Thursday, September 4, 2014

Alumni Voices with Deborah Davis: Teen Inspiration

Every summer for the past six years I have taught five-day creative writing workshops for teenagers, eight to fourteen kids at a time. Most of the teens love to write: they'd craft stories, poems, and journal entries even if their parents didn't send them to writing camp. A few used to enjoy writing, until writing school assignments soured them on composing with words. My workshop aims to rekindle their interest in writing, help them discover or reconnect to a love of putting ideas into words, and build their confidence in both writing and reading their work aloud.

Working with teens is exhausting—but it’s also exhilarating. Planning exercises that are a match for their jet-propelled, angst-ridden energy and indomitable curiosity, and then writing with my students, I step out of my own comfort zones, reconnect to my own love of writing, and have a lot of fun.

Here are three things I do with my teen writers. I hope you use all three yourself—on your own, with your writers group, or with your own students, if you teach.

1. Adopt Jane’s Mantra
Thirty years ago free-writing instructor named Jane encouraged me to write whatever came into my own angst-ridden, yearning-to-write, 26-year-old brain—and then read my pages aloud to all the other workshop participants. If we tried to apologize before reading aloud, Jane would stop us. "Your writing isn't good or bad," she'd say in her Zen-like way. "It's just interesting." She taught us to examine our writing for their potential: what is interesting or compelling? What needs delving into? Which words are charged or dead or heavy on the page and need to be busted wide open--explored and expanded and developed?

I use Jane’s mantra with my teenage students. After saying it a time or two on Day 1 of the workshop, I rarely have to say it again. If anyone balks at reading or apologizes before they start, the other students chime in, encouraging the bashful, reluctant, or apologetic one: "Your writing isn't good or bad," they admonish each other gently. "It's just interesting!" The mantra makes us all fearless, gives us permission to trust every weird, slippery, or raucous idea that comes to us so that we can discover, when we read our work aloud or silently later, what intrigues us and what seems worth exploring.

2. Apply Pressure
Just as our characters need pressure to grow and change and take risks, so do we. One of my favorite workshop exercises is writing "minute poems." I give the group a word and then set a timer for one minute. In that minute, each writer writes a poem inspired by the given word. Any word works, and the resulting poems are often extraordinary. Like this one, by 17-year-old Emily:

that lemon just spoke.
I swear I'm not crazy
my mind might be hazy
and I know you won't check
'cause you're lazy.
But seriously,
that lemon is talking.
Writing minute poems is a great exercise by itself or as a way to warm up for other writing.

Apply pressure on yourself by setting a timer for other tasks as well. For instance, give yourself a specific assignment that pertains to your story—Write how Jean feels after seeing her brother die, or Summarize Bill's month in one paragraph, or Write the scene where Lulu discovers she's the lost princess of Aragondia—and set a timer for one minute, or five, or ten. See what you can do under pressure. You'll be amazed. And if you're not, well, set the timer and try again. And again. Watch your ideas pop like popcorn, fresh and fragrant and tantalizing.

3. Prop It Up!
Around Day 4 I ask everyone to bring in a wearable prop. They've brought, among other things, a feather boa, stunner glasses, spider gloves, a halo, cat ears, bunny ears, a martial arts sword, and a hamburger hat. Each of us chooses a prop and puts it on, and then we write, letting the prop influence or inspire us. A prop might enliven an ongoing story, or inspire a new action or character, or change the tone of a piece, or bump you out of your story so that you return to it refreshed.

Trying to write a sexy scene? Wear something sexy, or play music that feels sexy to you. Aiming for a humorous tone or creating a funny character? Wear something goofy. If it's danger you want to convey, place something potentially dangerous near you: a sharp knife, a bottle of pills, a container of bleach. Physical props--worn or kept at hand--stimulate our senses and our imagination.

By the time my teenage students leave at the end of the fifth day, I'm zonked, but I'm inspired. Like my students, I’ve generated pages of new writing and ideas, and I’ve laughed a lot.

So find that old feather boa, set the timer, tell yourself that your newest writing isn’t good or bad, it’s just interesting, and have some fun!


Deborah Davis is a 2012 graduate of the MFAC program and the author of several YA novels. She lives,writes and teaches in California. To learn more about her teaching and her books, check out her website.


  1. I love playing music to set the mood for my stories. I create a new playlist when beginning a project and sometimes listen to it even when I'm not writing. After a few listens, my brain starts associating the songs with my story and playing the mix helps me transition into the writing more easily.

  2. Great ideas! I teach writing to a slightly younger crowd, but I think the minute poems would be a great warm-up/loosening exercise for them (and for me, too!). Thanks for sharing. :)