Sorcerers and Bullets: How Young Writers Make a Scene
This April, we're offering a Spring Vacation Week of Creative Writing to get teens thinking and writing. In celebration of the wonderful energy that young writers bring to our space, we bring you a personal essay from Young Adult Writers Program instructor Jennifer De Leon.
Warm-up prompt: Describe an unusual contest, including the winning prize.
YAWP student: "You have to ride a unicycle while balancing a hot cup of coffee on your head. The winning prize is a puppy."
I love teaching YAWP students. At 10 AM one Saturday a month, students from all over Boston—and sometimes as far as Natick and Stoughton—ride the elevator at Grub Street headquarters to take free classes in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. They awkwardly greet each other and ignore the donuts on the round table in the lobby. Then they pluck spiral notebooks and sharpened pencils from the silver bin and head to their classes taught by fabulous instructors including Becky Tuch, Regie Gibson, KL Pereira, and Nadine Lynn Johnstone.
By 10:15, they are scribbling away. The energy in the room shifts. These aren’t teens in high school anymore, or the nerdy kid from Bio who scrawls poems in the margins of his binder paper. No one is solely identified as the cheerleader, the Asian girl, the white boy, the band geek, or the shy girl who wears Uggs year round.
These are writers.
I hear the cluster of voices coming from the red couches during the lunch hour when they talk about books, YouTube clips, writing contests, and the best burrito at Boloco. I see myself in the Latina girl from Chelsea whose mother drops her off and picks her up each Saturday. And I can identify with the age-appropriate quest to self-identify through fashion. The fingerless gloves. The dark eyeliner. I love their Harry Potter references and the skinny-jeans wearing couple that writes on laptops. If only I saw myself in Ally, who showed up late to YAWP one Saturday. “Sorry,” she said, “I was taking the SAT.”
The craft of writing might not be something one can master in a lifetime, never mind the commitment required to pursue it. World famous cellist Pablo Casals, in response to an interviewer’s question of why he still practiced six hours a day after he was retired and living on a tropical island, said: “I’m learning.”
Maybe that’s the magic of YAWP. Students are hungry in a way that is innocent, true, and inspiring. Maybe they figure they have decades to revise, so instead they focus on the joy in composing creatively. They go there with references that shock and impress me each session. What do teens know about a couple trying to conceive their first child, a woman at war in Iraq whose boyfriend dumps her in a letter, How to Survive a Family Reunion in New Hampshire, or a widow living in Australia? Turns out, a lot.
Yes, some of their scenes are set in a Starbucks bar instead of a bar-bar, but then does literary fiction really need more scenes where couples argue in bars? Their characters pull the triggers, don’t just stare out windows and imagine shooting someone’s brains out. They attend tourist attractions led by sorcerers in ancient Rome. They throw up in public. In short, they make a scene. Charles Baxter would be so proud!
I feel privileged to work with these young writers. They are busier than most twenty-somethings I know, and yet they carve out the space during their precious weekend time in order to commit to their art. Not for extra credit. Certainly not for grades. They are happy just to be given the supportive place to write. And they give each other props.
They remind me of the purple-notebook carrying fifteen year old girl I was, growing up in Jamaica Plain and later Framingham, writing my way from poem to dramatic journal entry back to poem, and dreaming of the moment when someone might have said, “Do you know about YAWP?”
Some things we can learn from YAWPers:
- Write longhand. Aside from the skinny-jean wearing couple typing on laptops, the majority of YAWP students write in notebooks and often with pencils. Something about hearing the sighs of the lead moving across the page can be inspiring to just let go of that urge to self-edit. Think of it as the down draft, as Anne Lamott says. Later, you can address the up-drafts.
- Don’t hold back. They may be between the ages of 13 and 18, but these YAWPers write like they’re in their 90s and the building is on fire. They tell it like it is, and don’t self-filter à la: But what’ll my mom say?
- Read for fun. How they find time to read thick novels in between tweeting and piano lessons and college applications, I don’t know. But they do. They use the public library. They share paperbacks with dog-eared pages. One teen even reviews free galleys at a local bookstore. Feel lazy yet? I do! I know we all have limited time, but making time for reading—especially if we are writers—must be part of our practice.
- Remember audience. Over the years at YAWP open-mic sessions, I’ve noticed that teens write and read for an audience. They aim to entertain, and with that they must be clear, often concise, and funny. They believe their stories have listeners, and it shows in their work.
Jennifer De Leon
Jennifer De Leon is the author of the Young Adult novel Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, 2020), editor of the anthology Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education (University of Nebraska Press), and the essay collection White Space: Essays on Culture, Race, & Writing (UMass Press, 2021), which is the recipient of the Juniper Prize. An Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Framingham State University, and a GrubStreet instructor and board member, she has published prose in over a dozen literary journals, including Ploughshares, Iowa Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review. She lives outside of Boston with her husband and two sons.See other articles by Jennifer De Leon