Seven teenagers sit around the table, notebooks in front of them, looking to me to teach them how words work. How words flow out of the end of that purple gel pen or the borrowed pencil and somehow arrange themselves on lines and into stories.
I have barely finished a more-challenging-than-usual semester of teaching a media writing class to college students who are soon planning to graduate, get jobs, and be free from homework (which some of them attempted to do from the start of the academic year).
But this group of young teens around the table at the Bridge Teen Center is different. They don’t have to be here at this first writers’ workshop I volunteered to lead, i.e. (sit with my mouth half open in case I get a chance to interject a few words of wisdom into what sounds like a cacophony of goslings that have suddenly discovered the ability to speak Human).
Oh, no. This crowd isn’t falling asleep after a 5:55 p.m. Hot Pocket and the first 30 minutes of lecture on the fundamentals of newsgathering and reporting. These 13-15 year olds arrived at the teen center stretched as tight as a nylon book cover over an American literature text and nearly bursting with the words and ideas hardly being contained by their 1-subject notebooks.
…notebooks full of stories unhindered by the razor wire boundaries of the 5-paragraph essay assignment and un-edited by the delete button that generally prefers to erase even the remotest possibility of a zombie attack…no, dude, a zombie alien attack!
These kids are Freewriters.
Free writing—A technique in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time
without regard to spelling or grammar.
No regard for spelling or grammar. Whoa. That’s tough for me. I’m a public relations writer and an adjunct writing professor. Good grammar and punctuation are at the very least job hazards if not fetishes. This pretty much sums up why:
Lesson learned. Time to move on to breaking the rules…
I explain at the first workshop that the space around the table is the “free zone.” Not only free from criticism but from language arts rules. They can once again be the kids that write on white walls with red crayons.
We start the workshop with a word game. Everyone takes a turn saying one word off the top of their heads.
Sprint. Pickle. Manikin.
Manikin. (I decide this word conjures an image). “Tell me what you see, Cody.”
“The manikin in the store window is wearing my underwear.”
Yep, there’s a story.
Laughter erupts around the table. Better yet, their own scenes form in their minds. Seven unique scenes. I tell them to free write about what they see.
Then they share. One manikin story includes a sloth and another…a zombie attack, of course.
Ah, the work of young creators. Like God in his early 20s making up stuff like light and vampire squid and coffee beans. The energy in these kids makes me tired and pretty sure I won’t be working on Chapter 7 of my novel when I get home. I’ll have to take a nap first.
By the third workshop, the stories are more complex, whether realistic or fantastical. I’m amazed by these young writers as scenes unfold of a young woman’s struggle with an eating disorder to the boy being attacked by a refrigerator that thinks he is a midnight snack.
These are the Freewriters, writing without regard to spelling, grammar, punctuation, or even what others might think of what they’ve committed to paper. Sure, they still learn about description and character development, but they also learn that their ideas, their words are valuable. And, oh, do they seek validation as they so openly, so FREELY, spill themselves onto every page.
Lesson learned. By me.
For me, free writing pulls some unseen thread through me and out the end of my pen until I’m drawn into a tight bundle of Associated Press style guidelines and academic jargon and thesaurus lists. But I keep working through the discomfort of the exercise until that thread snaps and the real and raw stuff finally spills out.
Favorite writer Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life talks about Shitty First Drafts. I don’t directly connect this with the exquisitely honest writing of children, but her point about allowing it to “all pour out” is what free writing is all about and speaks to the necessity of becoming like a child during the process:
“The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place… You let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page… If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.”
When I read this, I can’t help but think of a Bible verse. “Unless you become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven,” Jesus said in the Book of Matthew. It’s about letting go, in writing and in life.
So while my students may learn from me, I have learned from them, or at least have been reminded, that to become—and keep becoming—a good writer, I have to also be a Freewriter.
Yep, I see the writing on the wall. And it’s all in red crayon.
Special thanks to Lena Roy, author of Edges and leader of Writopia, for her encouragement.
Also published in catapult: http://www.catapultmagazine.com/teaching-well/article/taking-a-red-crayon-to-a-white-wall