Finding the right words
Four intense weeks at a summer creative writing camp taught Chelsea, 14, that writing is hard work.
I can’t remember a time when I haven’t loved writing. I wrote my first story in kindergarten, and after that I wrote everywhere: math class, music lessons and long car rides. I’ve written about an old lady who dies and sees her husband again in the afterlife and about a guy whose parents were acrobats. I love the infinite possibilities of what I can do with words.
But I have always had trouble showing people my writing. At school other students would read their poems loudly and clearly, even if they weren’t perfect. But when I had to read my hands would sweat and my throat would close up. I was afraid that everyone would laugh at me. I wanted, and still want, to be a published writer. I realized at the end of eighth grade that to be a writer, I would have to share my work.
So this past summer I found the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA), a month-long arts program for teens, in which you live on the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) campus in Valencia. The creative writing program sounded amazing and like something that could help me overcome my fear. I submitted five writing samples, two teacher recommendations and a school counselor’s signature to apply.
Would I be a good enough writer?
After driving an hour from our house in L.A. to Valencia last summer, my mom and I stopped for lunch. I was trembling. Would my roommates like me? Would my teachers like me? What if I got there and my writing was awful compared to everyone else’s? Luckily, my roommates Justine, Cassandra, Nicolle and I immediately became close friends. They were creative writers too.
The second day, all creative writers attended a meeting. Traci, one of the teachers, introduced us to the other instructors: Zay Amsbury, a playwright and CSSSA alum whose works had been performed at the Impact Theatre in Berkeley; Tina Royer, a community college professor who was writing a memoir; and Julia Connor, poet laureate of Sacramento. They each presented the classes they’d be teaching. Classes met five days a week. I wanted to take Julia’s Poem of Origin class, which she explained would help us “see into ourselves, and our souls.” I was so excited to have such experienced writers as teachers. I was also nervous to have to read in front of them. But this was what I was here for, right, to learn from professional writers?
Our first Poem of Origin class was intimidating but amazing. Julia’s eyes sparkled when she talked about poetry and she seemed so wise. She treated us like equals, not students, because we were writers too. She told us that all writers have a large, fuzzy black monkey on their shoulders that whispers insults in their ears as they write. This made so much sense. There were times when I wouldn’t write, because I didn’t think I could do it well. She told us that the only way you can truly write is by ignoring the monkey, and letting yourself write with no boundaries or ego. Julia also emphasized that good writing had to have style and craft, and how writing was much harder to do than just putting feelings down on a page. I had always thought that good writing just came naturally to talented writers, and I didn’t think of it as being difficult for professional writers. I realized then that I would have to do drafts and drafts of my poetry to make it exactly how I wanted it to be. It made me feel a little scared, but excited and motivated too.
Then she showed us a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks titled “We Real Cool.”
“We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Julia used this poem to teach us “enjambment,” which is when you put the first few words of a sentence on the line above the rest of the sentence. She also taught us to read the line breaks, which had never occurred to me. At the end of each line of the poem you stop. For example: “We real cool. We (pause) left school. We (pause) …”
This changes the way every poem sounds when you read it aloud. From then on, all of my poems used enjambment. I loved the way I could make the poem sound any way I wanted. If I were trying to make the poem more aggressive, I could use short choppy line breaks, to give emphasis to every word.
Then Julia had all of us write a story about an aunt who is a compulsive kisser. We couldn’t take our pens off the page for five minutes. I glanced around, some people were already writing, and some were looking around blankly, like me. I panicked. I wrote whatever came to mind. When Julia told us to share, everyone looked around nervously. I wasn’t the only one who was scared to read. A section of what I read (rather quietly and taking breaths every few lines) included, “I tread forward warily, wondering whether I had the authority to escape. Defying her small stature, she scooped me up into her arms, and her sticky wet lips pressed hard against my cheek. I writhed painfully, shrieking as she plastered sloppy kisses all over my face.”
After reading, I sat down without looking at anyone. My stomach started to hurt, and my face was flushed. “I bet it was awful,” I thought. “No one liked it.” But Julia looked up at me and smiled. She mentioned that she liked my imagery, but that some sections were awkward. I felt relieved, because everyone received about the same amount of good and bad comments.
My other class was with Zay Amsbury. In this class, we were supposed to learn all aspects of writing, from prose to poetry to playwriting. It was equally amazing and even scarier.
