Power of the Pen—And Middle Schoolers!
Once upon a very long time ago, there was a girl named Tiffini. All she ever did was write. Be it on paper napkins, the back of her hand or more traditional material like paper, writing was as necessary to her everyday life as breathing. Characters and plots, twists and turns, they all swirled around her brain like snowflakes falling from the sky, each different and beautiful. She did not go on dates, she did not go to parties, she did not hang out at the mall. She wrote. In fact, she wrote so much that, by the time she was 18, 100 different stories, several over 2,000 handwritten pages long, had been penned. When she was sad, she withdrew behind a character’s tears. When she was happy, she celebrated with a character’s victory. Whenever a new idea would come along, Tiffini would pour over the baby name books her mother bought her in search of the perfect moniker for her new friend. The pages of her stories were often smeared by blots formed by her tears—her characters’ heartbreak was her own. Sometimes, she could be heard laughing because a character did something outrageous. And at night, when scary things happened in real life, she consoled herself by imagining those beloved characters were in the room with her. Writing empowered the girl with a sense of confidence. Maybe she couldn’t do sports—but she could write. Maybe she couldn’t do math or science—-but she could write. Maybe she wasn’t a musical savant—but she could write. Maybe she was the loner at school, the outcast who ate lunch by herself in the English teacher’s classroom—but she could write. And so writing became a true lifeline to which she clung with all her might. Indeed, it became more than that: it became the means by which she would realize hope. As time passed, the girl continued to grow…. and write. When she became an adult, a mother herself, she wrote a book that would change her life. Not only would it catapult her into the realm of a “professional writer” but it would be the catalyst for emotional and spiritual healing by guiding her into the role of inspirational speaker and advocate for abused children. Truly, powerful was the pen.
The story above details how writing influenced my life, and why it is so meaningful to me. When I was invited to be one of the 11 or so authors to participate in the “Power of the Pen” program during which I would encourage and critique gifted middle-school writers, I really had no idea how much the experience would impact me on a personal level until I walked into the building and saw the 75 students sitting with folders of their writing in front of them. Standing before them was like getting sucked into a time capsule. I knew what these kids were feeling; nervous about hearing their stories critiqued, excited about the possibility of meeting a “real” author and ready for the chance to grow. When I was their age, everyone always told me, over and over again, “You’re a really good writer. Wow, that is such good writing!” to which I would reply, “But what can I do to get better? What’s wrong with it?” I didn’t want the nit-picky critiques that can make me feel stupid, but I wanted to know what to look out for. I wanted to know the very best way to get the picture in my head onto paper. Since I was never invited to anything like this program, I never had the chance to have my early work critiqued in a positive, uplifting, meaningful way. So instead, I had to rely on books. I read—-and paid attention to the sorts of words my favorite authors fancied. I read—and paid attention to what they italicized and figured out why. I read—and paid attention. And then, once I started to really feel ownership of my style, I started to worry about, and correct, my gosh-awful grammar. For me, it has paid off. Writing pays bills now and, more importantly, it reaches people. The books are in libraries and bookstores and I have grown up, matured. Seeing these students, though, reminded me in a very tangible way what started it all. It reminded me of how intensely I wrote. It reminded me of getting callouses on my pinkie knuckle from sliding my hand across so many sheets of paper and from holding the pen. It reminded me of how many hundreds of notebooks I filled with words. And it excited me. I could not wait to see what sorts of ideas and talent sat in the room.
The authors were introduced and then we talked for a minute or so about what inspired us to write, and which of our works is our (current) favorite. After that, we were asked to sit at a table with between 4-5 students. We were each assigned a high school student to help us offer critique. The theme for the year was “The Heart of the Matter.” The first session was over “theme.” Each student was invited to read her/his piece out loud to the table and then the high school students offered their input. Once the high school student offered advice, I offered my praise and polishing pointers. It takes guts to read something you wrote out lout to people, no matter how welcoming or friendly the people may seem. And the students were quiet and focused. There was no shuffling of feet, there was no whispering back and forth. These gifted students wanted to be there, and they wanted to hear what others thought of their writing. It was like deja-vu. Until I started listening to these pieces.
When the students started reading what they had written, I was blown away. I mean, the sheer level of talent was amazing. And the diversity in thought was unbelievable. For instance, one student took the theme “the heart of the matter” quite literally and wrote a stream of consciousness piece in which he could see the “webbed heart” pulsating, which eventually led to Bill Nye. When he finished, I sat there smiling, and simply said, “Wow.” But then this other kid read his piece, which was entitled, “Burn.” In this piece, the narrator set his house on fire with his family inside—-because they didn’t care about him and had wounded him. He goes outside and watches the house burning and then he thinks to himself, “Why aren’t they waking up? Don’t they hear the fire?” He continues to watch them, thinking about how much they had wronged him. Would others call this murder, he wondered, but he doesn’t really care. Until the fire nearly engulfs the house. At the very last moment, just when the reader started to think this narrator was going to let his family parish, he wrote, “I sprinted into the burning house” and we’re left to believe that the antagonist of the story is also the hero. Brilliant. And he’s not even in high school yet. Noah, this kid, is going to be famous one day. I have no doubt. After marveling over the sheer brilliance of what I had just read/heard, I offered some pieces of constructive criticism—about how backstory can be a crucial piece of a writing, blah, blah, blah. Then this kid said, “That makes a lot of sense.” Pause. “Thank you.” And he wrote what I said on his paper. He was paying attention, and he cared.
