The Value of Fun


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.

“Yes, Olivia?”
“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.
But some.
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.”

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 21 comments
Kristin - August 26, 2011

I loved this. =)

That’s one of the things I love about NaNoWriMo. It’s just about writing- not worrying about how awful most of what you’re writing is (in my case, anyway). It’s just a fun challenge, and I can’t wait for it this year. I think I’ll bookmark this post for the times I need motivation. =)


Jenny - August 26, 2011

This was a great post Jenny. Thank you for sharing this gift God has given you in this class. Two of my three kids love to write (so far – # 3 is starting kindergarten next week), and all 3 of them love reading. Their passion for story warms me all over and inspires me.

Christa Allan - August 26, 2011

OMG—I had teacher-tears in my eyes! I remember those holy moments of kids reading, and I never, ever failed to be blown away by them!

Reading this, I felt like a wingnut that I totally forgot to mention the whole giving them a chance to read if they wanted to. But isn’t it testimony to, not only the power of writing, but of being in a classroom trusting the people who are listening.

And, that, my dear, speaks volumes about what they think of their teacher.

Deanna - August 26, 2011

This post is completely beautiful. Honestly, I was tearing up. To be able to watch students bud in areas of their talent/gifts…enjoy that gift!

Lisa Carter Sweet Tea with a Slice of Murder - August 26, 2011

Touched the teacher/writer in me, too. Have a wonderful semester.

Nicole O'Dell - August 26, 2011

I had/have the tears, too, Christa. I’m moving so my kids can take your class. 🙂

HopefulLeigh - August 26, 2011

So cool, Jenny! I love their passion to write without expectation or rules. And that they volunteered to share their writing, were begging to share it, that just astounds me. I’m never more neurotic than when I’m waiting to hear back from my critique group. Thank you for sharing this!

Mary @ Giving Up on Perfect - August 26, 2011

There’s not much that will make me miss high school…but this sure did. My school didn’t have a creative writing class, but my teacher for Senior English (a dual-credit class that got me out of Comp I in college) taught creatively. She was also kind of a fruit loop, but as the years have gone on, I’ve realized more than one how much she taught us. One of our assignments was to draw a word out of a bucket and then write an essay on it. She read my essay to another class and CRIED about it. She was really embarrassed and told me later that it was because of her own junk and not my writing (um, thanks?), but that experience has stuck with me all these [many] years.

All that to say – I hope you let your students see how deeply their writing is affecting you. Because one teacher (kind of) did that for me, and it meant the world to me.

And now I’m off to find some writing prompts. Because this post reminded me that I love to write for me. And I haven’t done that in a long, long time.

Natalie - August 26, 2011

This is so amazing. 1.) Those students are so blessed to be learning about writing from YOU. I mean, DANG. That’s like hitting the lottery. 2.) I love how into it they are. I remember taking a creative class in college and thinking, “Wow. This is how it feels to do what you love.” It truly is an entirely different energy. 3.) This post made me think about what I truly love about writing, and how much I push that aside sometimes because I worry about The Crap (some of which I can control and some of which I can’t). 4.) i don’t know why I’m getting listy with it today. But I loved this. Oops: 5.) I loved this post. Thank you for writing it.

Clare - August 26, 2011

Jenny, this was my favorite post of yours ever! This was so beautiful and inspiring. I so want to move where you are so I can take that class too-and I’m a highschool graduate who has sworn of school for a year so that’s saying alot! 😉

I have to constantly remember the main reason that I write. I love it. It’s the most addicting thing. More than icecream and watching chickflicks. But I forget sometimes how much I love it and get all techincal and picky and I suck the life right out of whatever I’m writing. Thanks for this awesome reminder to write because it’s something you love. Not something that has to be done. But just because you love it. There is no better reason than that.
Thank you! 🙂

bookwyrm14 - August 26, 2011

Jenny, I have to say I’m blown away. Usually I read your blog for a quick laugh. But this was so unexpectedly deep that I almost cried. No joke. Your students are so blessed to have you as a teacher. The creative writing class at my high school was canceled because there weren’t enough students, so reading your post reminded me of how much fun I had.

Being a writer is tough. Some days I feel like I don’t want to write another word…others I feel like I can’t stop. But I’m actually kind of proud to say that I’ve never written for anyone else but me. My attitude has been, “This is who I am. This is what I want to say. If you don’t like it, oh well.” And I think that God wants us to be comfortable with ourselves, and not to try and change to fit the world’s standards. Even when it comes to writing. I’m reminded of the Newsboys song, Born Again, “This is what it is/ this is who I am/ this is where I finally take my stand…”

Danica - August 26, 2011

I didn’t think there’d ever be a valid reason to Arkansas, but if it meant having you teach my kids, I might consider it. Or, you could just move here. Yes, I like that solution much better.

Cindy Thomson - August 26, 2011

This was a bit like what I experienced teaching some workshops at a summer writing camp this summer. Kids are so creative it’s inspiring. You’re going to have a great year! Lucky kids!

Angela Mackey - August 26, 2011

LOVE LOVE LOVE this post and a teacher who encourages writers in this way. In High School I was too scared to share my writing in that way. What would have happened if I had a teacher in a class like that? I will never know…But God still has had His way…I am writing for the world…At least I am now. 😉

Stephanie - August 26, 2011

Oh, I’m so happy for you to have this class. Like you said, that “one part teacher + one part writer” – each of them get to meet up and be filled during your class time together. So perfect!

Breanne - August 26, 2011

I thought this post was awesome. I love to write and so do a few-and I mean FEW-of my friends. I’m a freshman in high school now (Woo hoo high school’s the bomb-NOT!) and I was wondering how would anyone suggest going about starting a creative writing class at my school?
Any ideas? I really want this to happen at my small school in this nonexistant town(Cuz there is seriously nothing else to do) Help! 🙂

Amy - August 26, 2011

Oh, I looooooooooooooooooove this post. I always think back to when writing was purely fun and try to recapture that. I guess you’re going to learn as much from these kids as they will from you…at least in some ways. 🙂 Great story, Jenny!

Erin McFarland - August 27, 2011

Oh man I want to enroll in high school and take your class. Your kids are brilliant. And blessed more than they know to have YOU. Keep us posted on this class this year :)!

Erin - August 28, 2011

I wish I could track down my 9th grade English teacher, Miss Stinson, and tell her thank you for letting us write just to be happy, just because it’s fun- I still have my “journal” from that class, with her comments- never grades, on journal assignments- written all over it, and I read the DUMB things I said as an insecure, trying-to-project-a-more-significant-me freshman, and am so thankful to her for never responding to me by shutting me down like the obnoxious kid I was, but for protecting and encouraging me as I figured out the joy and freedom and honesty of pen on college-ruled paper. But since I have no idea where she is now, I’ll thank you instead: thank you for being a teacher who sees great things in her students, and whom they can trust to protect their hearts while they write the dumb, figuring-it-out stuff.

Sarah - August 29, 2011

I win that I could be in that class. With people who love writing just that much. Wow.

Jenny B Jones - August 29, 2011

Thanks, y’all are sweet. Appreciate each one of you!


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