By Amanda Cleary Eastep
I’m back to volunteering to teach writing workshops at The Bridge Teen Center. What happens around that table never changes, not really, just the faces and the words. The need of these young people to express themselves is always there, despite their education or neighborhood or personal challenges.
This is an updated post I wrote after one of the workshops, and I’m linking up with Ashley Hales’ Literacy Musing Monday. [Actually I missed the linkup, but check out the other great posts!]
Several 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 is different. They don’t have to be here at this writers’ workshop I volunteered to lead.
Unlike my college students, this crowd isn’t falling asleep after a 5:55 p.m. Hot Pocket and the first 10 minutes of my lecture. These 13-18 year olds arrived at the center stretched as tight as a nylon book cover over an American literature text and nearly bursting with the words and ideas barely contained in their 1-subject notebooks.
…notebooks full of stories unhindered by the boundaries of the 3-paragraph essay assignment and its aversion to the topic of a zombie apocalypse…no, dude, a zombie alien apocalypse!
These kids are Free Writers.
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 marketing writer and former adjunct writing professor. We’ve all seen the tragic meme about leaving out commas.
Let’s eat, Grandma.
Let’s eat Grandma.
But time to move on to breaking the rules.
I explain that the space around the table is a “free zone.” Not only free from criticism but from language arts rules. They can once again be the kids who 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. Scenes form in their minds. I tell them to free write what they see.
Then they share. One manikin story includes a sloth…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.
By the third workshop, the stories are more complex, whether realistic or fantastical…from a young woman’s struggle with an eating disorder to a boy being attacked by a refrigerator that thinks he is a midnight snack.
They write 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.
I write along with them.
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 comes out.
Author Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life talks about Sh*##y First Drafts. I don’t directly connect this with the exquisitely honest writing of young people, but her point about allowing it to “all pour out” 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 of our CONTROL OVER EVERYTHING, in writing and in life.
So while my students may learn from me, I have been reminded that to be a good writer, I have to also be a Free Writer.
Yep, I see the writing on the wall, and it’s all in red crayon.