Each Thursday, I volunteer to lead a creative writing workshop at a charter school in Tallahassee, the School of Arts and Sciences, with a group of nine really creative seventh and eighth graders. We gather in a circle made of 5 or so moveable tables and sit in those plastic, stackable chairs in a room spotted with art supplies and stacks of books and with vocab words written in marker on the walls. Serious vocab words. Like "abstruse." And "gregarious." Words I studied when I took the GRE.
I started last fall. Some Thursdays, amid the steady burning grind of grad school, I'd bemoan my commitment, thinking I'd rather catch up on sleeping-grading-reading-writing-teaching-emailing than give away an hour of my life. But after engaging with my workshop group, hearing their excitement over storytelling, their thankfulness that I was there, I'd always walk back to my car feeling better about my day. Drive to campus energized. Gratified.
The imagination these 12-year-olds display in their fiction is amazing. One boy wrote about a man with super powers whom the government holds in a crystal prison. As a result of his capture, he has no memory of the past. All he knows is a blinding whiteness and a few tubes delivering him his vitals. "This is the world," he says. "There is nothing else." But when he sleeps, he dreams of city streets, of a vague familial love, of planets and stars and the cosmos. The story makes me think about the persistence of memory, collective memory--a link to the past we carry in our genes. Then the man breaks loose. This spring we'll find out what he does next.
A girl wrote a story involving two adolescent friends, a boy and a girl, playing on a farm while their parents are away watching college sports. Lightning strikes the barn and the youths have to run bravely through the blaze to save the girl's beloved horses. When we workshopped the story, we clued her in that her story had an element of romance. In its next version, the boy had been almost completely edited out and the horses had been severely and graphically scathed in the fire. We all encouraged her to spare the horses and write the boy back in.
Another story involved a convenience store robber whose truck gets jacked while he's inside holding the clerk at gunpoint. Others featured mutants, zombies, alien monkeys, overbearing mothers, an epistolary from a soldier in Iraq. The students insisted that I write a piece to be workshopped. I wrote about a ragtag trio of scientists picking up extraterrestrial signals from space. It stunk, but with the middle schoolers' help, maybe it'll get better by April.
Today was my first day back for the spring semester. We did a writing exercise where everyone chose to be a character from the circus. We had a ring master, an elephant, an elephant-poop scooper, a bear on a unicycle, an amazing monkey, a trapeze artist, a crazy clown, a Shetland pony, a gorilla, a ring master, and I was the tight rope walker. Each person took five minutes to start a story, then we passed to the left, and maintained our personas as we added on. The student to my right kept using his narrative authority to give everybody AIDS. Again and again, he'd pass me a story that took a sudden turn toward AIDS. He was worried that I'd give them all happy endings, turn them right back around.
"There's no redeeming this," I said. He laughed and laughed.
After four or five passes, we read a few out loud. Bears fell off tricycles; ring masters battled stage fright; monkeys jumped on people's heads.
In one story, the monkey said, "I had a huge crush on the poop scooper. Too bad he always smelled like poop."
In another reading, the clown informed us, "Once I hung from a noose and pretended to be dead. I stopped moving and breathing for five hours."
How dark. How sardonic. How dark and sardonic and utterly terrific.