Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My Writer-In-Residence Experience: A few thoughts

Flowers from my young writers. Nice!
A week ago, eleven young writers from Hillfield Strathallan College in Hamilton, Ontario, walked up to the microphone, one by one, and shared their stories and poems with the assembled audience of parents, friends, teachers and me, their proud Writer In Residence.

Our evening of readings went off without a hitch, a perfect end to an 8-month program which began with my first visit back on October. Since then, we've met three times as a group and shared many email conversations as I guided, motivated and offered feedback throughout the writing process.

A few thoughts:

1. Creative kids love to write

Don't worry about motivating them. Don't fuss over perfection. Don't wrack your brains trying to think up cool writing exercises to get them enthused. Young writers are already enthused. I brought a couple of prompts to each of our sessions, but I hardly needed them. Here's the paper, here's the pencil - write! And they did.

2. Fan Fiction is a learning tool

Yes, there were a lot of stories about girls, horses, and friendship troubles. Also boys with magical god-like powers. Also mysteries and spy thrillers. Walk down the Juvenile Series of any bookstore and you will see the source that fuels this kind of writing. (Thankfully, not a vampire in sight!) I believe that reading leads to copycat writing. And copycat writing - or fan fiction - is how young writers try out their voices. They copy a style or voice, they merge with other styles and voices, and finally, they emerge, with their own style and their own voice. The bottom line? They're reading and they're writing - and they're having fun doing it. Who could ask for more?

3. Writers hate deadlines

Oh yes we do. But they are a necessary and unavoidable part of the writing life. My young writers needed much reminding in order to meet their deadlines for submission. What they didn't seem to understand is that as a writer, you can't wait for inspiration to strike. In fact, as deadlines loom, inspiration shrivels. If I have an opportunity to be involved in a program like this again, I will address the need to respect and understand deadlines - and I'll offer some strategies for meeting them. If they continue in the writing life, they'll thank me one day. And during their school careers, their teachers might thank me too!

4. Teachers are amazing

Sharon N., the teacher who ran the program I was involved in, deserves a degree in Project Management. When I arrived, the room was set up like something from a posh hotel. Tables with tablecloths and floral centrepieces, complete with candles. A podium, lamp and sound system. Printed programs on every table. Coffee burbling in the hot urn, water in the cold one. Treats ordered for the intermission. And there she sat, marking furiously before the evening began. Not only that, but she had been coaching girls' basketball games earlier in the week, and preparing for the school-wide fair happening later in the week. Her own kids needed ferrying to rep soccer, and, to top it off, she was sick with a cold. She encouraged the nervous students, spoke to all the parents, dealt with last-minute glitches and treated me like gold. Teachers are amazing, and I hope parents and kids realize how lucky they are to have someone like Sharon - and there are lots of Sharons out there - teaching their kids. Thanks, Sharon!

5. Writing starts as a passion - and sometimes we forget that

As I made my remarks and introductions at the front of the room, I couldn't help looking at those kids and seeing myself, a long time ago, at the start of my writing life. Notebooks full of ideas, poems, unfinished stories. Dreamy images in my head. Books piled beside my bed. Did I dream of being published and making lots of money? No, I dreamed of writing. I dreamed of my characters and what I could do with them. It was all so pure. And that's exactly what I saw in my young writers too. It was a great reminder to see my own passion for writing - a passion that extends back into the mists of my childhood - mirrored on the faces and in the words of these kids. A wonderful moment.

The experience of being a Writer in Residence was a gift.

Thanks, kids!