Last year I ran into a fellow teacher at Wal-Mart.
“Hey!” he said. “Would you ever consider teaching creative writing?”
“Hey!” I said. “No.”
“Because those kids will write. A lot. And then they’ll have these crazy expectations that I grade it.”
“But it doesn’t have to be like that.”
“So you can promise me by Christmas I won’t be sitting on top of the city water tower, 500 essays in hand, snot-crying, and raving about paper cuts and swan dives?”
So we put our heads together and came up with a few creative writing classes.
And I’m having a ball.
And I’m learning a lot. Just from writing along with my kids and from watching them. From listening to them. Every day is something unexpected. We’re only 2 weeks into the classes, but I underestimate them pretty much daily.
For the first few weeks, we had a sort of Creative Writing Boot Camp, where the kids got a bunch of random writing prompts, mini-lessons, and activities. And they were up for it all. I had forgotten what it was like to teach a class where the students have chosen to be there. Author Joseph Chilton Pearce says, “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” These kids don’t have that fear. Yet.
But when you write for a living, you do. You write for industry standards, for your publisher’s expectations, for your own expectations, personal rules, logic, for trends, for this, for that.
And it sucks the fun right out of it. And sometimes it sucks the life out of it. And sometimes it sucks the life out of the author.
But when you put aside all those rules. When you say, “I’m going to write something, and it’s probably going to be wrong. And that’s okay,” then something shifts, something changes in your brain, your heart. I imagine it’s the same with many things. I’ve seen it with a friend putting aside her militant parenting book and just going with what feels right. When a Paul Potts takes an X Factor stage and says, “This isn’t for you. It’s for me.” When a loved one with cancer takes off the wig and says “I can’t be me beneath this.” There is great freedom in giving yourself permission to fail. Permission to be outrageously wrong. Permission to suck. Sometimes the most beautiful things can arise.
Right now my students can’t get enough of the writing. I just want to bottle up the palpable energy in the class and carry it in my pocket everywhere I go. It has me smiling and sighing and shaking my head at the wonder of it all. And I am not the sort of teacher who is easily charmed. Yet I am so honored to be with these kids and see this. God has given me quite the gift. Just when I needed it most.
Today I had my students journal for 10 minutes. Per the suggestion of teacher-author, fellow short girl, Christa Allan, I gave them one word and told them to write whatever they wanted using that word. While I stood up there with my rationales and my “here’s why this makes sense and why you shouldn’t complain and why it will be okay,” my students were already head down, pen to paper. They needed no convincing. No hand-holding. Their teacher just needed to step back. And be quiet.
At the end of the ten minutes, every one of them was still writing furiously. So I let them go five more minutes. Then five more.
At the end of their time, I promised them I wouldn’t read their entries, but eventually I would collect them. Told them their personal reflections were safe with me. No one had to see them.
I begin to move on to the next thing when my teacher radar picks up on the chatter, the dissent. It grows and multiplies. Finally one student raises her hand, a kid I had the previous year and didn’t even know had the gift.
“I want to share my journal. Can I read mine?”
With a prayer that it’s not about Bieber or Twilight, I say, “Of course.” Ten other hands shoot up. Then five more. “Me, too,” I hear. “Me, too.”
I am one part teacher, one part writer. And that moment overwhelmed the whole of me.
We teachers have course calendars, syllabus, schedules. Listening to all their journal entries will put us at least half a day behind. In the days of national standards and standardized tests, this just isn’t done.
“Yes, you can all read them.” Because I’m the only one who teaches this class. And I’m learning that no one is watching. No one is tracking our progress. And I no longer have a department to keep up with. And this makes me breathe easier than I have in years.This class is all mine.
So we take a forty-five minute detour, as the kids read their journals. Some of them wrote about their morning. Some wrote fictional pieces. A poem. Fan-fiction.
I don’t have to tell them to pay attention. I don’t have to tell them to be quiet. The kids are so tuned into one another. I watch them smile at a line. Laugh at a piece of irony. Nod a head at a well-constructed flash of darkness.
And they get it. Not how to be great writers. But how to appreciate it for all the right reasons. Because it makes them happy.
I pick out something from each reading and praise them. We must start with a foundation of “well dones” before moving onto the “try harders.”
Most of them will never go on to be professional writers.
Some have it. And it kind of scares me to have that sitting in my nest.
Dear God, don’t let me screw them up.
One tenth grader writes a fictional piece about a girl who longs to meet her mysterious birth mother. Her alcoholic father promises her today is the day. Then when she returns to school, he has failed on his promise. Again.
My student reads of the father taking a drink, “His adam’s apple rose like an elevator to take the alcohol to hell.” I had her repeat the line, thinking I had not heard that right. Did she have any earthly idea how brilliant that really was?
She did not.
Other lines I heard:
“This day that I’m breathing now…”
“My patience had been etched off a long time ago.”
“The school smelled like an old pancake…”
“This is about a high school graduate. On graduation night. Who experiences a feeling of disappointment. On top of a skyscraper.”
I’m learning a lot from these guys. How to take chances. How to take risks. How to say, “I’m writing and whatever comes out, comes out.” I haven’t done that in years. On our first day, I sat down and wrote with them, and an hour later, I had a ghost story.
I don’t write ghost stories. And it had scratches, scribbles, and eraser marks all over it. It was a holy mess. And completely fun.
These kids are deep, thoughtful, intellectual, creative, and inspiring.
And sometimes…also literal.
I had each class create the ground rules for our writing workshops. “What rules do we need for sharing and critiquing each other’s work?”
One non-fiction writer raised his hand. “Don’t do drugs in class.”