During the summer between 8th grade and high school, I decided to leave my bedroom. Prior to this, I believed writers were supposed to be alone. I spent a great deal of my time by myself, carefully constructing novel plots and reading poems out loud. Only my walls heard them. I admired writers like Emily Dickinson who managed to spend most of their lives inside of their own homes, working away on their craft.
At the time, it seemed like the writing was a marriage between words and the writer, and most marriages fail if they get too crowded.
But that summer, I saw a flyer for teenage writers in a Red Bank crepe shop and joined Project Write Now’s teacher assistant internship program. There were two things I learned very quickly. Number one, we wrote often about anything and everything. Number two, what we wrote, we shared.
Some of the kids in the group were used to reading. You could tell by how slow and measured their voices were like they were sitting on a porch, telling a story between sips of lemonade. People like me read in short tremors, unused to the power that comes with sharing a story. In my internship, we critiqued and complimented each other’s pieces. Having someone else look at my work helped me become a stronger writer. I fell in love with this new development in my writing process: the Writers Group. I got honest opinions about my writing, and it never felt too harsh, because I knew everyone in the group wanted me to get that word just right, a character more real, or image more vivid.
The more I researched it, the more essential writers’ groups seemed to be. Even Emily Dickinson had writer friends. She kept up lengthy correspondences with other poets, sending her verse to them in letters asking for advice. Needless to say, when my internship was over, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to returning to my life as a recluse.
Luckily, the Project Write Now team invited me to become a regular volunteer for their after-school program. Jennifer, Allison, and Lisa told me that they even had their own group where they studied writers’ works and shared prose and poetry. Not only did I admire each of these women for their incredible strength, kindness, and way with words, but I also aspired to have the kind of bond they had. It was a lasting bond, built on trust and truth. I thought that maybe you’d get to create relationships like that in a writers group. Once I’d spent more than a year helping kids tell their stories, I asked if I could start a writers group of my own.
After months of planning proposals, advertisements, and lesson plans, The Book Project, a space for teenagers working on book-long projects, was born in March 2017. At first, the group was a jumble of writing prompts, snacks, and discussions about what Beyonce would name her twins. We had a lot of fun, but after our summer break, I knew two things had to change. First of all, writers groups had to be about writing. (Sorry, Beyonce.) Second, writers had to feel comfortable enough in their group to trust the group with their story.
Now, I run the Teen Writing Group, which meets once a week, at the same time, on Thursdays. For an hour and a half, we share writing-themed memes, poetry, and pastries. We read I Remember (based on the book by Joe Brainard) while snacking on black-and-white cookies and talk about poetry while munching on brownies. Instead of talking about names Beyonce might pick, we talk about what names might best fit our characters. But most importantly, we write. We’ve written dedications to our projects to look back on when we doubt how important our stories are. Some of us are working on novels. Others are working on collections of poems. Some are discovering as they go.
We start off most meetings with a writing prompt, and I thought that when I asked for volunteers for people to read, I’d have to coax the words out of them. However, every time the chance to share arises, the members of the writers group jump at it. Each time we share a piece of our writing, we become a little bit more trusting in the group. I’ve received some of the most sincere compliments and my most helpful feedback. I’ve met people who would become dear friends. Most importantly, nobody is afraid to tell their story.
Even though I’m supposed to be teaching the class, I’ve learned something, too. Writing is not a marriage. It is a friendship, and friendship can only grow stronger with chocolate chip cookies and shared love of writing.