I wrote last week about how some people (particularly girls, it seems) are paralysed creatively by a need to be perfect. I’ve come across this in several young writers. They have terrible trouble getting started because they’re reluctant to deface a blank page with anything that isn’t flawless.

I had one writer who suffered badly from this, and the problem was compounded by the fact that everything they wrote turned out badly (according to them anyway). Every week they’d fight through the anxiety to produce a little paragraph that didn’t really go anywhere but was nevertheless full of beautiful phrases and interesting language.

I would, of course, praise the language and originality and tell the writer how great they were, and every week, they’d go, ‘Hmm. But it’s not really a story, is it?’ (It wasn’t. It didn’t have a beginning, middle and end). ‘And it’s not a poem.’ (It wasn’t. It had no structure.) ‘It’s not anything, it’s a failure, it’s rubbish.’ Cue head hitting desk dramatically.

This was very distressing for me because I just couldn’t get this writer to believe in their writing and I was very afraid they’d quit altogether.

Following on from the post on how to give feedback, I’ve been thinking about having the confidence to read aloud, and the role gender plays in this. There’s a fascinating Ted Talk by Reshma Saujani on this subject.

Saujani suggests that girls are socialised to avoid risk and failure, to play it safe, get top marks, while boys are taught to aim high, jump in, play rough, give it a go.

“We’re raising our girls to be perfect and we’re raising our boys to be brave.”

She cites a study done with bright 5th graders who were presented with an assignment that was too difficult for them. At this level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject. But even so, the study found that the higher their IQ, the more likely the girls were to quit, while the boys were more likely to try harder and therefore did better overall.

There’s a reason writers are neurotic heaps. Creative work involves putting little pieces of yourself on public display and inviting people to stomp on them. For teenagers that may be even worse because what people think of you is all-consuming and social media has made you accessible to everyone.

Any writing group will include kids who are busting to read their stories and kids who would literally rather die. I don’t think anyone should be pressured into sharing their work, but there will be kids who would like to but just lack the confidence, and there are ways you can help them.

First, be aware that there’s a difference between lack of confidence and introversion. Some kids want to be drawn out; for others maybe the writing club is the only quiet or private time they get and they don’t want to share their work.

But if they are shy, there are things you can try.

This post is about the nitty gritty of running a group and the little details that can make all the difference. You’ll know best what will work for your group, this is just how we run ours:

Time:

We have 2 hours, broken up roughly as follows –

  • 20 minutes to chat and get settled
  • 1 hour of quiet writing time
  • 30 minutes to read aloud and give feedback

Rules:

One of the things we stress is that it’s their club. When we started, we drew up a ‘group contract’, giving the kids the opportunity to say what they wanted from the group, including things like ‘you can sit where you like’ and ‘shoes need not be worn’. (They could also come up with their own group name.) Changes and issues are run past the group and agreed by them.

Over time the contract has boiled down to one rule, which is ‘It’s up to you what you write and whether you write, but you can’t disturb anyone else’s writing time’. Generally that’s the only rule we’ve needed. If someone doesn’t feel like writing that’s fine, we all have days like that. They can read, draw, do emergency homework. But they can’t disturb anyone else.

The rules apply to the adults too. We don’t use their meeting time to have a chat because that would distract the kids and I feel it’s also a bit disrespectful. We’re at their club, not in our classroom.

This is a fun and easy exercise to introduce the idea of having a healthy attitude to writing competitions.

Some of the young writers I work with love entering competitions. Some are currently working on submissions to the Irish Times, and a couple were included in an anthology put together by Fighting Words Belfast which is launching tonight.

If I come across a competition I usually do mention it to my young writers in case they’re interested, but I also do this exercise with them, because it’s a bit of fun and it gives a really good insight into how competitions work.

Continue reading “Healthy Competition”

I am loathe to tell a young writer what to write, but I do try to introduce them to different forms of writing because one size does not fit all and it may be that any creative paralysis they’re experiencing could simply be because they are poets, not playwrights, or novelists, not short story writers.

The English curriculum covers novels, poems and plays. Maybe a short story or two. YA publishing doesn’t cover much more than this either. There are very few short story collections for teens, never mind anything more experimental. Which means there are so many forms and genres out there that they haven’t even heard of, and one of them just might be their writing comfort zone.

