A Boy, His Words, His Way

A Boy, His Words, His Way

Ruth E. Walker.

This time last year, I wrote about my annual experience at Durham Integrated Arts Camp, an 8-day arts-infused camp for Grades 7 – 12 students. Run by my local school board, DIAC is held at a private camp fairly close to my cottage.

I love going there. I teach an elective “Creative Words” where my students are encouraged to leave behind grammar and spelling worries and just focus on writing their words, their way. I tell them, “This is school but our focus together is on being creative with words. Exploring the craft of writing. Stretching our pens into richer territory as writers. Not worrying about the three-point paragraph.”

Daily Wordplay

I had 54 students split over three periods — and each day, we played with words. Exercises, experimentation and sharing work with each other. Partnered or in small groups, they would read selected excerpts to one another. I wanted them to gain confidence in reading their work aloud and offering each other feedback.

Every day, we ended with at least one timed freefall writing exercise. Freefall, originated by the great W.O. Mitchell (Mitchell’s Messy Method), means they follow the energy, don’t stop writing, don’t fix anything and even if they can’t think of what to write, that is exactly what they write.

I can’t think of what to write. I don’t know why Ruth is making me do this. I can’t stand it when people make me do stuff like this. Just like when…

And before they know it, they’re writing about something that catches their imagination. It’s great to watch them drop deeper and deeper into the zone of writing in freefall.

The Challenge

But there was one student who caught my attention.

Day One, he came into our old workshop building and sat himself as far as possible from all the others. Arms crossed, hood up and over his head and cowl raised to cover his mouth was a clear signal to the rest of us: I am not comfortable. And I’m not at all sure about this.

I’ve met this boy before. Well, not him exactly, but others who seemed like him. As a visiting artist at an alternative high school, many students would greet me in just this way. I was hopeful that my eventual success with them would help me here.

During the first freefall, I saw that he wrote very little. So I asked him quietly if I could help. “I can’t write without paying attention to grammar and spelling. It matters to me,” he said.

Spelling and grammar matter?!? I could have kissed him right there and then. But besides getting me fired for being completely inappropriate, it would have freaked him out. So I said “Write in whatever way works for you. I say it doesn’t matter about spelling and grammar to free people up but if it matters to you, then go ahead, pay attention to it. Remember: your words, your way.”

Day Two. Hood and cowl off. Still sitting separate but not as far away. Seems to be writing more.

Day Three. He comes into class, smiling over something someone had just said to him. Sits next to another student. I thought to myself, when this boy smiles, the room lights up. Cliché, I know. But it is exactly what I thought. Because it was true.

And here’s the best part of this day. It came time for sharing. By now, a few students volunteer to read to the whole room.

And he raises his hand. “I’ll read,” he says. Stands. Speaks his truth as captured on the page by his pen. Three seconds of silence as he sits back down and the room erupts in table thumping and cheers, and so many comments, we ran overtime. And his smile? Surely the glow illuminated the whole camp.

His Art, His Way

That glorious moment. That alone would have been enough to fuel my workshopping heart for years to come. But it was at Talent Night on Day Four that I learned as strong as his voice is on the page, there is another art that will claim his soul.

Imagine. A full set of drums, glistening red sides, gleaming cymbals and so on, on an otherwise bare stage. And my grammar-and-spelling camper sits at those drums, illuminated by the single spotlight. Nearly 450 campers in the audience, along with various instructors and staff. I recall thinking to myself “Oh, he drums. Hmm. That explains the excellent rhythm in his reading…”

The background music starts up. Something jazzy, if I recall. A moment spent thinking, well, isn’t this a nice surprise — he likes music with some depth, maturity…and then his drumsticks dive into the call and answer of the music. And the music, quite frankly, ceases to matter.

Have you ever seen Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich battle it out at the drums? Were you mesmerized by the 2014 film “Whiplash”? Have you felt the magic of TorQ Percussion vibrate into your bones?

Well, you may then have an inkling of what we experienced in that auditorium. His sticks flew, so fast, so hard, so exquisitely staccato that when one splintered off, part of it cartwheeling into the air, the cheers rose to the ceiling and came back down again. He didn’t stop for a nanosecond. His joy. His passion. His complete immersion in the zone was for us to watch and marvel at. This was no Grade 8 boy taking his first tentative steps on stage. This was a musician on the path to mastery and we were his witnesses.

The spontaneous standing ovation from his peers invited another glorious smile. More than acceptance, all of us in that auditorium were connected with the artist and he knew it. Many of us know what we saw that night. Years from now, we can say we were there when…

And how does this creative writing teacher feel about a young man’s clear gift as a writer being second fiddle to his drum kit? Fantastic. Who know what other gifts he’s harbouring? I’ll be back next year to see what I can discover.

Did You Know?

So many artists didn’t start out knowing they were meant to work in a particular medium. Or they were obligated to follow family footsteps while their hearts really belonged elsewhere. And some artists have more than one career.

The great American poet, William Carlos Williams was, for much of his life, Chief of Pediatrics at Passaic General Hospital. Vincent van Gogh tried being a missionary, teacher and art dealer before he discovered art school at age 27; ten years later, he committed suicide but left behind a remarkable legacy of iconic art.

Some writers take time to achieve publication. Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye) and ahead-of-her-time rule-breaker George Eliot  (a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans) both published their first books at age 40. Much beloved Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Theodore Geisel) was 33 when his first children’s book arrived on the shelves.

And some writers take a long time to find their voice. Anna Sewell was 57 years old when her first and only novel, Black Beauty was published. She died the following year but lived long enough to see the book’s initial success.

Whether you’re a teenager with a brilliant writing career mapped out or nearing retirement and thinking about that novel you always wanted to write, remember this great advice I got from an agent recently. “Age doesn’t matter very much in the publishing world. It’s the quality and marketability of the writing that matters.”

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.