Leading a Writing Group - Session 1
It's an odd story, how I came to be part of a writing group yesterday.
I went to the Muskegon Comic Con event in the spring. It was fun. I walked into the game room and was greeted by a perky woman named Holly. She convinced me to join a one-off Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game. It's an activity that has always seemed fun, but I've never found the time to participate in that world.
I invited a few people and a couple of kids joined in. Yuke led our session while also managing the gaming sales table. It was a grand adventure that took us deep into a cave looking for buried treasure. Three of the five people came out alive. One girl was able to snatch some of the gold from us, but Xavier and I were able to get most of it. Xavier turned out to be Holly's son.
While talking to Holly after the game she mentioned that she runs a homeschool group that uses the Muskegon Fab Lab, where people can work with 3-D printers, laser etching, virtual reality systems, and more. I wanted to look into it because my niece Eevee and my friend's kid Oliver are both almost two and a half years old. They are getting to that stage where they can start doing more organized and constructive things.
I invited Doug, Oliver's father, to join me and check it out on a Thursday. Doug ended up having a tooth infection and had to go to the dentist. It seems like it would be kind of odd to go to a homeschool group by myself without kids, and having no kids myself, but I did it anyway. It was fun. I ended up helping Bella for a couple of hours with problem solving parts of a virtual reality game. Bella turned out to be Holly's daughter. (The virtual reality game also messed up my neck a bit because you're always looking around and moving your neck and I have neck deformities. It effected me for a few days.)
It's a bit too advanced for Eevee and Oliver, they still need a few years yet before the Fab Lab will be useful. But, since it had been fun the week before, and I was curious about the program, I decided to go the next Thursday. Then, it just became my normal routine. There are a lot of intelligent and interesting people that the group attracts so I've had a lot of engaging conversations.
Since I do writing and speaking it was brought up at some point that I might lead a writing or public speaking class. Slowly, the idea started coming together. Holly didn't want to start the group right away because her mother was coming to town and she wanted the family to spend time together. I was able to meet Holly's mother and we had some great discussions about literature and more during that time.
I also had a concern. I didn't want to start the class full of kids. Starting a class with 10, or even 5, kids on the first day is difficult. You have to explain how things are going to work, what the goals are, what your basic philosophy and approach are, how to treat each other, etc. You are essentially establishing a mini-culture. Once the culture is established it's easier to integrate people into it as compared to growing a culture from scratch.
I had just watched Paul do this with the art class that he runs. Paul is an interesting guy with a wealth of experience in art, but organizing a bunch of kids at the same time on day one is like, well... herding kids. My plan was to start out with a few kids. Once that is going well then I'll add more kids to the class one or two at a time. Or, the other option, is that I can have some separate classes too. Here's part of the first email that I sent to Holly about the group.
I was thinking about writing a little blurb about the writing group. But, I don't know if you want that yet, and I'm not sure who it's for. So, in a basic sense:
In writing, one of the keys is finding a balance between following the norms that allow for shared communication, and finding your own voice. The process of melding these two things into a coherent whole has to be organic, and it has to be an exploration. For this to work you have to base the work on a foundation of interest. Once you have interest then the next ingredient is putting emphasis on effort rather than performance, as performance will be the natural end result of effort applied to an area of interest over time.
That is the basic idea, but don't use that because it's horrible. I'll write something else when we need it. If we need something detailed then I'll pull from the work of these psychologists: Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, Jean Piaget, Harry Stack Sullivan, Carol Dweck, and Carl Rogers.
The group will be doing fiction writing. There are several reasons for that: it will transfer over to non-fiction, there is more freedom of expression, there's no need for research, etc.
Also, what I think would work best is to do lightly directed group writing activities, readings, and light feedback from the group focused on being almost exclusively positive. Then, if and when critical or more detailed work is needed that can be handled in separate one-on-one sessions.
In the end the writing group started yesterday with Holly's three children. I wanted to use an open and general story prompt idea to see what would happen. To hear what the kids were able to come up with and how they would naturally prefer to generate a story. A blue dragon egg, that was the prompt. I explained that writing like this has to spring from a place within you that no one fully understands. You have to feel your way forward. And, the point of the writing group is to make a place where we can play and fail. To try things, test things, and be surprised by our own ideas. If you make something awesome, that's great. If you make something horrible, that's fine. It's just about getting better at generating and communicating narrative structures with style.
Narrative structures are the foundation of human society and psychology.
I had no idea what to expect. I think the kids had a little hesitation at first in their writing while they tried to think about what they should write. It's a different way of thinking, making stories. After the 20 minutes were up I asked if anyone wanted to read their story first, there were no volunteers. Which I figured would probably happen. It's a scary thing sharing something that you've made. You don't know if other people are going to understand it, you don't know if other people are going to like it. I did explain that judging art is a bit like judging ice cream. I've written some philosophy articles on that idea. Here's one: http://www.jeffreyalexandermartin.com/2019/04/flavor-and-value.html
I'll put my story here first, then I'll talk about what the kids came up with.