For example, there’s Memoir, Prose-Poetry, The Personal Essay, Flash Fiction, Novellas, Micro Fiction, Radio Drama, Spoken Word Poetry, Creative Non-Fiction, TV Scripts, Graphic Novels, Video Game Writing, Blogging, Fan Fiction, Nature Writing…

There’s even ‘Twitterature’.

And probably more, not to mention all the variation and genres within these. Some of the more uncommon things produced at our writing club have included:

Continue reading “Flash Fiction and The Postcard Box”

A lot of these posts will be on what we actually do at the writing group I’m involved with, this one is on why we do it.

As I’ve said, I rarely do exercises with my teen writers, because I think they’re always much more engaged with their own ideas than anyone else’s, but I do suggest exercises they can do when they’re stuck for an idea of their own.

Anyway, we were doing this exercise where you write twenty sentences, each beginning with the words ‘I remember’. Then you write twenty more beginning, ‘I wish’. Then you use what you’ve got as raw material to write a poem or story.

One of the girls was reading out her ‘I remember’ list and said, I remember playing Pretend with my friend for the last time.

I thought, Oh God, what happened, did her friend die or something? I hesitantly asked and she said, We were just playing Pretend one day and she suddenly stopped and said, “This isn’t working anymore,” and then we went inside and played video games.

I think that probably broke my heart even more than the dead-friend scenario.

Continue reading “Let’s Pretend”

In my primary school we’d occasionally be given the opportunity to write stories. But what I remember about these exercises is that, like most things in life, they came with a catch. The teacher would give you the first line of the story, or the title, and you had to finish it.

To me that always felt like being promised something exciting and then having it snatched away. I remember one that had to be called ‘The Magic Shoes’. I didn’t want to write about magic shoes, I wanted to write about meeting Santa. But I was an obedient kid so I wrote a story about meeting Santa, in the last sentence of which, Santa declared I had been so helpful that he’d give me the gift of a pair of magic shoes.

Continue reading “The Little Box of Inspiration”

As I said in the last post, the format at my writing group is REALLY simple. I don’t do any formal teaching or give instructions or exercises, we just let the kids write whatever they like and they respond well to that, producing fantastic writing that’s really personal and important to them.

But there are ways you can inspire, help and teach them without putting them under pressure or making them feel like they’re doing homework and I’ll be sharing those as we go along.

First up: Top Tips

Something that always inspires me to write, is reading interviews with other writers. Mostly this is to reassure myself that they ALL find it difficult, but the best bit is when they give you their ‘Top Ten Tips’ for writing. Every writer gets asked for these apparently, there are dozens of them online.

When I first began working with my young writers, I started choosing an author each week and printing out their Top Ten Tips to give to the kids. Sometimes they’d heard of the writer, sometimes they hadn’t, it didn’t matter. They always looked forward to the tips because they’re quick, useful, often funny, and they come from REAL writers, which, I’m sorry, is always going to be more impressive than REAL librarians and REAL teachers (totes unfair, I know).

But the big benefit of these is seeing that every writer does it differently. It’s great when you read a tip and think, ‘Oh! I do that too!’ because you feel like you must be getting it right, but it’s also great to see the massive variation in writing methods because it drives home the point that actually, you can’t possibly be getting it wrong.

Continue reading “Top Tips”

It is a truth universally acknowleged that kids hate school. Even the ones who love it, are publically obliged to swear it’s hell on toast. Which makes me wonder why writing groups for kids are based on a traditional classroom model: An adult sits at the front, talks at you a bit, sets an exercise and then judges your work.

Not saying there’s anything wrong with classrooms or teachers, just that, for some kids, the classroom setting is tied up with notions about assessment and right/wrong, pass/fail, which isn’t really what creativity is about.

Most writing classes have to be run this way because it’s usually a one-off session or a course that people have paid to do, so of course you need to provide actual instruction. And this can be brilliant and helpful. But a regular school writing group has certain advantages that you don’t get from one-off taught classes and we can exploit these. Such as:

Continue reading “We Don’t Need No Education”