Thursday, March 17, 2005

Writing at the JDC

Have I mentioned a million or three times how much I like the variety of my life?

This week I've been teaching creative writing at a Juvenile Detention Center, with the totally cool Young Adult librarians from the Johnson County Library (they just were written up in Library Journal!). Well, sort of teaching. Mostly just encouraging, listening, connecting, and writing with a small group of kids.

I like working in JDCs. It's weird at first, making sure I have nothing in my pockets and am not carrying anything dangerous (an ink pen, for example, or the fold-up scissors I've been carrying for years), having to go into a series of locked hallways, being eyed by the staff and kids. Once I'm past that part, when I'm with the kids, I usually have a good time. These kids have done some bad things, some have made terrible decisions, some have been caught in awful circumstances, but they're not much different from the kids I see on the outside.

We started by writing down Natalie Goldberg's rules for writing practice, from her book Wild Mind. I like to have everybody actually write these down, because they seem to go in the pen hand--pencils only in the JDC--and up to the heart and brain that way. Some of the rules are "keep your hand moving," "be specific," "don't worry about punctuation, spelling or grammar," and "you're free to write the worst junk in America."

Then we started writing. I made sure the kids knew the other rules: no swearing (so none of us would get in trouble), and no writing about their charges. I also let them know that we would be reading the pieces out loud. That's always a tricky one, but essential.

We began with a neutral topic, coffee, for three minutes. We couldn't believe that the wind-up timer really worked, so when it went off, I set it again. The next day I brought an electronic timer. The next topic was candy, for five minutes. From there we dipped our toes into scarier topics, like darkness. Today we wrote a poem about death. In between some of the pieces, I read some of my favorite poems (a few are at this link) and some pieces written by kids in detention. I also talked about the process of writing.

We were supposed to have two separate groups, but as happens in institutions, the plan changed at the last minute. The first day we had two groups, seven and six, and the other three days we just had long sessions with the same kids. They didn't even want a break, just wanted to write.

So that's what we did. We wrote on specific topics, some I gave the kids and some they suggested. We wrote a couple of poems together. We wrote about some old snapshots I handed around. We played a ridiculous pass-around story game in writing. I read poems. They read poems. We wrote. We read aloud. We laughed. We talked. We wrote.

I was sorry to say goodbye today. The core group dropped to four, but these kids were dedicated to putting themselves on paper. They were respectful to me, to the librarians, to each other and to the writing. Though of course I hope this helped them in some way, I have no idea what they'll take from these four days--I'm not in charge of that. Still, I wish them all well.

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