The Public Humanist

The Freedom to Play with Words

Youth in Creative Writing Workshops

Photo by Lynn Bowmaster and used with her permission

Photo by Lynn Bowmaster and used with her permission

On any given day or night, living rooms across the Pioneer Valley are filled with adults in writing workshops, curled up with their notebooks and laptops. Like plants coaxed in a greenhouse, stories and poetry unfold in these circles, fragile and beautiful. There is something stunning about the experience itself. The atmosphere almost shimmers with the power of creation.

For most adults who attend workshops they’re not just mild amusement; they are one of the anchors of their week. New things are discovered about oneself in a writing workshop, new perspectives on life.

Meanwhile, our children do most of their writing in school. Inside the classroom writing begins with instruction on how to hold a pencil, form letters, write on a line, spell words, and organize them into grammatically correct sentences. This is a complicated obstacle course of tasks. It’s easy for both students and teachers to feel overwhelmed. In the midst of efforts to clear each hurdle “to get it right” it’s hard to marry the imagination with the process. In fact there are so many ways to get writing “wrong” that children who struggle with any part of the process may conclude “I’m just not a writer”.

Our best language arts teachers are motivated by a desire to awaken the student’s essential self through literature and writing. Yet state and national curriculum do not emphasize creative writing. As a result, most writing curricula are designed to guide the student toward the five paragraph essay, the research paper, and the college entrance essay.

If you think about it, many young students might be surprised to hear their school writing efforts have anything to do with the ideas in their heads as they bounce along the sidewalk, or the random rhyme that belongs to them, or the biggest stories in their lives. How sad. These stories, laugh lines, and whispers of poetry are important. They are parts of their identities and possibly some of the best material to motivate young writers.

In 2000, when my son was in third grade, I began my first writing workshop for children to provide an inviting space for their creative expression. On one Friday afternoon the Hadley school bus suddenly began to spit out not just one boy but a riotous pile of boys and girls who exploded onto our driveway and ran up the steps where another parent, Kathy Wicks, and I herded them in.

I started with my favorite poems about the beauty of nature or the longing of the human heart. They read back stories filled with fart jokes, silly brothers, car chases, and terrible deaths that everyone seemed to adore. Writers climbed all over each other (literally) to read their pieces to the group, stories like “Worm Wars,” “The Quest of Hecereny,” and “The Final Hours of Barney the Dinosaur.” I saw that these workshops mattered to these kids, most of them boys. Many of them came on Fridays for another nine years.

Soon I had a second workshop and this group of girls also fell in love with their creative nest. They met on Tuesdays, lying across one another like wayward scarves. They freaked out about spiders and fire alarms, wrote beautiful poetry and haunting stories.

Today there is a small beehive of workshops here in my home. Across the week forty writers from third to twelfth grade pour into the writing room with its couches, chairs, bookshelves, wall quilts and a reigning poster of Harry Potter. (There is one lazy boy recliner but you have to arrive early.)

They come because writing, listening, and being together as a “writers clan” is both relaxing and exciting. Prompts are designed to leave product-oriented assignments behind and open the imagination.

After fifteen years I know what to do. The writers in the room are at the height of their creative power. Oh, there are things they don’t know — exactly how to get to an end point, how to cut and shape, to buff and polish the edges of stories. And there are stories they have not yet lived. But! Their palette is so wide, the agility of their creativity so obvious. I often feel as though I have to stop and pinch myself as the workshop takes hold of a prompt. It’s like the start of a roller coaster ride – you leave the gate in a swoop and you’re guaranteed twisted turns and a bit of breathlessness. It’s the kind of a place where you’re wide awake and you know you are alive. And that’s a good thing.

Lynn Bowmaster teaches Woven Word Young Writers Workshops in her home and in schools in the Pioneer Valley.

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