A few weeks ago, I decided to start a creative writing group at the secondary school where I’m teaching for a semester. The decision was born in part out of the realization that, compared to the students at my high school, kids here have little opportunity to express themselves creatively. I wanted to help fix that.
Five girls showed up in the library for our first session; I knew a few of them already. We started off the meeting with a prompt for a short writing exercise: “Tell me about something you’ve inherited.” One girl wrote about her strange dreams that often seem to predict the future— something she’s inherited from her mother and grandmother. Another wrote about a necklace that’s been passed down since before anyone in her family can remember; it’s tradition that each generation invent a new story of its origins. As we shared the results of the writing prompt, began talking about ourselves and what we planned to write as the semester continued, we became more comfortable as a group. I’ve described this feeling to friends in the past as “classroom magic,” during which the atmosphere transforms from stilted and formal to relaxed and engaged. In my experience, “classroom magic” is where real, memorable learning happens. It’s also crucial for any creative group endeavor; people need to trust one another to be able to workshop each other’s writing.
At the end of that session, I felt great. We agreed to meet as a group twice a week during lunch. As I was cleaning up, one of the girls came up to me (I’ll call her Shelly). She seemed nervous, explaining in a rush that she had the first few chapters of her new novel written in her notebook. Could I read it and tell her what I thought?
“Absolutely,” I said. “What’s it about?”
“Well, it’s an alternate universe type thing. There are ‘specials’—kids who have, like, supernatural powers, and they get chosen and put in a special boarding school, and then they have this ceremony called ‘inspection’ when they turn sixteen, and people from the outside come and they get to show off their powers and see if they’re good enough…” Shelly became increasingly excited as she spoke, then got embarrassed. “Anyway,” she continued, “yeah, just, if you want to read it.”
“Obviously I do,” I said. “Actually,” I told her, I was writing a very similar kind of story when I was your age.” Shelly was intrigued by this. She sensed that we were kindred spirits. The fact that she shared her novel with me was an enormous act of trust. When I looked at her face, I saw myself at thirteen: reserved, ambitious, and wildly excited about the universes contained within my head.
However, when I was thirteen, I had access to a writing workshop outside of school that changed my life. I learned the art of crafting stories, and also the art of opening up. I learned how to give and receive criticism, how to take risks and be rewarded, and also how to fail. And then how to bounce back from failure and begin something new. I was extraordinarily lucky to have had this experience. Shelly and the other students have not had this advantage. There is no opportunity to “write whatever you want” in school, since everything they learn is geared towards the tests that determine whether they will be able to continue on to university.
What does it mean for me to tell them to “take risks! write from your own imagination! go beyond your comfort zone! share your work!” when they’ve likely never been told to do that by a teacher before? Furthermore, who am I to demand that level of intimacy from them when I’m giving them nothing in return?
Someone once told me that real solidarity means a sharing of risks and responsibilities. With this in mind, I decided that I’ve got to take the same risk that my students are taking and share a bit of my writing with them. At our second session two days later, that’s exactly what I did.
Too often at Vassar, I have felt that classrooms are sites of competition for who can seem the smartest and most insightful, rather than sites of meaningful collaborations in pursuit of learning. It’s integral in cultivating “classroom magic” that students and teachers work in solidarity with one another. With a bit of luck, our new creative writing workshop will grow closer and closer to that ideal.