I only started teaching young people creative writing this summer, and I feel like I’m still cutting my teeth. I’m teaching myself as I’m teaching them: they’re teaching me too, far more than they know. So here are some things I’ve picked up along my journey: things I remind myself every time I step into a new class of teenagers. These are things I don’t allow myself to forget when faced with a young person who’s engaging their creative self for the first time.
De-Mystify, De-Mystify, De-Mystify:
Writing is instinctive. Teenagers thinking writing is instinctive, or normal (imagine, the great holy grail of being normal as a teenager) will make them want to do it. It is not some fine, exquisite craft akin to glass-blowing or marble sculpting: it is communication, which is something they all know how to do. Even if you, yourself believe the craft of writing is as intricate as lace-making, for the sake of a bunch of teenagers, lie to them. It’s about ,making things up and writing them down. It is not a thing of genius: telling stories in different forms is a thing human beings have been doing since we could stand upright. Remind them of this. Making it seem normal is the first step towards making it seem cool.
Care not for spelling and grammar:
Especially if you’re dealing with a pack of young ‘uns who aren’t into reading. I know you’re probably cringing at the thought. It can be hard to get past if you’ve a teaching background where you’ve got every urge to underscore mistakes in red: but don’t, for their sake, and yours. Fight that temptation!
They’ll be self-conscious about their spelling, ask questions about it, be nervous about handwriting, unsure about grammar: all of these things will hinder them from really relaxing into being creative. Tell them to chill. Now is not the time for spelling and grammar. Now is the time for making things up, spelling and grammar can be fixed later. The most important thing is to get all those thoughts and ideas out of their heads, through their hands and onto a page or screen. It doesn’t matter if they say l8 instead of eight: they’ll get their point across regardless. All that can be prettied up later.
Using books as the only reference point for creativity/storytelling/making things up just isn’t going to fly:
I love books. I ate books like crisps when I was a teenager; but not all teenagers are like this. The best way to sell the idea that making up stories is an awesome way to pass the time is to reassure them that stories are everywhere.
Everything they consume in the media is a story. Music videos, video games, feature films, short films, every kind of television show, be it documentary or soap or drama. These are all stories, they all work with the same set of rules. Do a survey: find out what their favourite media texts are, use them as points of reference instead of books. If it means going home and watching all of Misfits because the kids in your class are mad into it, go home and watch all of Misfits; return for the next class able to show them how that story works. You’ll find (most likely) that when it comes to texts they’re passionate about, they’ll be quicker to tell you how it works once they realise you are engaged with that text too.
In relation to the previous point: accept their canon: they might just accept yours:
I deal regularly with girls and boys who think that there are literally no other texts in this universe as masterful as Harry Potter, or Twilight. Boys who think that Call of Duty is the greatest adventure they’ll ever go on. Girls who pray nightly to the coven of Stephanie Meyers. Even if these fads aren’t your bag: don’t let it be known. Question them lightly, ask what it is about these narratives that they love. Direct them towards similar things, with a light hand. Do not give in to the temptation of allowing them to write fan-fiction: encourage them to build characters of their own and show them how fun that can be. Get them to draw pictures of new characters, write personality profiles of their new heroes. Making their own heroes will be a lot of fun: just don’t corral them into it by pointing out weaknesses in the ones they already worship.
Don’t force volunteering: facilitate it:
Teenagers are self-conscious creatures; everything about them is an identity struggle. So, asking them to write poetry or stories is one thing. Asking them to share that poetry or those stories with a group of their peers? That’s most definitely another thing altogether. In fact, if you start off a prompt or assignment, chances are the first thing you’ll be asked will be ‘Do we have to read this out?’ Saying yes to this can do one of two things: it can make them work harder to produce an epic piece of art, or, it can discourage them from writing anything at all. In my experience, if they think they have to share it, they won’t be true to their own voices.
One of the first ever exercises I ever gave to a group was to write a list of five things they loved about the area they live in, and five things they hated. They asked if they were going to be ‘made’ share these lists, I said it it’d be nice if some of them would. Major mistake. What I received from each of them was a socio-geographic breakdown of their area. Good things: shops in walking distance. Lots of green areas. Near the school. Bad things: high crime. Graffiti. Litter. It absolutely could not have been less personal if they tried. This was at the very notion of a risk that they might have to share their feelings with their classmates.
However, asking them at a later stage to write a list of what they imagined love to be, and promising they wouldn’t have to read it aloud, met with the most gorgeous and emotional outpourings imaginable. Real poetry. Though each sheet was passed to me with a serious glance, ‘don’t show that to anybody.’ Your class have to trust you. Ensure them you think they’re cool, even if they do have feelings. Especially, in fact, if they do have feelings.
Make sure they know that no-matter what way they do an assignment, as long as they do it, they’ve done it right:
Teenagers get told on an almost constant basis that they’re doing things wrong. Especially in the context of school. Make sure the assignments that you give are open and broad, allowing for kids of all different levels to engage with them.
Lists are my favourite thing: all magic things begin as a list of ideas, a list of things, and there’s no wrong way to do a list: ideas and sentences down the side of the page. It’s a good place to start writing poetry from, in fact.
Sarah Kay who runs Project V.O.I.C.E in America swears by them, and rightly so. If a participant is struggling, point out something, anything clever and wonderful in how they’re getting on. Praise brings them miles forward: admonishment sets them miles back. Make sure you reassure them that their own stories and own voices are valuable. Once they get a sense of confidence, they could start a love-affair with the written word that’ll take them through the rest of their lives.