Once upon a time there was an eagle. This eagle was a great eagle, an old eagle, a kind eagle.
One day the eagle was flying back to its nest after having failed to catch anything after a full day of hunting.
The eagle was tired, and lonely, and hungry.
As the eagle was flying towards the nest it saw something, it saw something odd. It looked like there was something blue in the nest.
"Probably a blue jay," thought the eagle. The eagle hated blue jays. When it got there it would hunt that blue jay down and slay him for having the gall to take someone else's nest.
But, as the eagle flew closer it could see that it wasn't a blue jay. It looked like an egg. But, it couldn't be an egg. How would an egg get into the eagle's nest?
When the eagle landed on the edge of the nest it still hadn't decided what to do with this darn egg.
It could just push it out of the nest. That's where it should be, somewhere else, anywhere else.
But, the eagle was curious what type of bird this egg was. It was larger than an eagle egg.
The eagle decided that the egg would stay. When the eagle pushed the egg to the side of the nest to lay next to it the egg was warm, maybe even hot.
Eleven days later and the eagle had still been struggling with hunting, but the nest seemed less lonely with the egg there.
When the eagle returned later that day there was a crack in the egg. Over the next two minutes the crack grew. Then the top started to break off.
The eagle was curious. What type of bird would come out?
To the eagle's horror the nose that poked out didn't have a beak. Is it a deformed bird?
No! It has teeth. The head slowly emerged and it was more like a snake or an alligator than a bird.
The eagle and the baby dragon stared at each other.
And that's 20 minutes of writing. There are so many things that could be edited and changed in that story that it kind of amazes me that it comes across as decent. There are some great things too, like when in the fifth to third last sentences I switch from past tense to present tense and it works. Stuff like that shows you how much the rules often don't matter. The goal is to communicate a good story, and any means that leads to that end is good. It's important to have shared rules so that we can communicate. It's also important to realize that the rules are there to help us communicate, and when they hinder communication they are wrong.
I was hoping that my weird story would loosen up the kids' sense of apprehension at sharing their stories. An important piece of the group is to read your story and realize that it's not horrible, to hear how people react, to have people affirm and approve of what you've done so that you can continue to press forward and develop your talents.
Xavier was the first to share. He wrote a small intro in the format of a captain's log about an expedition in Antarctica. It was pretty good and we were able to talk about epistolary stories, or stories told through writings and recordings from the fictional setting.
Lex and Bella did rock, paper, scissors to decide who would go next. There was some controversy over Bella's hand technique, but in the end I ruled that Lex had lost and she was next.
Lex had an interesting idea about a half-dragon, half-chicken that was going on a quest. It sounded a lot like a fairy tale, which I like, but it also seemed kind of like it was leading to a version of modern science fiction. It was good.
Bella was the last to go. She's still working out the technical skills of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. That's not what the group is about, it's about creating and communicating narratives. With some help she read her story and it was about a dragon prince that had been banished from his home and was now being caught up in a war. And, he didn't know he was a prince. It was a solid idea that seemed to be along great classical lines of fantasy.
After each story we said a few things that we liked and/or associated with it. Then I asked if anyone had any questions about anything. Now, everyone assumes that it has to be about what we've talked about in that session, and we mentioned a lot of things. We even hit on how frame stories are structured with stories inside of stories. But, I said "anything," and I meant it.
Kids often don't seem to believe me when I say they can ask me anything. That's common when I'm teaching Chinese kids online too. But, some of them catch on fast and realize that I do mean anything.
Bella, the eight-year-old, (of course it's the eight-year-old) asked about grand mythological narrative structures. I explained how different societies had handled the ideas of transcendence and immanence in primordial entities. At that point everyone realized that they could ask anything and we had a few more good questions. Especially when you're talking about narratives, everything is a possible subject.
I ended up hanging out afterward for quite awhile and Bella recruited me to be a model so that she could do a portrait. It came out well.
Bella and Lex wanted me to say how my story would have continued. I went into a few lines about the baby dragon breathing fire into the face of the eagle, the eagle sucking the fire into its lungs and plummeting from the nest toward the ground. They didn't like the idea of a tragic ending, and I believe it was Lex that came up with a great alternative. What if the eagle was really a phoenix? Then it falls to the ground on fire. It burns into a pile of ash, and from the small pile of ash a baby phoenix is reborn. It's a great twist.
It was an excellent first session, and I have high hopes for the future.
You can find more of what I'm doing at http://www.JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com