As a writer I love to read—first, for the joy of devouring a good book and, second, because as a writer I always learn something I can use. And as an aging baby boomer, I love to watch and try to mentor the youngest generation as it finds its footing in the world. That’s why I look forward each week to the 90 minutes I spend leading a teen writing club. It combines the best of both my worlds, and invariably I learn a lot—about life and about writing.
I first volunteered as a club leader after I gave up the 9-5 world to pursue writing fiction. I had recently completed a late round of graduate school, and I was again excited about the academic world. I thought I could bring that enthusiasm to a young group of would-be writers. To a certain extent, that’s been true, but more surprising has been how much I’ve learned from them.
At the outset, I was amazed at how good they are. Kids as young as 12 are writing full-length novels, and many show real promise. Sure they include amateur mistakes and too often the protagonist is a carbon copy of the author. But in a world when so many kids graduate high school without basic reading skills, these kids can really write—with strong “voices,” good dialogue, and telling descriptions. A surprising number are into fantasy, which is a problem for me because it’s never been a genre I’ve read (though they’re giving me an education). But that’s one of many examples of them opening my mind to something new.
We try to operate as a workshop. The aim, after all, is to provide peer support and feedback. Writing is a lonely venture, and it’s important for these kids to realize they’re not the only ones holed up in their room past midnight, tapping away on their laptops. I worried at first how they’d give and take criticism, but the bigger challenge has been eliciting any. They’re too quick to embrace everything, too slow to point out ways to make it better. But that reflects the fact that they’re open to everything, and when they do offer criticism, it’s always polite and gentle. And I’m constantly impressed at how well the older kids, some of whom are high school seniors, work with the seventh graders.
More than anything what impresses me is their basic approach to the writing process. They write about whatever interests them, and if they lose interest halfway through a long novel, they just put it aside and start something else. At first, I worried about this tendency not to finish what they’d started, but then I realized that they are writing for themselves, so why shouldn’t they pursue what interests them at the moment. Writing is important to them on many levels, but what frequently comes through is that it’s a way to process what they see and hear every day. It helps them understand their world and think through their problems.
That’s why they’re less worried about someone else’s approval. Sure, they love to have their friends read and like their stories, but in a world where peer pressure can be severe, approval doesn’t seem to be a requirement for these kids. They’re not writing to be published; they’re writing because they want to.
In the end, I wonder if too many adult writers are doing the opposite: Writing with publishing and sales in mind to such a degree that they’re limiting the scope of what they can accomplish. I’m not suggesting that readers don’t matter or that writers don’t need publishers or that publishers don’t need sales to survive, but I wonder if we’ve lost the right balance between the art of writing and the requirements of selling.
I’ll have to ask the kids what they think.
Incidentally, if you live in Maryland and have an interest in leading a teen writing club, I’d love to hear from you. Send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.