Monday, August 10, 2015

Try, Try, Try Again, Try Something New

One of my favorite things is teaching a writing camp every summer in my hometown for kids and teenagers. For a couple hours over two back-to-back weekends, we all sit together in a purple-walled conference room and write. (Still mostly with pen and pencil on notebook paper, although I allow the kids to bring laptops and iPads if they wish. A few do; most opt for old-school notebooks.) I write a prompt on the whiteboard, turn on some Norah Jones or Jack Johnson, and they are off and running.

It’s nothing short of magic, being in that room. It’s calm, peaceful, with a quiet energy buzzing below the surface. You can practically hear the ideas whirring around the room, as surely as you can hear the pencils scratching their ways across sheets of paper. You can feel the ideas, swirling around. This is perhaps my favorite thing I have ever created, my proudest accomplishment—this classroom of young writers.

My writing campers inspire me in so many ways. They are passionate, driven, unabashedly enthusiastic. They are ambitious. (Do you know any 9-year-olds writing 300-page novels? I do!) They are creative, and well-read, and perceptive, and supportive of each other.

Perhaps most of all, these young writers inspire me with the way they embrace new challenges and take risks in order to push themselves to grow. I have taught writing classes for adults as well, and always need to plough through much more resistance before getting down to business. As adults, we too often become set in our ways. We become afraid to try something new because we might not do it the “right” way – we might make mistakes, do something wrong, have to stumble our way through a learning curve. Kids, in general, seem much less concerned about stumbling.

Time and again, I present to my young writers an utterly new idea or wacky concept, intended specifically to push them out of their comfort zones. And what do they do? Embrace the new challenge. They dive right in. My writing campers are adventurers. They explore.

One small example is an activity relating to structuring a short story. My only guideline is for them to try something they have never attempted before. Write a story in reverse chronological order, from the ending to the beginning. Write a story with alternating perspectives of two characters. Write a story from the perspective of an animal, or an insect, or an inanimate object. Write a story in poetic verse.

My amazing students try it all. They inspire me with their bravery. The way they eagerly raise their hands to share the yearnings of their hearts and minds, ideas that they only just scribbled down onto paper moments ago, their just-birthed words still fragile and new—nevertheless, they are unselfconscious and unselfish in their sharing. They are generous, both in confidence and in spirit. When do we lose this, us grown-ups? When do we cross that threshold and become shy, stifled? Why are we so terrified of looking foolish that we keep our voices silent? Why do we stop daring to try?

The inspiring and beautiful book a picture is worth: the voice of today's high school students(Arch Street Press) is an anthology dedicated to the importance of sharing our voices, of being brave enough to shed light on our stories and bare our truths to the world. Featuring personal narrative essays from high school students at the I-LEAD Charter School in Reading, Pennsylvania, each essay in this book is brimming with meaning and relevance -- not only to students and teenagers of today, but for adults as well.

In the book's introduction, David Castro and Alisa del Tufo write:

"By sharing these stories brought to life through the faces and voices of our young learners, ILCS expects to inspire new learning and new educational pathways for their peers. In studying the personal narrative essay, we must question why it should be necessary to reach far away -- to places remote in time and culture -- for strong examples of the essay form. We can make a different choice that contributes highly relevant and engaging content to present school curricula. Powerful stories, shining examples of the personal essay, arise within challenged communities; they spring from the minds and hearts of the learners themselves. We know why. Art and genius beat in every human heart."

Art and genius beat in every human heart.

I could not agree more. We all have the capacity to write down our own stories, share our own lives, create our own magic. You don't need to be a writing camper to do so. You don't need anyone's permission. All you need is a pinch of bravery and the willingness to try, and try, and try again, and try something new.

I don't know about you, but I'm going to smooth a fresh new page in my writer's notebook, turn on some Norah Jones, and get to work writing what matters to me.

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