On Writing Groups for Young Adults by Sarah Dooley
“May I borrow some children?”
The librarian looked eager to lend, but she wanted more details. What age group would my creative writing class include? How often would we meet? For how long?
“Maybe upper elementary age?” I suggested. I hadn’t really given it much thought. It was the final week of October and I’d only just realized that, since I left public school teaching, I would not have a group of kids to join me for National Novel Writing Month’s Young Writers Project (http://ywp.nanowrimo.org). “Just once a week during November.” That part, I was confident about. NaNoWriMo, after all, takes place within a month. I would only be writing with these borrowed children for 30 days.
Can I just stop myself here to say how much I love the library? Need a book? They’ve got you covered. Internet? Sure. Help with taxes? Done. Need to set up a bill payment plan, knit a scarf, do yoga, or think algebraically? The library is your one-stop shop. So of course that’s where I went when I decided to borrow a few young writers.
Four children showed up to that first writing class, and I immediately noted the difference between this and my previous NaNoWriMo teaching experiences: I didn’t know these children. I had no relationship with them, no instructional control, no high-interest hobbies to lever words from reluctant writers. As we all sat down to the table, four pairs of eyes trained on me, waiting for me to know what I was doing, I realized I had no idea!
But then I realized something else.
The eyes took me in, yes – writers’ eyes are always taking things in – but then they dropped back to notebooks, post-it notes, legal pads, and gel pens, a collection of writing tools the authors themselves had brought with them, in addition to my hastily-purchased blue Bic pens and college-ruled paper. These kids – kids who showed up to the library on a weeknight to write for fun – did not need me to lever words from them. These kids brought words with them. They had words at the ready. All they needed was for me to provide a space and a time.
That first class passed with a few self-conscious giggles and a flurry of scribbling. At the end, kids shared their work by letting me read it silently, too nervous to share it with the other strangers at the table.
Not one of them wrote for NaNoWriMo.
There was a poet, hastily scrawling half-sentences sideways on her paper, then scribbling them out. There was a mystery writer asking more questions than he answered. There was an essayist there to do better in school. And there was this kid who came in with a notebook already three-quarters full, overflowing with ink in a multitude of colors, several chapters into a novel that weighed more than she did. These kids had ideas. They had creativity and passion and drive to write. What they thought they needed was direction from me.
What it turned out they needed was each other.
We outlasted November.
Then the end of the year, and then the next year, and the next. For nearly three years, the group met once per week at the library. There was an ebb and flow both to attendance and to words. Sports and school and other activities came and went. Still, week after week, those same kids kept showing up to write, and they kept inspiring other writers to join them. We went from four to six to twelve. We went from nervous giggles and silent reading to wild roundtable discussions on the plot of one kid’s story, the meter of another’s poem. I found myself giving them direction less, anchoring the discussion more. I let them take over as I faded myself out.
What amazed me was not just that they wrote – and not just how they wrote, though that was certainly amazing – but the way they each spoke of what the others had written, asking after characters as though they were asking after family members: “How’s Alice doing?” “Have you been spending any time with Eliot?”
Life went on – otherwise, what would we write about? – and my library group eventually stopped meeting. Several months afterward, I visited the local high school, now attended by most of those upper-elementary-age writers I’d checked out of the library years ago. After my reading, I asked one of my former library writers how her high school writing group was going.
As though she were filling me in on family, she described to me the plot twists and new characters I’d missed since I stopped meeting weekly with these authors. She wasn’t describing her own stories, though. She was describing the stories of classmates from our library group, stories she loved and spoke of as she would a favorite book off the library shelf, or a dear friend.
“And how’s Sasha?” she thought to ask.
That’s right, my Sasha. Main character of Free Verse, a silent child who finds her voice through poetry club.
“She’s good,” I remember saying, “She’s really good, thanks to all of you.”
About the book: When her brother dies in a fire, Sasha Harless has no one left, and nowhere to turn. After her father died in the mines and her mother ran off, he was her last caretaker. They’d always dreamed of leaving Caboose, West Virginia together someday, but instead she’s in foster care, feeling more stuck and broken than ever.
But then Sasha discovers family she didn’t know she had, and she finally has something to hold onto, especially sweet little Mikey, who’s just as broken as she is. Sasha even makes her first friend at school, and is slowly learning to cope with her brother’s death through writing poetry, finding a new way to express herself when spoken words just won’t do. But when tragedy strikes the mine her cousin works in, Sasha fears the worst and takes Mikey and runs, with no plans to return. In this sensitive and poignant portrayal, Sarah Dooley shows us that life, like poetry, doesn’t always take the form you intend.
Sarah Dooley has lived in a variety of small West Virginia towns, each of which she grew to love. Winner of the 2012 PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship, she has written two previous novels for middle-grade readers: Body of Water and Livvie Owen Lived Here, the latter of which she was named as a Publishers Weekly Flying Start debut author. A former special education teacher, she now provides treatment to children with autism. She lives in Huntington, West Virginia, and is a 2006 graduate of Marshall University.