Empowering Young People To Express Themselves Through Prose
This past year I ran a workshop in two grade eight classes, entitled: Writing The Personal Narrative: A Turning Points Essay. The students were working on essays about the moment in their life when things changed, and they changed. Some of the students really struggled with what to write; others, not at all. And it got me thinking.
If these kids could really master, not just learn, the art of essay writing, this could have a positive effect on their entire future. Sounds dramatic, right? I know. But I do believe it to be true. After many, many years of studying writing and editing countless essays submitted to TPF, I have come to realize that a well-written essay is rarer than you might think.
Simple things such as having a beginning, middle and an end, are lost on even the most experienced grown-up. Using scene, symbols, dialogue and action to reflect the writer’s values; these elements are cast aside for the more glamorous, indulgent area, which is: what happened to ME. Everybody wants to tell you what happened to them. And they want to give you tips on how you can avoid the perils of their experience.
But no. We don’t want to avoid it. We want to see it; we want to live it in our minds, and when we’re done reading, we want to be able to picture you next to us as if you were our best friend.
The ability to write well is not just about high school, college applications and good grades. Although mastering this skill benefits these areas and more, it also allows us to learn so much about ourselves. It empowers and enriches us, sometimes without us knowing it at the time.
When I was fifteen, I wrote a story about a nun who ran away from the convent with her priest lover. Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing and my ‘stick it to them’ attitude, but the fact was, I loved that my characters could do whatever they wanted. I was in charge. And when my mom died the following year, and nothing was in my control, I savoured those moments with my characters.
During the grieving process, I saw a therapist for a little while and she encouraged me to continue writing. But she wanted me to move away from the fiction storytelling and really try to get on paper what I was feeling and going through. I wrote about the colour of the bedsheets on my mom’s hospital bed, the boots I wore when I’d climbed into next to her and the look on her face when I walked out of the room for the last time. It was heart-breaking to read, but also heart-mending for me to write.
I was free writing, therapeutic writing if you will, but there was no organization to it. I didn’t know how to structure it. In junior high and high school, we didn’t spend much time on learning the elements of storytelling. So I wrote in diary style prose for years. And it wasn’t until I did my undergrad at The New School in an amazing writing program that I realized how incredibly important the structure of these elements was and how powerful a piece could be if you just knew how to use them correctly.
I wonder if, all those years ago, there had been someone to show me how to channel my emotions through a well-written story, how much more I would have learned about myself and the world around me. Maybe I could have avoided years of self-doubt as a young person if I had gained the type of confidence that comes with this knowledge.
Because I do believe that WORDS ARE POWER and if you know to express yourself and structure the fire within you, the world is truly yours the taking.
This brings me to today and the passion I feel towards young people and their access to mastering the skill of writing well. Kids don’t always learn to express themselves just by us coaching them; they learn it through creative expression. And by arming children with the ability to write thoughtful, introspective, intelligent creative non-fiction, they also learn to self-regulate in the process.