Wednesday, November 16, 2011

They're Young, They Write...and They Inspire!

Last month, I faced a situation which until that point in my career as a writer I had never before encountered. Because of this, I was very nervous as I carried out my preparations. What kind of first impression would I make? Would I know what to say? How would I react when faced with an unexpected development? What if I hesitated at some crucial moment? Would I sweat so badly that it soaked through my shirt?

These questions, and so many others, echoed in my mind as I stepped into the room and confronted a class of fifth grade creative writing students.

What the heck was I doing there? Well, it’s like this: my wife has a friend who is a fifth grade teacher at one of the nearby elementary schools. She and a few other teachers head up a creative writing program that’s part of the curriculum, and from time to time they invite authors to come and speak to the students about writing. According to what I was told, previous attempts had worked out well enough, but they wanted someone who would be more willing (or even comfortable?) to come in and answer questions posed by the students, rather than simply holding a lecture or a reading. Now, my preferred modus operandi at conventions and other gatherings where people come to meet authors is very much slanted toward the Q&A side of things, rather than simply talking at a group for an hour. With that in mind, I quickly said “Sure!”

Only after making the commitment did I pause, and begin to consider what I’d done.

Now, I’ve talked to plenty of adults about writing. Convention panels, book signings, my blog, and so on. This was very different for me. After all, it’s one thing to talk to my own kids. I mean, our kids are supposed to hang on our every word, listening in awe as we deliver unto them our hard-won knowledge, wisdom and experience, right? That is, at least until they become teenagers and end up knowing everything.

But here? I was worried about how I might be perceived, not just by the kids, but also their teachers and parents (Egads!). For all I knew, they’d be looking me up on the internet after hearing about me from their little darlings, gathering dirt and evidence against me before banding together to run me out of town with torches and pitchforks.

In a bid to make things at least a little easier, the teacher who invited me sent me a series of questions for which I might prepare answers to kick-start the discussion—a brief introduction, what I like to write, my “process” and inspirations, and so on. With that accomplished, I’d offer up a few choice nuggets of sage advice aimed at those looking to become professional writers when they grow up. Armed with my “talking points,” I entered the lion’s den, also known as “the school library,” and soon found myself facing fifty or so pairs of wide, curious eyes.

I need not have worried.

This was a fantastic bunch of kids. While my introductory remarks served me well for the opening five minutes or so, the students helped carry the next forty-five minutes, and it passed like a blur. It was all I could do just to keep up and maybe take a breath as I answered a question and pointed to the next student. The questions were fast and furious, covering a variety of topics in rapid-fire fashion, but never so fast that I felt like any kid’s question was getting short-changed. Though the talk lasted just short of an hour, I was told that the kids continued to discuss various topics we had broached well after they returned to their classrooms. Their teachers are even preparing lists of follow-up questions, which I promised I would answer and return to them so that they might share the responses with the students and perhaps prompt more queries.

It was actually one of the most rousing discussions I’ve ever had with a group about writing. The energy and passion exhibited by these kids was palpable. Given the old adage that you have to be a reader in order to be a writer, I asked for a show of hands for those who liked to read purely for their own pleasure. I don’t think every single kid held up a hand, but the vast majority of them did. That alone made me smile. As for their writing, a couple of kids even volunteered the information that they were working together on stories outside the assignments of the class, and asked whether I might be willing to read some of their work at some point. I actually didn’t get to read stories written by any of the students, but one of the things I discussed with the teacher was figuring out how to do something in that vein that doesn’t take an undue amount of time and perhaps acts as a motivator for the kids.

On top of all of that, an added bonus for me came from one of the questions I fielded that dealt with whether I’d written any stories for kids their age. I haven’t yet done that, but it’s actually been something I’ve been pondering for quite some time, if for no other reason than I think it’d be awesome to write something my own kids could read. Indeed, one idea in particular that I’ve been considering is some kind of adventure with characters based on my girls. I even have this crazy notion of writing an ongoing series, with the characters growing older more or less alongside my kids. The idea has languished for a while as I’ve turned my attention to other, more pressing projects, but this one afternoon spent in the company of these young writers has inspired me to revisit it. Hopefully, I’ll have something interesting to report in the near future.

Kids. They can be pretty awesome.

Anybody else ever talk to younger writers like these? What were your experiences and thoughts, particularly when compared to similar discussions you’ve had with adults?


Charles Gramlich said...

I'm glad it went well. I can imagine being very nervous myself. It is different because you pretty much know that older or adult writers will generate questions that will help you take up time, but you never know if kids will do so, or if their questions will have any relevance. I've never talked to a group that young about writing.

KeVin K. said...

Taught elementary grades for a decade. Don't know if I could keep up with them now, but they're still my favorite group of people to teach. Mind, you don't get that kind of enthusiasm for fractions or grammar, but even when the class is dragging their heels you can feel the massed potential in the room. You're going to find being a "guest lecturer" for this program addictive.

And I say go for the books for young people. I've always regretted not following through on my urge to write for my own children.

Lynn Emery said...

Kids can be so energizing, they're eager to learn and can spot attempts to fake them out :0) Good job. I've been to high school classes, and it's a lot of fun. But talk about scary, a romance author in front of some teenagers!

Liane Spicer said...

Would I sweat so badly that it soaked through my shirt? LOL! I live in the tropics and I can SO identify.

I taught teenagers for 22 years and I have warm memories of the passion some of them had for language and literature; they don't scare me. The little ones, on the other hand...

*runs away screaming at the very thought*

Glad your session went so well.

Joanne C. Hillhouse said...

Because my early books were categorized by the publisher as young adult, and at least one of these is now on the schools reading list in my country, I'm often asked to speak at schools. It doesn't come naturally to me in spite of my involvement with Wadadli Pen (a youth writing programme that I run) and Cushion Club (a youth reading group with which I volunteer) because I guess those activities have nothing at all to do with my work or my ability to talk about writing or my for those school visits, when I can't get out of it :-) I try to keep it interactive (entertaining their questions or engaging them in writing exercises and keeping the readings short)...of course you can't win them all (and always the smaller the group the better) but usually it goes better than I'd anticipated. With the little ones, anansi stories never fail :-)...and the teens love romance I've found.