It’s 4:10 on a Wednesday and I’m preparing to host Woven Word Young Writers. One by one the writers arrive, drop their backpacks at the door and head into my kitchen. S. takes over the air popper so I can pull the brownies out of the oven. E. and C. swing onto stools and start to dress the three bowls of popcorn. There’s one bowl for “the works“– (nutritional yeast, olive oil and salt), one for salt and oil, and one for just salt. C. plucks a kernel from the big bowl and tries it. “It needs more yeast,” she says. E. nods and sprinkles more over the bowl.
Over the years members of Woven Word Young Writers have gently hijacked snack preparation and delivery. Now they cut the brownies and divide the loot according to their own rules. They developed this smorgasbord of bowls and toppings. Now when a new member joins they can explain it all in detail as they welcome them into their small gang of writers.
They like these traditions and I do too. I want writers to feel safe, to approach writing as adventure, to let some things work and others fail. Here in the kitchen over bowls of popcorn I watch them build the social space they need to take risks in their writing.
Now It’s 4:15. B. trucks in with her long legs forward and her head cast down. She’s ticked off about her school day and everyone immediately joins in. Homework assignments are bad mouthed and E. does a snide imitation of a lunch monitor as they bark, “10 second hug!” This makes M’s eyes pop. “What? At our school even teachers hug students!” E. shrugs. It’s her school; that’s just how it is. With ten writers from eight schools there’s plenty to compare.
It’s 4:25. I go to the front room where the writing circle waits. I fuss with my program materials stacked up on my old yellow chair. As prepared as I am I have a big job ahead. It’s up to me to connect but not invade, inspire but not require, corral but not suppress.
Like a real nest this workshop is a circle of support, and it’s carefully woven. Through a delicate balance of freedom and suggested instruction I help each writer believe in their own fledgling voice. They need this faith to keep testing its awesome capacity for flight.
Each week we start with a prompt set up to allow writers to improve a skill or try a new perspective or form. Today our first writing period will focus on odes, followed immediately by “free write” when members continue work from weeks before or start new pieces. At the start of the second period I will offer new material such as photos, objects or line prompts read out loud. Even though many work on continuing pieces they may use these prompts to add plot. Others may start a new piece in this period as well.
4:30: Above the chatter lines I call the writers to our task. People flow into the front room, get their notebooks and settle down. I welcome them to workshop and to our opening reading. As the year goes by I vary the material we read as much as possible — Shel Silverstein, W.S. Merwin, Lucille Clifton, Wislawa Szymborska, Ruth Ozeki, Dav Pilkey, Terry Pratchett and many others. I want them to feel they belong to a circle that loves the written word in all its glorious color.
However, today there’s only so much time. I begin with Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to the Hummingbird”. I love sharing the luxury of his language with them. After Neruda I read “Ode to Bacon”, a poem by J. P. G written here in this room when J. was eight. It oozes humor and includes the line “bacon–that greasy, slimy, food of the ages!” When I finish everyone is laughing. In my heart I feel both of these poems are perfect. Hopefully now the prompt will be inspiring but also accessible.
I sit back and smile at them. Then I invite the writers to gorge on odes, their delicious invitation to celebrate life. I ask them to write in adoring words about one thing that they love. Soon most of them are bent down, scribbling out lines. There’s no time to waste. We have only two hours together and we know our time will fly.