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Teenage Writers, Poetry Readings and What Matters

Mona, my high school senior AP English teacher, used to say that her dog was smarter than her students. She described how her dog would stick his head under her bed, his little backend exposed, and believe he was hiding his whole body because he couldn’t see her. And yet, he was smarter than “you people,” she’d say, sweeping her arm across the room. I’m not sure how she knew what her dog was thinking.

When I was in high school, I wanted to be among the smartest in my class. I wanted to be one who could go to a prestigious college. One who received particular notice from her teachers. Specifically, I wanted to kick ass in my AP Senior English class. I boldly signed up for AP because my friend, I’ll call her Mary Beth, was doing it and she was artsy and had the sophistication of a college student even when she was in the 8th grade and even as she’d go to the mall with me and squeal over all the pastel clothes that had become a thing in 1989. She had a don’t give a shit what people think attitude. She wore her brown hair drastically to the side, while the rest fell casually to her chin. She didn’t even try to puff her bangs, and she wore black sweaters, while I wore peach and light turquoise, that clung to her body in just the right, cool and appealing way. We’d sit at her kitchen table and talk to her mom who was always smoking a cigarette, and we’d roll the hot wax dripping from the candles between our fingertips until soft and cool.

I was going to impress Mona, my English teacher and impress Mary Beth along the way. She would see something special in me. As it turns out, Mona saw nothing special in me. (To this day, I don’t know what Mary Beth thought of me.) I was not a good writer at that point and yet, I wanted to be. I wanted to be like the poets who sat at the front of the college auditorium classrooms where my mother took my brother and me when I was barely aware of what they were even doing. I remember the way they’d sit on the stool and read their poems with a low, purposefully unspectacular tone that I knew, even at age five, was important. The men wore brown corduroy jackets and the women wore their hair in loose buns with wisps of hair falling around their cheeks and they crossed their legs in a way that made their one leg point toward the audience, the other resting on a rung of the stool. Their boots had the look of light brown leather of the chair I can imagine might have been in Earnest Hemmingway’s smokey writing room in Key West.

My academic abilities were similar to my volleyball abilities. I was not the best player, but I loved the game, and I’d practice my serving and passing against my garage door in high school for hours and hours after my coach made us run laps after a game ending in our slaughter and a mournful bus ride home. I became one of the star servers out of the sheer will to be so.

I seemed to be destined to want to be what didn’t come naturally, what I had to work for. A volleyball player. A writer. A woman married to a man.

In graduate school, my first writing teacher cracked me open with his harsh and shaming criticism of my writing - mechanics-wise. His flaying took me back to my high school days when I wanted to be smart and impressive and yet being told my intellectual abilities were barely smarter than a yippy dog playing hide and seek. Not that I didn’t need to be challenged on my writing in graduate school. That’s why I was there. To become a better fiction writer and reader of literature. Still, my teacher’s method made me feel less brave and capable, not more, to find my own path as a writer. And some of his feedback was simply his opinion, not the truth. I didn’t know that then, so for a while, I fell apart, wondering why I thought I could be a writer, an MFA student. I sat at my desk for hours, chewing ice and trying endlessly to find the right words, have perfect grammar, and craft my stories with the perfect amount of sentiment, the perfect arch, the perfect characterization, and ending. I was a nervous wreck most of the time, wanting desperately to measure up, to what exactly?

At 17 and 24, I was a prime target for my teachers’ misplaced pain, judgment, disillusionment, need for perfection. Mona’s meanness and inability to encourage and see the good in her students planted a seed, along with other life circumstances, in me that would take years to shed. I’m still shedding - like my son’s snake, Willow, always in some stage of shedding. I peer in at Willow sometimes and wonder why can’t he keep his skin for a while longer? Why can’t he be ok for longer? I walk away, oddly annoyed, and yet I have no right to question Willow, for my own skin is in the process of shedding, constantly and invisibly.

I think about teenagers now. I wonder how many of them are growing seeds of self-doubt – not of their own planting but by some peer comment, some interaction with a parent or teacher. I think about the dreams they carry and lose along the way. I think about teenagers struggling to keep their heads above water even without a global pandemic. They are struggling to keep the horizon of perspective and hope in their sights in the midst of the demands of school and on-going isolation.

Writing is a common subject to despise. I get why. If I didn’t have a built-in drive to be a writer, a mother who took me to poetry readings, if I didn’t have one college professor who believed in me and handed me the brochure for Bennington College Graduate Writing Seminars, I might not have imagined that writing would be part of my vocation and survival tool. I get why. It’s not easy to turn thoughts, ideas, arguments, persuasions, and stories that feel so brilliant on the inside of our brains into well-crafted pieces of writing. In fact, it’s painful sometimes. But it’s also exhilarating to find just the right words.

Because I know the pain and exhilaration so well, and because I have had both effective and ineffective mentors, I trust my instincts as an editor and coach for high school students. Not because I’m a perfect writer, but maybe precisely because I’m not. AND I know what it’s like to struggle and what it’s like to slowly find your way and I’m patient in the journey. AND I am passionate about the need for teenagers to leave high school feeling like capable writers. In the end, it only matters what we think and feel about ourselves.

For teenagers, I offer one-time services such as college essay applications or high school writing assignments, as well as monthly contractual fee-based services for students who want to be able to send writing to me weekly to review and meet on zoom or socially distanced at a coffee shop to talk about assignments and concerns.

Soon, I will be offering teenage writing workshops for youth who already love to write, whether fiction or non-fiction - and want to connect and learn with other emerging writers. These workshops are called TalkBack Writers and will offer periodic guided online space for young people to “talk back” to those things in their lives they are compelled to explore through creative writing.

Over time, I hope to expand TalkBack Writers to individuals of other ages, other life phases, who have different shit-turned-beautiful (or just shit) things they want to write about. The end goal will be determined by the group and sharing is never a requirement or even an underlying expectation. Because some people are oriented in-ward and others love to shine. Some people have to work extra hard and need extra time to bloom, to rise up and believe they deserve to be heard. It takes all kinds, Mona.

Shoot me an email if you have an interest in hearing more about my editing and coaching services or TalkBack Writers. Or simply leave comments of curiosity or resonance below!

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