Their mini-marshmallow stature and pre-intellectual chatter marked them as targets: those undersized, over-bright kids who get stuffed into lockers by eighth graders. Cassie made beeping noises. Talia talked so fast that the ends of sentences tumbled out ahead of the beginnings. Cami, one of only two seventh graders, smirked at both the chatty sixth graders and the only slightly less chatty adult: me. But during our eight-week Lighthouse Young Writers Workshop, I discovered they would all survive, because they’d learned to sublimate the horror of middle school by pouring it into creative writing.
When they crafted story openings, Cami Garcia went for snarky: It wasn’t love at first sight. Oh hell no!
With that, eight pairs of eyes turned toward me, and Lucas goggled when he saw me giggling with the rest—all girls. “Well,” he said, “if I’d known we could say h-e-l-l…”
There would be more attempts to shock me, but I said, “It’s just language and we’ll treat it that way, as long as it stays in the writing and we don’t talk that way to each other.”
I believe no creative writers are too young to treat their work with the respect that adults accord theirs. Still, it wasn’t easy to guide them through the thing I struggle with: how to evaluate other people’s work honestly without inflicting pain. Every kid had an opinion, and some couldn’t move on until they’d shared theirs.
“I love your descriptions,” one critic told Alyssa Hood, referring to such tasty lines as: Ashley toddled over and grasped his hand in her chubby one, covered in peanut butter and goldfish bits. The critic added, “But I really don’t care about every little detail.”
I pointed out that she probably didn’t mean she “didn’t care,” but that some details “weren’t working for her.” The critic gave an apologetic nod: of course that’s what she meant.
I offered the writer another thought, “It might be just a matter of tying more of the details to the development of plot or character.”
Bronwyn rolled her eyes. “You don’t mean that every picky little detail has to mean something?”
And the discussion took off…
Stories about alternate realities seemed contagious. Maitlan wrote about a girl who finds herself in a room with two mirrors and discovers that the infinite reflections of herself are girls who live in alternate dimensions. Talia wrote about time-traveling sisters who are incarnations of the sun and moon. Alicia wrote about a girl whose love of her lost cell phone lands her in outer space, where she must find her phone and press “end” to go home. In the end, the most delightful writing was the most realistic, such as this exchange from Cassie Howell’s story about a young time traveler:
“See McDonald’s really…”
“The invention of food that has more hormones than a sixteen-year-old girl serves no other purpose than increasing the risk of food poisoning and doubling worldwide obesity.”
I didn’t mind refereeing their competing chatter, because they were engaged and saved plenty of words for the page. Still, amid the noise, one of the quiet ones almost escaped detection. Although Sunny wasn’t shy, she didn’t clamor to read aloud or answer questions. On our last day, before I asked volunteers to read their finished stories, I amped the kids up on pizza, soda, and cupcakes. It was impossible to keep the sugary, caffeinated audience focused, until, with a sly grin, Sunny Stierwood took over the room with her hilarious story about a well-behaved brainiac and a head-banging troublemaker, two sisters who happen to be conjoined twins:
“So you told Ashley you were going to Andrew’s just so you could make me not hang out with my friend?”
“I’m telling Mom.”
“She’ll ground you.”
“Fine. If she grounds me, she grounds you, too.”
I groaned. This was the bad thing about having a Siamese twin. If she got in trouble, you got in trouble, too. That’s how Sasha gets away with bullying/annoying me, 24/7.
Talk about talkative kids with something to say! I can’t wait for the next loquacious bunch, and the chance to listen for quiet surprises.