Our first assignment was to write about the first memory in which we were mad at our parents, but from the point of view of ourselves at that age. My first memory was when I was 4. It was hard to start. I ended up sitting in my dorm room, staring at a blank page of notebook paper for two hours.
Cassandra, who was also in Zay’s class, was doing the same. How could I write as a 4-year-old? It seemed impossible, until I thought about journals I had written when I was 6 or 7. When I started to write my story I tried to copy the simplicity of that writing. I learned from this writing exercise that I had to completely understand characters before I wrote about them. The next day, we went around the room and shared our stories. A lot of the other writers and Zay liked mine—they laughed in all the right places. I started to feel a little more confident.
But the critiques in Zay’s class got much harsher and soon I felt like they were attacking my writing and me. On one of my next assignments, Zay and the other writers told me that I was trying too hard to describe things (I was). Zay said that he didn’t understand the characters. It was a letdown, because earlier in Zay’s class I got compliments on my character development. “Be more simple. Be more streamlined,” he said. I felt a little bit like I was going to choke, and I stayed silent, calming myself down as I nodded and said, “OK.” But I was upset, and felt like my writing was awful.
I learned that the criticism wasn’t personal
Later in the dorm, Cassandra talked about how she had gotten a harsh critique as well and even though it was kind of scary, it made her want to improve. She showed me that I had no reason to be upset. I told everyone else my honest opinions about their writing, and they did the same for me, to help me. And I did improve, drastically. Zay’s class contributed the most to helping me overcome my fear of sharing my writing. We were forced to share (in Julia’s class it was voluntary) even if we didn’t think it was good, or if it wasn’t finished. In the beginning, everyone got a lot of criticisms from Zay, but as time went on, we were given more compliments as well.
In both classes, I started to recognize my own writing habits, like my tendency to over-describe things and to repeat lines in poetry for emphasis. The critique was really helpful, because all the writers in my class could point out things I hadn’t noticed, like an unintentional rhyme, strange grammar, or sections that just sounded a little bit awkward. Also, no one was allowed to say the phrase “I liked it.” That taught us to find specific reasons for why we did or didn’t like someone’s writing. I could say something like, “I felt like I was in your poem,” or “I think you should add more details.” At first I was uncomfortable, and would just give compliments because I didn’t want to make anyone feel bad, but eventually I learned how to give criticism well.
My writing became clearer, and I started to think the critique was thoughtful and refreshing. At school, English was my best subject, and I hardly ever got criticism from other students, and my teachers would give me As on all of my essays. But my writing didn’t improve as much. We’d go over the same concepts over and over again, and I felt bored writing in the same styles, like persuasive essays or research papers.
The ultimate purpose of the Poem of Origin class was to create our own Poem of Origin, which was eight to 11 poems we wrote and combined into one continuous poem. We were given prompts to write poems about our memories, ancestors and selves. Some of these included poems about the first memory of a room, in the point of view of an ancestor, about our family relationships, and memories of 9/11. For my 9/11 poem I wrote about my indifference to the whole situation (I was in third grade), and for the first memory of a room, I wrote about my room in our family’s old house in Venice.
By the end of the four weeks, my Poem of Origin had become nine poems long. During the last week, I spent all my free time working on it in the library. In Julia’s class, I began to think about small memories that I had forgotten. These little things inspired me, and I wanted to write more and more and make my Poem of Origin 20 poems long.
In our last class meeting, anyone who wanted to could read part of their Poem of Origin aloud. I read a couple poems. All of the finished writing was amazing, and we applauded for everyone. The applause made me feel great, because I felt like I had written all of the poems well, and that my writing wasn’t “weird” or “stupid.” This was when I noticed that a big change had come over me. I could breathe when I read, and I didn’t get clammy or twitchy. I had no problem critiquing others’ writing, and I had no trouble sharing my own.
And in a bang, CSSSA ended. The other creative writers and I formed the Writer’s Assault Project (to assault the world with our writing!). We decided to meet every month so we could stay in touch and continue to work on our writing, which still continues. I hugged all my new friends, roommates and teachers. I couldn’t stop sobbing the entire way home. I wanted to move back into my dorm and stay there forever, because I knew I wouldn’t get the experiences I had found there anywhere else.
In addition to creative writing, the CSSSA program offers film, visual arts, dance, theater, animation and music classes. To apply, go online to www.innerspark.us/application.html.
For questions, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (916) 274-5815.
Applications for 2008 must be postmarked by February 29, 2008.
Cost of tuition for California residents: $1,415. Financial aid is available.
Program Dates: July 12 thru August 8, 2008.