Friday, May 27, 2016

Teens On Writing

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

In light of the call for article submissions we put out last week, I've been thinking about all the things teens could add to the writing conversation happening all around us.

Many of you know that I teach a mentoring class for teen writers. No, I'm not a teacher--that is, I've not chosen teaching as my profession. But I do have the glorious privilege of working with teen writers a couple times a year, and while I wasn't actively looking for the opportunity, I'm so glad it found me.

The school my kids attend requires each family to donate volunteer hours. No problem, right? Except that I have a fear of all things crafty. I was terrified volunteer hours meant that I'd have to spend hours cutting out paper hearts and gluing them onto bulletin boards--something nobody in their right minds wants me to do. When I found out the high school was looking for mentors--that I could talk writing and books with teens AND earn volunteer hours for it--I flipped.

Now, a couple times a year, I'm given a classroom full of teen writers. Way cool, right? For an entire quarter we hang out once a week, chatting about writing and the publishing industry. It's a dream, really. And while I have a lot to share with them, I'm finding that they have quite a few things to share with me.

This quarter's mentoring sessions wrapped up last week. Today, I thought I'd share a few things I've learned from these courageous, talented teen writers. Writers JUST. LIKE. YOU.

Academic achievements are awesome, but they're not an indicator of your storytelling ability.

In the very first mentoring class I taught, I had a student who was simply not cut out for the traditional classroom setting. He couldn't sit still. He frequently wandered around, often approaching me while I taught. Until I understood a little more about him, I struggled. He added a dynamic to the group I wasn't quite used to and I couldn't imagine he was getting anything out of the class at all. I worried that I wasn't reaching him and that he wouldn't be able to complete the three scenes he'd been assigned. 

But my worry was all for naught. A few weeks into the class, he began emailing me snippets of his writing and it was brilliant. He had an innate ability to tell stories and an instinct for structure. Not only that, but I could see how he was applying the things we learned in class. I couldn't see it when I spoke to him or when he was in the classroom setting, but it was all over the page. And it was very advanced.

I found out later that the traditional setting remained a poor fit for him and his parents opted to homeschool. I'm so glad he's getting the kind of schooling that works best for him and I'll never forget what he taught me. That academia is exceptionally important, but it cannot tell you a thing about your ability to tell stories. 

Bookstores are full of novels by authors from all different perspectives and backgrounds. Some hold fancy degrees and some do not. And still, something about each author's storytelling ability has landed them next to one another on that dusty bookstore shelf. It's the great equalizer--the shelf. These days the shelf is often digital, but the fact remains--your ability to tell a story cannot be defined by your academic achievements.

Readers make the best writers. 

Whenever I start a class, I always ask my teen writers what they're reading. Many of them are reading assigned books--classics for the most part. Which I adore! (If you're not reading classics, you so should.) But there are always one or two kids who rattle off a list of their favorite commercial fiction, books they're reading for the third or fourth time. Hunger Games or Harry Potter. Divergent or A Series of Unfortunate Events. These kids, the ones who think I don't know they're reading while I teach, are often the ones who surprise me with their writing. They LOVE story and so they soak it up whenever, however they can. And when they put pen to the page, story oozes out. Which brings me to another thing I've learned . . .

The things you read will absolutely shape what you write. 

Writing makes you a better writer, so I make my students write. I don't really know what I was expecting, but the first few times Pokemon showed up in our writing exercises, I was confused and amused. In all fairness, the first few classes I taught included sixth graders, but still. I didn't realize so many kids lived and breathed Pokemon. But every week, I'd unleash a prompt and these Pokemon fan fiction scenes would pop up all over the classroom. It reinforced a lesson I'd been taught again and again: the things we read become a part of our voice. They shape us. It's why I recommend reading widely. Read classics and contemporary commercial fiction. Read genre fiction and literary stuff. Read magazines and news articles. Read blogs and short stories. Read novels by the barrel. Read. Let your voice be informed. Because . . .

A teen writer's voice undergoes tremendous change during the high school years.  

