News outlets this time of year round up inspiring profiles of high school and college graduates or snippets from commencement speeches at leading institutions. Even though I left college nearly three decades ago, I can’t help but think that I had just recently worn a cap and gown. I look in the mirror and see an older person, and certainly feel my aging back and knees when I get out of bed in the morning. But I feel like just the same young, naive recent grad seeking to explore and understand the world.
I also remember thinking that a couple of years ago, when a former colleague asked whether I might consider launching a teen writers club in my town on behalf of the Maryland Writers Association. He had organized one a couple years earlier and was trying to expand the format to other locations. I was taken aback, and pondered what in the world I could offer young aspiring writers, even though I had spent years as a writer and editor. Like many writers, I am forever trying to figure out how to become that “perfect writer.”
But, with trepidation, I agreed to give it a try. The local library immediately agreed to host the club’s meetings two Mondays a month. Before the first meeting that September, I gathered together a couple of writing prompt ideas, just in case somebody showed up. At the library, they showed me to a room where about 60 chairs and 15 long tables were lined in rows in a seminar-style arrangement. I laughed, and quickly pulled together a couple tables and few chairs to create a more intimate setting.
Teens started peeking their head in the door, some walking in hesitantly with their parents, and I started answering questions and handing out signup sheets. We ended up with about a dozen teens that night — about eleven more than I had thought possible.
We talked and shared stories about ourselves. Several of them shared quite a lot. I asked them why they came, and most said they had no outlet for writing creatively at school. I understood. Schools nowadays push kids toward the STEM curriculum, following reports that the jobs of the future are in engineering and technology. I don’t think they are wrong, but I do think it is wrong to diminish the importance of writing.
As the meetings continued, a core group began to form while other teens came and went. That was fine — this wasn’t a class with mandatory participation. The kids have enough stress in their lives. This was supposed to be fun, allowing them an outlet for expressing themselves through storytelling, poetry, lyrics, or however they wanted.
From that very first meeting, I was hooked. The teens’ creativity and enthusiasm reignited my own enthusiasm for the craft. And since then, they have retaught me how to wander — really wander — off into the world of fantasy and brought me back to thinking more deeply, and slowly, about intense topics.
Some write about dragons in medieval worlds, others about high school crushes. Many write about suicide, homosexual relationships, cancer, the death of a parent, the end of the earth. These are all immediate issues in their lives. My son, who was a high school senior then and eventually decided to join in, chose to write humor pieces, giving the group frequent breaks from such somber topics.
I often think back to being a teen and contemplate the things that I was coping with.. There were difficult issues, for sure, but not as difficult as what kids deal with today even outside their household. I have seen my own kids have to handle a series of frightening and heart-wrenching events, from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and D.C. sniper scare, to a friend dying from brain cancer and a school colleague hit by a train. I never had such issues to confront.
The teen writers constantly inspire me. They deal honestly and openly as they seek to perfect their writing talents and make a connection to others through storytelling and poems. Many of us lose that perspective as we age — or shove it aside because we can’t cope with such constant worries every minute. But writing can be cathartic.
One of the teens had the courage to enter a short story in a contest at the local book festival. It was a fictional story centered on a little girl losing her father to sickness– a story with some honest, true emotional aspects. I’d like to say I played some role in her winning the “Fan Favorite” award — but she submitted the story before sharing it with us and before submitting it for publication in our teen anthology.
Last weekend, I attended a writers’ conference in New York and listened to a panel discussion about how freelancers can make additional income — and potential leads to clients — by teaching writing. I was intrigued by where they all taught, and participants peppered them with questions about how much they make per class or course. I don’t begrudge the idea of making money from teaching (and would welcome it myself perhaps), but at no point did I hear about the personal reward from teaching. I don’t get paid for working with the teens –if working is what you want to call it. I’m far more rewarded with their enthusiasm, inspiring creativity, honesty, and critical perspective on the world. And their willingness to allow me into their world.
Take a look at what some of the young writers in Maryland can do. The second volume of Emerging Voice: Poetry and Prose by Maryland Teens came out this week!
(NOTE: We have about a dozen teen writers clubs in Maryland now, and as leaders we do not discourage writing about such sensitive topics, and warn parents who want to bring in their 12-year-olds that this happens. And yes, there’s always a concern that the writing might be a clue to an underlying problem — and we are always alert for those situations and follow certain standards and guidelines to assure the safety of all participants.)