After the last bell, the middle and high school students in my small town gather on the sunny patio in front of the local Starbucks. They hang out in lose clusters talking, snacking and, of course, text messaging. A few feet away, I sit in my silver car and wait for my pre-teen son to finish his socializing, the conversations I overhear cause the corners of my mouth turn upward as I imagine their words, exchanges, exclamations finding their way into poems. As a writing coach to kids and kids-at-heart, this scene—and others like them—serve as inspiration for the many experimental writing prompts I create to get people inspired to pick up a pen.
In addition to my coaching and work with California Poets in the Schools, I meet with groups of tweens and teens at local bookstores. We introduce ourselves with details about what we ate for breakfast and sometimes reveal who our favorite super hero was. “How about still is?” one boy asks. A few of us laugh. One of the girls admits that she likes finding her poems by getting off topic. “Great,” I say, assuring them they’re in the right place. Today we’re wandering into anything goes mode. Within minutes, most of the group understands there isn’t a correct way to be creative. That’s when I turn them lose in the bookstore—and adjacent outdoor mall—with reporter-sized pads of paper and pens, where they fan out to complete their eavesdropping “assignment,” to jot down overheard bits of conversation and gather scraps of dialog from unsuspecting shoppers. All they have to do is pay attention to what’s going on, what their ears are interested in, and “borrow” what’s overheard…but act as if they couldn’t care less. “Cool,” the kid who had bacon and maple syrup for breakfast and still likes Spiderman comments.
I wrote Leap Write In!: Adventures in Creative Writing to Stretch & Surprise Your One-of-a-Kind Mind to help teachers take the pressure off these kids (and kids like them) who want to write but can get stuck in the writing-for-a-good-grade trap; kids who sometimes decide they can’t write creatively before they even start. Leap is a book of invitations to help jittery minds to quiet and timid hearts to forge through feelings like fear and reluctance. Through carefully selected prompts, the book inspires the tween/teen Earthling (teacher Earthlings, too) to explore the wacky, confusing, brave, soul-stirring wonderings and wanderings of our everyday life, in a way that will unleash that which we need and want to say through On-The-Spot Drops which offer quick “free-fall” prompts on different themes, such as short-winded poems and seven-line stories. Other chapters include Mini Memoirs to unlock personal stories; Surprise Yourself Surveys for those who think they know everything about themselves; and Untie-Your-Mind Word Lists jump-start stalled imaginations, and Definition Decoders to explore new forms and styles of writing.
After half an hour, the eavesdroppers return ready to report who they spied on and what they’ve overheard. The next step, I suggest, is to understand how the art of creative writing is also about subtraction. Some of them are game to take out words, whole lines, sentences even, to get messy switching around what they heard and reversing syntax until their dialog snatches become poems that fit on a single page. Others aren’t yet ready to cross out words and will wait to embrace the editing phase. I assure them that wherever they are in relation to what’s on the page is fine. Everyone agrees though that this is their favorite experiment. (Lucky me, I think, this is only the first day. ) Before they leave, we share in a brief chocolate meditation and find out how long we can delay chewing a Hershey’s Kiss. Then I say goodbye and watch them walk out to the parking lot, talking about their poems and melted chocolate, cell phones tucked deep into their pockets.