What are your early memories of writing? Like many of you (I suspect), I grew up in a house filled with books. My parents didn’t go in much for fancy furniture or artwork, but our living room walls were lined with bookshelves, the practical metal kind that stretched on tension rods from floor to ceiling. To squelch my whining about being bored, my parents assigned me to alphabetize our home library one summer. That might sound tedious, but I loved handling our hundreds of books, thumbing the pages, imagining the wonders between the covers.
But neither our freshly-organized home library nor the boxy modern downtown library could compare with the library at Silas Willard School, with its big sunny windows, wide polished woodwork, walls that curved into a cove filled with picture books, and ceiling so tall that to a six-year-old the place it seemed a cathedral. Next to wandering the stacks, running my finger over the spines, savoring the difficult choice of which three books to choose every week, I loved nothing more than the privilege of perching at the big oak desk, poised to stamp the due date each book as it was checked out.
There must have been a librarian in that magical place, but I’m embarrassed to say I have no memory of that person, though gender roles in those days, I’m pretty sure those books were guarded by a woman – guarded, because that’s how I felt about books even then – there was nothing in my young life of more value.
Despite my huge love for stories, I don’t recall ever aspiring to write one. No one ever talked about authors, or the excitement of creating with words. I was a post-Sputnik child, and all the writing we did was strictly school stuff. Packaged curricula were the rage, and when I blasted through the SRA box, my teachers assigned my reports out of Time-Life books for adults, which I dutifully completed. I wonder what might have happened if someone had suggested I write a poem or a story; if there were some hint that in creative writing I might find an avocation if not a vocation.
I should add that what my parents didn’t spend on lavish furnishings they were happy to spend on enrolling me in extracurricular activities. In our little college town, I took ballet lessons, horse-riding lessons, pottery lessons, and swim lessons. I went to scout camp and day camp. But there were no options for kids to explore and celebrate their love of the written word.
Of course much has changed since I was a child. Thanks to programs like the National Writing Project, teachers now encourage students to write for discovery and, yes, pleasure. But as school days tighten around standards and outcomes, there seems to be a disconnect between creativity and excellence, a topic I’ll be exploring in a teacher inservice for the Pribilof School District in April. Across Alaska, there aren’t enough opportunities for young writers to pursue their love of words, of stories, of books.
One of our goals at 49 Writers is to explore ways to extend our mission to support Alaska’s young writers. We’ve got a number of great models to study. Seattle and Portland, among other cities, offer vibrant Writers in the Schools Programs that create extended residencies for creative writers in school classrooms. Writing centers like the Loft offer workshops for young writers, while Grub Street and Lighthouse offer drop-in programs, the latter run by former Alaskan Megan Nix.
This term we’re starting with a teen-friendly Anchorage-based course, The Graphic Novel, offered afternoons during spring break. Early in March, we plan to also take applications for instructors to teach summer youth writing workshops in a program tentatively titled “Raven Words.” We’ve got wonderful models for the sort of fun, creative, inspirational summer writing workshops we’ve got in mind: True Ink in Asheville, Badgerdog in Austin, Summer Creative Writing Workshops in Houston, and the Bard College Young Writers Workshops.
We hope to inspire young writers in ways that are richer and more meaningful than anything that might have had open to us. We’d love your thoughts on the best ways to make that happen.