By Emily J Weitz
Writing is a solitary endeavor. Sometimes, so is high school. But for a group of Pierson kids drawn together by the Jeanette Sarkisian Teen Writing Workshop, writing has come to mean friendship, collaboration, and undying support. In the octagonal front room of the John Jermain Library, we met weekly. We gathered around two pizzas and shared the ups and downs of another week growing up in Sag Harbor. Then I’d throw them a writing prompt or just unleash them into their creative worlds. They introduced me to the truths that made up their days as well as the fiction that gave them escape. And this Sunday, May 22, at 1:30 p.m., they’ll be sharing this wisdom with anyone who would like to listen. They’ll read from an anthology they’ve put together, which consists of poems, short stories, and plays.
When I started working with this group, which had between four and eight students per week, I immediately noticed their diversity. Not just in the way they looked, but in their ages, their places in the social framework of school, their learning styles and requirements, the subject matter they addressed in their writing. But as the weeks turned into months and our bonds solidified, I realized that the differences became less and less important. And what started to matter was their common respect for one another. They were so supportive of each other’s work: listening, giving feedback, gleaning inspiration. It was beautiful.
“At first I thought it would just be a hobby,” says Jessie, one of the regular members since day one. “I like to write but I never had the opportunity to go out and talk with people about it.”
This community aspect is something that often takes writers years, even decades, to find. It’s what writers conferences and MFA programs are all about. Having that kind of feedback gives your writing a degree of substance that doesn’t exist when it’s all in your own mind.
“With the constructive criticism,” says Jessie, “my writing has changed. I had the opportunity to edit and to write how I feel and what I want.”
Chance, another group regular, agreed that he’s seen a change in his writing.
“I have more of an attention span for writing than I did. Normally I would give up after a couple of paragraphs; but now, not trying to see the bigger picture as much as I normally would have, helped me go farther.”
When asked how it felt to have his peers listen to his work and give feedback, Chance said, “That was the part I looked forward to the most. I wasn’t used to sharing creative stuff with peers. It felt good… And our group was really supportive.”
They were. Reading from your own work exposes you to great vulnerability. But they never took advantage of that. They listened, and they commented, always starting with the good. Their writing got better, their voices got stronger, and their relationships got closer.
In this way, the writing group became about something more than writing.
“My parents are getting divorced,” says Jessie, “and this became a place where I could connect with people. Knowing there were people there supporting me with everything I did was reassuring. I got addicted to it.”
Luca, the youngest member of the crew, adds “To me the writing class was a fun and crazy way to forget about every problem and share all the secret worlds evolving in my head. We made jokes and funny comments, and even made stories together!”
These stories she refers to were her idea: joint writing ventures where one person would start a story and as soon as he or she was done, the next person would pick it up. We saw stories evolve from a huddle of high school girls to an alien invading Earth and back in minutes.
One of the most important aspects of the writing group was freedom. I wanted them to come because they wanted to write, and more than anything, I wanted them to continue to want to write. So they wrote about whatever they wanted, and they were always free to ignore my prompts. As a result, the anthology we’ve put together is wildly original, with haikus inspired by sci-fi characters, short stories about the Palestinian conflict, and plays set in the world of Japanese ninjas.
“I loved the freedom,” says Jessie. Luca agrees. “Unlike the world that we had to live in every other day,” she says, “instead of hearing ‘No’ we heard ‘Why?’”