catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 17 :: 2011.09.30 — 2011.10.13


Taking a red crayon to a white wall

Seven teenagers sit around the table, notebooks in front of them, looking to me to teach them how words work — how words flow out of the end of that purple gel pen or the borrowed pencil and somehow arrange themselves on lines and into stories.

I have barely finished a more-challenging-than-usual semester of teaching a media writing course to college students. But this group of young teens at the Bridge Teen Center is different. They aren’t falling asleep after a 5:55 p.m. Hot Pocket and the first 30 minutes of lecture on the fundamentals of newsgathering. They don’t have to be at this writers’ workshop I volunteered to lead.

These 13 to 15-year-olds arrived at the center stretched as tight as a nylon book cover over an American literature text and bursting with words and ideas hardly contained by their one-subject notebooks…notebooks full of stories unhindered by the razor wire boundaries of the five-paragraph essay assignment and un-edited by the delete button that generally prefers to erase even the remotest possibility of a zombie attack. No! Dude! A zombie alien attack!

These kids are the Freewriters.

Free writing: A technique in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time without regard to spelling or grammar.

No regard for spelling or grammar. Whoa. That’s tough for me. I’m a public relations writer and an adjunct professor. Good grammar and punctuation are at the very least job hazards if not fetishes. This pretty much sums up why. Grammar lesson #1:

“Let’s eat Grandma!” or “Let’s eat, Grandma!” Punctuation — it saves lives.

Lesson learned. Time to move on to breaking the rules.

I explain at the first workshop that the space around the table is the “free zone” — not only free from criticism but from language arts rules. They can once again be the kids who write on white walls with red crayons.

We start the workshop with a word game. Everyone takes a turn saying one word off the top of their heads.

Sprint. Pickle. Mannequin.

Mannequin. (I decide this word conjures an image.) “Tell me what you see, Cody.”

“The mannequin in the store window is wearing my underwear.”

Yep, there’s a story.

Laughter erupts around the table. Better yet, scenes form in their minds. Seven unique scenes. I tell them to free write about what they see. Then they share. One mannequin story includes a sloth and another…a zombie attack, of course.

Ah, the work of young creators. Like God in his early twenties making up stuff like light and vampire squid and coffee beans. The energy in these kids makes me tired and pretty sure I won’t be working on chapter seven of my novel when I get home. I’ll have to take a nap first.

By the third workshop, the stories are more complex, whether realistic or fantastical. I’m amazed by these young writers as scenes unfold of a girl’s struggle with an eating disorder and a boy being attacked by a refrigerator that thinks he is a midnight snack.

These are the Freewriters, writing without regard to spelling, grammar, punctuation, or even what others might think of what they’ve committed to paper. Sure, they still learn about description and character development, but they also learn that their ideas, their words are valuable, as they so openly, so FREELY, spill themselves onto every page.

Lesson learned. By me.

Personally, free writing pulls some unseen thread through me and out the end of my pen until I’m drawn into a tight bundle of Associated Press style guidelines and academic jargon and thesaurus lists. But I keep working through the discomfort of the exercise until that thread snaps and the real and raw stuff finally spills out.

In Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott talks about Shitty First Drafts. Her point about allowing it to “all pour out” is what free writing is about and speaks to the necessity of becoming like a child during the process:

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place… You let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page… If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.

So while my students may learn from me, I have learned from them, or at least have been reminded, that to become — and keep becoming — a good writer, I have to also be a Freewriter.

I see the writing on the wall, and it’s all in red crayon.

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