze with joy. Others are too concerned about what others might think of their words and experiences. Getting them over the obstacle of caring what others think is harder than teaching them about the writing process. Some young writers are fearless, yet others are paralyzed by fear. I guess, in that respect, they’re no different than adult writers.
On Thursday, April 17, I gave another writing workshop for young writers in Dalton, Georgia at the public library to commemorate National Library Week. Twenty-four young writers attended, many from Amanda Triplett’s class at Dalton High School.
At the beginning of the workshop, I witnessed a few teen volunteers show their keepsakes to the other attendees—a ball cap and keys that belonged to a young man’s grandfather, a stuffed animal that traveled all the way from Mexico to Northwest Georgia, a necklace, a backpack hook, etc.
I explained how to use a bubble diagram to map out a story, and then I said, “Okay, everyone take out a clean sheet of paper and make a bubble diagram of your story.”
I walked around the room and simply couldn’t believe what I saw—two dozen big, sprawling bubble diagrams with words and words and words connected with circles and lines and more words. This group of teenagers knew what they were doing. They were masters. Again, the word “fearless” popped into to my mind.
My mind drifted back to high school, and I found myself a little sad that back then, I didn’t have access to a creative writing class. My high school’s English department focused on reading and appreciating literature with a quick side of three-point essay writing. I contemplated it, and then wondered if taking a formal writing class in my teens would have changed my career trajectory (college to engineer to late-blooming writer). I still wonder.
Later when we started writing first drafts, I roamed the room again and peeked at a few stories.
“I could be witnessing the rise of the next Harper Lee or Stephen King,” I thought to myself. Yes, they were that good. I rewarded the teens who shared their work with a handful of jelly beans. One young man accidentally ate a foul tasting buttered-popcorn-flavored jellybean and promptly spit out the chewed mass onto the table for all of us to see.
And then today, at the request of young CC Burgess, I attended Dalton Middle School and worked with young writers in Ms. Swiney’s class. Toward the end, I explained how to infuse a story with dialogue to make it more interesting. I broke the class into six small groups and gave each team a sentence and said, “Now, write some dialogue—a conversation between two people.”
On one team’s sheet, I wrote, “Bob tells Jose how he got a black eye.” I gave this sentence to a group of four boys. They wrote something like this:
“Hey, what happened to you?” Jose asked. “How did you get that black eye?”
“It’s not really a black eye,” Bob replied. “It’s makeup. I’m in a play.”
“Oh! Wow, it really looks real,” Jose said.
I certainly wasn’t expecting that conversation from the boys. I thought that they would take the easy path and write a conversation revolving around a fight, but no—they surprised me with their creativity.
I gave a group of four girls the following statement: John tells Sarah about seeing a shooting star the night before. Again, I asked that they create dialogue between John and Sarah. They wrote something like this:
“You’ll never guess what I saw last night,” John said.
“What?” Sarah asked.
“I was in the field and I saw a shooting star go by in the black sky,” John said. “It was beautiful.”
“No you didn’t,” Sarah said. “You were with me last night in the basement doing something illegal.”
Whoa! Creative? Yes, but now I am concerned about what these young girls are being exposed to in their homes.
To summarize, I love working with writers of all ages and skill levels, but working with young writers is a treat. They exude energy and spirit. Their creative juices churn, ferment, and burst out of their bodies in surprising ways, but they need our help. I challenge all of my writer friends to spend more time with young writers and encourage them, nurture them, help them, welcome them into our writing community, and perhaps most of all, let them know that good writing skills will serve them well in life.