Permission To Write, Ma’am? Granted!

Permission To Write, Ma’am? Granted!

20160606_091236Imagine a sprawling kids’ camp tucked into 60+ acres of hills and trees edging a clear lake. This Ontario cottage-country paradise has everything a kid could want.

Water sports. Mountain bikes. Pine cabins. Sports fields.

Pottery studio. Dance studio with a sprung floor. Professional performance theatre.

Pottery? Dance? Performance? At a kids’ camp?

You betcha. For decades, the Durham District School Board has transformed Camp White Pine into the Durham Integrated Arts Camp (DIAC). Like magic, the arts-focused Haliburton summer camp becomes an annual arts fest for Durham Region students and this year, 350 teens soaked it all in.

Senior and junior concert bands. Jazz bands. Ensembles. Songwriting. Drumming. Dancing and movement. Music theatre. Black light theatre. Improv.

Drawing. Painting. Pottery. Printmaking. Textile arts. Sculpture…

And creative writing.

Liberated voices

I’ve recently returned home from teaching Creative Words, an elective program for the Grades 7 to 12 students at DIAC. I had 35 students spread over 3 classes. It was spectacular, challenging, surprising and gratifying.

On day one, I told them “Creative Words is not about spelling. It’s not about grammar. It’s about your words, your way.” I don’t think they believed me at first but it didn’t take long for them to discover the joy of freefall writing, the depth that writing gets to when you use all five senses, and the value of “owning your words.”

I led the class in much the same way as I facilitate my adult workshops. The students were surprised when I said “no censorship” but then I reminded them that they still must respect each other and the words on the page. Every word has to be there for a reason, not just shock value.

By mid-week, students were clamouring for “more freefall” and willingly trying whatever crazy exercise I had them experiment with. I knew things were going to be okay when students charged into the studio declaring “I love this class!” And frankly, so did I.

“Trying on” words

Creative Words students used their own work in their culminating project, aptly called “Wear Your Words.” Selecting an excerpt from a piece they created — poems, stories, anthems– they wrote them on T-shirts. Some students had just a few words. A couple had pages’ worth of words. Several added images. And some chose to let their words stand alone. At the week’s-end celebration, a few bravely read their work in front of other campers, and three participated in a poetry slam. Most of the students wore their T-shirts to the celebration, and so did I.


I was immensely proud of my Creative Words students. All of them took risks. All of them wrote every day.

There were a few tears as we wrapped up. Some of those tears were mine because it is really an honour to be among young people who are exploring their narrative voice. For most of them, my workshop was the first time they had feedback from a professional writer. It’s an intense few days of exploration, discovery and acceptance. But encouraged to express their words, their way, they found their voice.

I didn’t discover my narrative voice until I was nearly 40. So I’m happy these young writers didn’t have to wait that long.

School with a difference 

DIAC-2016DIAC is a temporary school, complete with a principal, administrative staff and teachers. Granted, some of the teachers are on mountain bikes or in canoes, and some of us (me, for example) are guest instructors without teaching degrees, but it is school nonetheless. We take attendance. We have rules. But we also have fun. Best of all, we encourage students to explore their creative selves, to see themselves and the world in relation to arts and culture. And to celebrate all that it means. Because, after all, to an artist at heart, it means a lot.

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