The other day my old friend Michelle called to ask me why I'm not doing a summer camp for young writers. The simple answer is: “That is a great idea. I would totally do that if I didn't have three kids of my own, a full-time job that I love, and a wife who has a full-time job that she loves that involves running an art camp for kids.”
Who better to do this, right? I used to be a camp counselor, unit director, assistant camp director for the YMCA. I started a program where we take college kids from all over the country into National Parks for a week at a time. I'm a writer with a couple of books published and one an a half manuscripts written and a dozen or so projects waiting in the wings. I'm a tenured college professor in English.
The longer I've thought about it, the longer I feel that kids need something for their writing like my wife offers, something like the theater program for kids my friend the quiet genius Michael Bahr runs in our town, something like the 826 Valencia program offers.
But I just can't do it right now. It would be at the sacrifice of too many other awesome things I've started but haven't finished, which might be the most important thing I could teach those kids. “You wanna be a writer? Fantastic. Learn to say no. Writing is a mostly solitary thing. You need to say no to everything but the most awesome invitations. Don't get rid of everything, but get rid of the dreck, the waste, the stupidity, the time sucks, the Snap Chat, and all the future things like Snap Chat. You need to be ruthless with your time. That is why there is no camp.”
Of course, that would be a terrible thing to say to these kids, most of whom have parents that have zero idea how to help a young artist of any type, much less a writer. I have two good friends where I work who help coordinate the efforts that go into science fair projects. They tell me stories of exasperated parents who know nothing of science because they are not scientists, and their projects suffer. I think the same must be true for the exasperated parents of budding artists and writers.
So, because I can start no camp at this point in my life, I've decided to create a list for the parents of young writers.
Ten Ways to Help the Emerging Young Writer in Your Life
1. Teach them to notice the out of the ordinary things in their every day world.
Many young writers think that writing is primarily an act of the imagination, which isn't exactly true. It's an act of observation. They need to become keen observers of people, textures, and details. They need to listen to other people talk and learn the rhythms of speech. Even if they want to write about the fantastic, they need to start in the world that surrounds them. You can't build a new world if you don't know how this one is built.
2. Encourage them to read against the grain.
Many young writers find a writer or a genre that they have fallen head-over-heels in love with. And when they do, they become monogamous. This comes at a time when they need breadth in their reading. Committing to one kind of reading puts them into an echo chamber. It's really hard to come up with something new when you're in that environment. At least half of their reading should be non-fiction: history, science, biography. Don't just tell them to do this, show them how. If you're a reading parent, chances are you're more set in your ways than you should be. Wink.
3. Make sure they keep a pen and paper with them at all times.
Okay, it doesn't matter if it's a pen or if it's paper, but they have to be able to capture ideas, because inspiration strikes without warning. And like desert rain, it dries up almost immediately. Young writers need to learn how to record these flashes of insight as they come, so they can sort them out later. As a parent, you can help encourage your child to become a deep thinker by talking to them about their insights and observations. Help them feel the value of their perspective. Their new and interesting thoughts may very likely set them apart socially, and they're going to need reinforcement from you that their unique way of thinking is wonderful and valuable, even if their peers don't get it. If they think like everyone else, no one will want to read their books.
4. Teach them to still their minds.
We live in a world that has fragmented our attention. The monkey mind is the default state for nearly everyone. Everyone needs training to still their minds, but writers might need it more than others. Distractibility keeps a writer from moving deeply enough into their work to make progress. You can easily find habits, practices, and tools that will work for your child. My wife and I have tried a few mindfulness podcasts with our kids, which give them simple guided meditations of about five to seven minutes, and our kids really like them.
5. Defend their creative time.
You're going to have to defend it from a million other distractions and commitments: YouTube, Minecraft, Social Media, and on and on. You also need to make them feel okay for wanting to hole up and write. That said, no writer is an island. They need to get out and move through the world to fight the echo chamber problem. As you defend their creative time, you need to teach them the importance of doing this, and you need to give them the tools to do so. Teach them to be organized, to keep a calendar, to keep their deadlines. If they are too busy, they will have no time in their schedule for spontaneity, which they'll need when the lightning of the muses strikes.
6. Teach them to take a punch.
I stole this one from Austin Kleon. Writing often begins as a solitary activity, but if they are to grow, they're going to have to share their work with others. If that work is to grow, they're going to have to learn how to take criticism without falling apart over it. Many young writers quit the minute the encounter indifference or opposition to their work. They need to become okay with this and then learn to treasure the outside perspective. It's probably okay for them to wait to learn that the world is often hostile to new ideas. There is a certain strength in the optimism of youth, and they should develop it as long as possible before the specter of cynicism creeps in.
7. Don't tell them they are talented.
They are going to want you to read their work, and you should, but you need to know what to say. The wrong kind of praise can be damning. If you're really serious about moving you kid forward, you should look into the work of Carol Dweck about fixed vs. growth mindsets and what that does to people's long term growth. In a nutshell, you need to focus on the work, and you should avoid telling them they are creative or talented and instead praise them for their efforts. This is called process praise, and it helps kids achieve more in the long run.
8. Watch this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert.
I think kids need to learn that published writers struggle with the same kinds of issues as do people who are just starting. I think it also could lead parents and kids into a great discussion about where ideas come from.
9. Watch this TEDed Video by Victor Wooten
This one is pretty much just for the parents, and while it’s focused on music, it’s connected directly to language acquisition and development. Wooten says some pretty incredible things about play leading to artistic development. Also, it’s just a great video, and it’s my most frequent Internet recommendation.
10. Be Publicly Creative in your Own Way.
Doing you own thing (and everyone has a thing) is best way to model the kinds of habits a young writer will need. You can lead really effectively without a lecture. Just show them what its like to be a person with a passion. You don’t have to do the same thing as they do, but it’s going to help if you show them that you’re out there in the world doing something. If they see you primarily as a consumer and not a creator, they’ll think that’s the ideal role. You don’t have to be a genius to make things. It’s actually most important for you to show them that it’s more satisfying to be active in this world than passive.
I hope this list helps. I don’t usually go in for this kind of click-bait structured thing, but it seems like a useful thing and a way of contributing. I’d love to know if you have any insights of your own in this matter. How do you help your kids do their thing? Share in the comments.