One of the girls who was in my very first mentoring class took it again this last quarter. I get repeats a lot but she stood out so beautifully because her writing voice has grown tremendously. She's confident where she was unsure. She's brave where she was timid. She's skilled where she lacked finesse. She's read and studied and matured and, in all of that, her voice has blossomed. I trust your voice will do the same.

Other teen writers can be very supportive of their peers.

I do more than make my teen writers write. I make them read their work out loud too. It's important for an author to get in the habit of being vulnerable and sharing what they've written. I adore when friends volunteer other friends to share. I know most teachers don't, but it's this kind of shoving into the spotlight that introverted writers often need. Especially when everyone's waiting for SOMEONE to volunteer. It just takes one teen writer to break the ice before others realize that their work doesn't have to be perfect to be shared. And every time a teen writer shares, the support from those around them makes me proud to be part of the writing community.

And finally . . .

Story prompts and timers go together like PB&J.

Because I only have my students for one hour a week and because I want them to write when we're together, I always put them on a timer. I'll give them a story prompt and five minutes and, I swear, it's magic. The room fills with the noisy silence of pencils scraping away on paper and teenage brains whirring into action. When the five minutes are up, every student has something unique to share. It's been so effective that I've adopted the practice myself. When I'm stuck and I need to get the ideas flowing, I pull up a picture on the internet or a prompt from my Pinterest boards, and with the timer set to five minutes, I let my fingers fly. 

Magic, friends.

And while I've learned countless other things from my students, I think I've rambled enough for today. I hope you're all thinking about what you'd like to teach the writing community and I hope you'll consider our call for submissions.

Tell me, do you learn from your teen writer friends? What is it they've taught you?


  1. Being around other teen writers (even if it is just on the internet) is so encouraging. We're all cheering each other on, helping each other out--and I think that's what's going to make the teen blogging series here on GTW so successful. We're building each other up!

  2. I love being around teen writers. Sometimes I give them a paragraph or something from a story I'm writing and they give me tips and grammar corrections. I don't get to see my teen writing friends very often, but I love it when I do.
    Thank you so much for the post! I really feel like I should start doing more writing prompts, just to get me going a bit on my writing.
    I really love this blog! It's very encouraging and helpful!

  3. These are awesome!! I might have the opportunity to lead a writing workshop later this summer, so I'm soaking up the ideas in this post from that angle as well!

  4. This was an awesome post Mrs. Dittemore, I really enjoyed reading it! I love hanging out with my teenage writer friends, they always give me so much encouragement. One of the things my friends have taught me is to never give up,no matter how hard the going gets (even if they don't know they've taught me this XD).

  5. Hehe. Well. I don't really have any friends who like writing. In fact my BFF hates writing. She loves reading and reading what I write. (of course, after I polish it a little).
    Of course everyone on here is encouraging. Thanks for the great post!
    I also love reading. I do it every day along with writing. I read tons of stuff, historical, sci-fi, romance...ect.
    I enjoyed this post! Thanks, as always!

  6. Oh, how fun it must be to have face-to-face writing buddies!
    That said, I have one really great online writing buddy. We literally chat daily, easily a hundred messages each way a day. It's funny how much writing (and similarly wacky families) can bring writers together!

  7. Oh, how fun it must be to have face-to-face writing buddies!
    That said, I have one really great online writing buddy. We literally chat daily, easily a hundred messages each way a day. It's funny how much writing (and similarly wacky families) can bring writers together!

  8. In my experience, the teen writing community is one of the most accepting, friendly, and encouraging places. Unfortunately, a lot of teen activities which are more competative don't have a very friendly environment, but I was astounded when I found other teen writers who told me to go for it and gave me constructive and kind criticism and encouragement. Reading other peoples writing really helps you to get to know them, I think. So I think that it's really eye opening to read other people's writing; it helps you understand what they feel, believe, and have to deal with on a daily basis. That kind of insight is really good because it creates strong relationships between people when they most need them.

  9. I loved reading this post so much! Especially the point that our writing styles and voices are influenced by what we read... No wonder I was so inspired to write stories about girls in the 1880s when I was still a 3rd grader as I was really into the Laura Ingalls Wilder books :P

  10. Thanks for sharing this! Absolutely agree that your reading shapes your writing!