Susanne Dunlap

The Imagination of the Middle-School Girl

In The writing life, Writing Craft on January 8, 2011 at 1:53 pm

I just had the immense privilege of sharing some tips about writing, but mostly gaining wisdom for myself, with a group of ten lively middle-school girls in buffalo, new York.

The event was a writing workshop for prospective and incoming freshmen at the Buffalo Seminary, the high school I graduated from in 1972. I hadn’t been back to visit since then, never even going to reunions, in part because I straddled two classes: I entered in one class and accelerated to graduate a year early. But something made me reach out to my high school Alma mater and see if I could somehow do an event with them.

Aside from the poignant pleasures of revisiting the haunts of childhood and youth, I was eager to make connections with some potential young readers.

One thing led to another, and here I am.

The girls who attended came from a wide variety of schools in the Buffalo area, but they had in common a genuine interest in writing, and a passion for reading. They were all willing to speak up and share their thoughts. They listened to each other with respect and interest. They were attentive to me (although I spent as little time as possible doing the talking), and entered into the discussions and the writing exercise I gave them with true enthusiasm.

It was a heartwarming, encouraging, and enlightening experience. I split them into pairs and gave each pair an envelope with three or four pictures in it of people of different ages and types. They were to work them into a story, then come back together and share their inventions.

Each one was highly imaginative. I could never have predicted what they would come up with. No young person in their fictions had more than one living parent, and in at least one case, it was an evil stepmother. Dead bodies were littered all over the place. There were two cancer sufferers. Romance in most of them. A really inventive tale about an immortal Cleopatra who remained so by living off the life force of successive lovers over the centuries.

It was fabulous. I want to do it again, on a more protracted basis, and have a group write a novel together.

Most of all, everything I’ve done while I’ve been here has reminded me how spirited and imaginative young people are, how giving of themselves, how open and eager. At least these young people, who clearly have families who encourage and support them, and who are motivated and intelligent. Were there hints of darkness and confusion? All those dead bodies and illnesses were a hint. But being able to work through some of those issues with stories over which they had control, and where the outcome could be molded and cathartic, is surely a good thing.

What a responsibility parents, teachers, and mentors have to nurture creativity and self expression, not just because it’s an important intellectual exercise, but because, like creative play, it is part of how teens and preteens learn how to negotiate the world, find their place in it, and leave their indelible, individual stamp on humanity.

Thank you, everyone I met and worked with here in Buffalo.

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  1. My 13 year-old daughter is similarly creative. She attended a creative writing course at the Children’s Literature Centre here in Western Australia and had a great time. I wish you could have been one of the tutors! She would have loved your exercise. Yes – I have taught languages to pre-teens for a number of years can imagine how amazing the results of such a venture might be. The disclosure young women are willing to make is awesome, and very indicative of what their preoccupations are – I think that they do realise it, and write with it, rather than against it.
    I’m so glad you enjoyed the whole thing – it must have given you a fresh insight for your next YA novel. My daughter does list you as a favourite now.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Rosanne. I corrected an error in this post, but it doesn’t seem to have taken! I meant “protracted” not “protected!”

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