The Door That Leads Everywhere, Or, What First-Draft Teenage Alien Novels Can Do For You

By Fiona Chamness

One Friday afternoon, I hear a story that ends with a tongue falling in love with a river. Another Friday, I learn reasons the moon doesn’t want you; then, a girl rides the bus into a world her family doesn’t think exists. Dragons can be wiped out by genetically engineered diseases. It turns out that there are words for love derived from cooking, spacecraft, and trees.

Every Friday, I spend two hours writing with teenagers. Sometimes I teach a workshop; sometimes they do. Sometimes they read one another’s work and give feedback. Sometimes we just heat water, put on some mood music, and write. Once we pretended to be statues. Once we used pencils and notecards to create a new history spanning thousands of years. Every week, one way or another, I rediscover the power creative writing has to unlock something brilliant and strange inside the brain, a door, as in so many stories, that leads somewhere different every time it opens.

Some of the teens are brand-new writers. Others have been writing for years. As far as the brilliant ideas they bring to the table go, their level of experience doesn’t really matter. Only a few things do: their willingness to observe, to listen to each other, and to ask their internal censors to take a step back, letting in new thoughts, new worlds and new questions.

Through the workshops I teach, the listening I do and the feedback I provide, I try to keep those creativity-nurturing conditions at the forefront of my students’ minds. The students also make sure, in all their chaos, that I remember those conditions too. People talk about writing as being therapeutic, and often ask me if that’s why I do it. I certainly believe in writing’s utility in that way; I know that pouring out my emotions in a notebook can be a helpful processing tool. But truth be told, I find that more often writing is therapeutic for me in a subtler way that has to do with cultivating a necessary mindset. Observing, listening, being open – the practices that the teens use to create their stories and populate them with surprising, breathtaking characters – are the same practices that I’ve found essential for facilitating my personal development. When I try to approach those practices directly, I often hit a wall; I’m very resistant to change by nature. But when I approach them as a writer, because I need them to improve my craft, I find them sneaking into the rest of my life whether I’ve asked them to or not.

The teens, chameleons and rockets that they are, don’t have much choice about personal growth. Their brains are literally rewiring themselves; they’re getting taller; they’re always hungry. The choice they do make when they write together, however, humbles me. They make a pact to pay attention to their own work and to each other’s. They look at the world and invent new ways of looking at it. And though they joke and argue, they share a fundamental refusal to shoot down anyone’s wild ideas, including their own. It facilitates good writing. It also, quietly, makes us more open-minded people: the kind of people who can imagine broad and worthy change, who can ask good questions, who can name their lives and loves as they see them. It’s an atmosphere I’m lucky to have a part in encouraging, and a lesson I’m lucky to have every Friday to re-learn.

Fiona Chamness is a poet, songwriter, and native Ann Arborite. Her first book, Feral Citizens (which she co-authored with Aimée Lê), was published in 2011 by Red Beard Press, a youth-driven independent press that is part of the Neutral Zone. Fiona also works with teenagers at the Neutral Zone, a youth-driven teen center founded in 1998, "dedicated to promoting personal growth through artistic expression, community leadership and the exchange of ideas."

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Posted on March 2, 2016 .