Spoken Interludes is Delauné Michel's organization. Besides presenting evenings of fiction readings, she organizes creative writing workshops for teens. Right now, I've signed on to work with teenagers on probation. Kids who've been in trouble. Many living in group homes. I asked the English teacher about their literacy level. "Low," she said. "Dirt low."
So I started out by asking them if they ever felt they were living a movie. They all said yes, so I gave them poster stock and colored markers and invited them to make a poster advertising that movie. I said they could choose the actors who would play them. All I was going to ask them to write the first day was the title. I thought they'd get into it, and it would be a way of gradually demystifying writing. I usually find with "dirt low" level kids, it's not inability, but lack of confidence. There's an internal obstacle to putting the words on paper.
Well, the movie idea fell flat. I kicked myself a little. But now that we're four weeks in, something seems to be working. All the kids are writing page after page. Stories of gang killings, drug dealing, love betrayed, a pregnant girl being beaten up by her boyfriend, kids who hope aliens will come to take them to a better world. And I think the posters do make a difference. The kids still have their partially completed posters on their desks and whenever they get stuck with the story, they doodle, sketch, and color. I think what's happening is it keeps the imagination open and alive so instead of sitting there feeling stuck and stupid and unable to write, they have something creative to do until new words and ideas emerge.
I have to admit, one boy isn't getting very far. He first started writing a story about monkeys in Guatemala nearing extinction because someone was traveling around and hanging them from banana trees. I really wanted to read that story! But he's decided to write something closer to his own experience, and that seems to scare him.
I always want solitude and isolation when I write, but the kids love it when I ask to see what they've written. Sentence by sentence. Paragraph by paragraph. And we all talk about each kid's work. The interest and enthusiasm of others keeps them engaged.
Spelling, grammar, not important while they're writing. Certain, uh, vocabulary words will have to be cleaned up before they hand their work in or present it publicly. But while we're working together, no one gets censored.
What I'm trying to figure out now -- maybe someone out there has some experience? -- I don't want to be moralistic. I don't want to wag my finger at them and tell them their characters better reform by the last paragraph. They are writing very honestly and realistically about the world they live in, but I would like to see them use their imaginations to envision a different world. So I'm thinking of asking them, once their stories are complete, and after they write THE END, to add a paragraph. Something that begins with the words, "In a better world..." and change the circumstances their characters cope with. Use that paragraph to describe the family, the school, the neighborhood they would like to see. I don't know if that's corny or if it would work. But so what? I'll try it. The movie poster didn't work, but being able to draw did work, I think. So their stories can come to as violent an end as they desire, but I don't want to leave them in that place. We'll see.