He wasn’t the only one. All of the students were like that.
This other kid read a flawless piece of poetry. His was about looking into a mirror and examining what he saw—-on the inside. He titled the piece, “Rorschach”, which is a reference to a psychological inkblot personality test. The kid is a genius. The other kids at the table all seemed to say that repetition could have been used, and would make the poem stronger. I disagreed. I told them a story about how a writer’s group once made me question my ability to write well by being unnecessarily critical. I told them that the biggest mistake they could ever make would be to write for someone else. Writing, I explained, is yours. “That said,” I added, “All artists want their craft to grow. All artists want to improve in their own way. So if you hear a suggestion more than once, like adding repetition to this beautiful piece, perhaps you might go home and re-write this poem with repetition and then just see which one feels the most like Deepak, knowing that it is perfectly acceptable to use the original if the one with repetition doesn’t feel like you.” He smiled and said, “I really like that idea. Experiment, you mean.” Me: “Yes. Exactly.” Then, smiling and winking at him, I added, “But don’t change the title” and the whole table laughed.
And then…. while I’m on this joyful, lovely memory jaunt…. During a lull in critiquing, I asked one group (we saw three different groups of kids): “Okay, so, I’m curious. Was it hard for you to develop a story within the parameters of a given theme? In other words, when you are assigned a topic, is it easy to think of an idea that fits the topic or not? How do your ideas come about?” One said they were primarily situational—someone would do something and it would spark an idea. Another said, “Sometimes a character will just be there and I’ll be like, ‘You’re an interesting person: talk to me.” Oh, my heart. I wanted to shout out, “YES! And then THEY DO, don’t they!!” Another said, “I just like words. Like sometimes my mom will be yelling at me and she’ll use a really cool word and, as soon as she says it, I don’t hear anything else after that because I can’t stop thinking about that one word. And then that word makes me think of a story.” I wanted to hug that kid. Instead, I smiled brightly, nodded and said casually, “Aren’t words fun?”
Today was a day that celebrated not only the written word but passion and inspiration. It was a day that celebrated creativity and acknowledged that it can be a powerful force in a person’s life. Today wasn’t only a day that celebrated the written word, it was a day that showcased some remarkably gifted kids and underscored the fact that they are just as capable (if not more so!) of deep thought (one girl took the subject and wrote a piece in which she claims all the world’s problems boil down to jealousy because “fighting over a shirt my sister owns or fighting over nuclear weapons the country next door has are both a result of jealously”), of poetry, of importance. Their eagerness to listen and willingness to be open to new ideas without becoming defensive showed their maturity and their genuine desire to grow as artists. These middle schoolers inspired me by reminding me of just how special creativity of any sort and passion are. These middle schoolers inspired me because they were so gifted and yet so humble about their own work. It was as though they felt like just being there was a rare and special opportunity. They smiled, they took notes and they listened. One of my high school assistants said, “I’ve learned more today than I have all year.” When I asked her what she had learned she replied, “That I need to work on description. I mean, these pieces describe things so well. And I can’t do it nearly as good. I need to go back and work on that.” Her attitude was inspiring. When I told one table that writing had been an escape for me, one girl said, “Yeah. It’s like I can write what I want to and nobody would ever know it was really about me.” I nodded. “And it helps.” See, today wasn’t just a day to celebrate the written word, it was also a day to celebrate what creativity provides: a safe haven, an escape, a constructive outlet to express dreams, fears, triumphs, failures and everything in between. The title of the program is “The Power of the Pen” and aptly so: powerful enough to inspire hope where otherwise there is none, powerful enough to inspire self-esteem when it is endangered, powerful enough to create joy where once there were tears. I wish there were more opportunities to converse with fellow writers. Fellow writers were in the room with me today: not just students, but fellow writers. We all spoke the same language and whether they wrote dark pieces like mine or children’s books or non-fiction essays, they displayed grace, courage and unfathomable, pure talent. I was there today as one of the “experts” but I’m fairly certain I received the larger gift: the gift of sharing dialogue with others who understand how characters talk to me or the sheer joy that comes with discovering a character’s name. At one point, I half-jokingly warned one table, “If anyone says anything to me that I think is cool, it will be in a book” and the entire table nodded, while one girl jumped and said, “Oh yeah!” I was amongst kindred spirits today for nearly six hours; I can’t imagine time spent better.