OUTSIDE ALL CURRICULUMS – Teaching Teenagers Creative Writing

Margaret Atwood says that the origins of the writing personality lie in childhood, in a disposition to prefer living in the world of dreams and daydreams to living in the real world. Whether this is because one simply loves dreaming, or because your real world is too difficult a place, does not seem to matter too much in terms of writerly development. In other words, writers can come from any kind of childhood background.

Becoming a writer is not necessarily connected with voracious or precocious reading habits at first, although a deep, personal engagement with the books one discovers for oneself, outside of all curriculums, will have to happen at some stage, perhaps in mid-late teens or early adulthood.

I was very lucky in a number of ways that contributed to me heading in the direction of becoming a writer. My grandmother Julia Lordan nee Hennessy taught me to read from the Book of Revelations as a I lay a-glimmering beside her in the bed of her visionary old age. My imagination is still coloured by the carnival apocalypse of Revelations, that battlefront rave.

At the age of 3 my father Joe encouragingly showed me off around Fairfield Terrace reading excerpts from the Cork Examiner to my neighbours. I more or less gave up my own reading after I started primary school, which was a terrifying place. I was far too scared there to learn very much atall – besides how to keep my mouth shut and my true thoughts locked up inside me for a very long time.

I started writing poems at the age of 12, but I didn’t return to a serious engagement with books until I was 13 or 14, when I was no longer able or willing to keep quiet. The re-entry into the wonderlands of written literature was in through the out door of my musical obsessions; I read interviews with eloquent, quirky lyricists like Robert Smith, Frank Black, Jim Morrision and Morrissey, and read what they said they were reading – Camus, Henry Miller, John Fowles, Rimbaud, Plath. A bohemian syllabus, it’s true. I have to say how fortunate I feel to have grown up when it was natural & expected that literary teenagers would read such books and authors – all seem to have been silenced and forgotten now due to the full-spectrum-dominance of the YA phenomenon.

I had another huge stroke of writerly luck in that I lived on the very edge of the countryside. Behind my house, all the way to the windy Atlantic, lay miles of bog and wide, uncultivated stretches of land, ruined cottages, abandoned factories. Around here I roamed with old ghosts and young foxes, meeting the odd grazing goat or jennet belonging to travellers, whose ragged, goat-milking children were the Huckleberry Finns of my childhood.

I played in the ‘backfields’ from morning till night with my best friend Michael, engaged in an epic game called ‘The Game’ where we were the leaders of a utopian tribe of nomadic children in a world where everyone over the age of 18 had disappeared. ‘The Game’ went on daily for about 5 years, with plot twists by the hour.

A lot of writerly children write their first novels or film scripts in their heads while at play, whether alone or in playful collaboration. I try to bring as much free-roaming imaginary play into my creative writing classes for teens as possible.

I think it is the tendency towards populating the world with one’s own ongoing dreams for it, and thereby creatively transforming it, that qualifies one as a writer. Exam results, perfect attendance records, class background, social aptitude and so on are all only incidental relative to this primary urge to dream and re-dream things

I want to emphasize the point – to parents especially – that the bulk of my creativity in my childhood and teenage years came about outside of school and, to a great extent, in spite of it. In secondary school I was, for my own troubled reasons, a cheeky brat. I paid hardly any attention and was in trouble a lot. Kids who, for one reason another, don’t fit in in school, can benefit hugely from being taken seriously as creative beings in an outside normal school setting like a summer school.

After a week of being encouraged to explore and express themselves creatively in words, without fear of any kind of judgement, without any exam pressure, teenagers come up with some powerfully impressive work. Anyone who has attended the teen writing shows I have produced for the West Cork Literature Festival and the Dublin Writers Festival will agree with me there.

You don’t have to be a natural performer or a wisecracker like I was to be a good writer, though. Again, outside the normal school setting, in the company of other young people similarly exploring and sharing, ‘shy’ teenagers can bloom creatively just as remarkably as mouthy ones can.

For me, it’s all about the mix. I put a lot of thought into coming up with writing games and activities that allow everyone to participate at their own level and in their own way.

Two contemporary trends among creative teenagers which traditional ‘creative writing’ teaching in schools has often failed to take advantage of or engage with are multi-media creativity, and transdiscipline creativity. If a kid wants to bring their guitar, or any other instrument, and write songs, that’s cool with me. If they have an idea for a comic, or a graphic novel, or a computer game, they can work away on it in my class. Who knows – all together we might end up writing a comic book musical.

That’s the truly exciting thing for me about working with inspired kids – it’s impossible to predict at the start of the week what they will have come up with by the end – although we always do end up writing a couple of songs. In my summer schools, anything goes that has words in it. Believe me, it’s great craic.

There is no right way to be a writer. There is only your way to be a writer. In my classes with teenagers I try to encourage the development of the active imagination and the individual talent in each participant, guiding them to make whatever they wish to with these.

contact me for school/youth club bookings at dlordan@hotmail.com

Free Online Teen Writing camp led by me & Elizabeth Rose O’Callaghan this mid-term too – check link https://www.westcorkmusic.ie/events/2021/teen-writing-camp-murray-lordan/