There is nothing more powerful or moving than teenagers writing about things that matter to them. Real issues. Things like bullying, self-harm, peer pressure, sex, suicide and friendship. As adults, we can postulate about what these issues mean for young people and what we think should be done about them. We can incorporate them into our narrative plots, or write manuals and guides to address them. We can even write policy and legislation and ‘best practice’ benchmarks to deal with them. And we do.
But sitting back and listening as a teenage writer reads her story about bullying and self-harm and her teenage peers critique it, has to be one of the most powerful experiences I’ve been privileged to have as convener of young adult writers’ groups.
This particular writers group consists of twelve fourteen-year-old girls, and following on from our work last term on ‘writing what you know,’ this term we’ve been working on developing critiquing skills. Each of the participants wrote a narrative, with free choice over genre and plot, and then they each read their draft to the group for critiquing.
Anyone who has ever been a participant in a writers’ group understands the emotional impact of putting your work out there to be critiqued. It’s harrowing. Writing is a very subjective thing and as writers, we embed a little of ourselves into each piece we write, whether we realise it or not. We become close to and protective of our characters, our efforts, our work, and the more of ourselves we put into our writing, the more personal it becomes.
I’ve been in a writers’ group where a published adult writer lost the plot over what was quite constructive criticism. She could not cope with any criticism at all and fiercely defended her work by making personal attacks on the person who gave the critique. I’ve also seen an author direct a scathing online personal attack against a reviewer because she did not like his review of her book.
But back to my teen writers’ group. Though we’d talked a lot about the purpose and process of critiquing, I must admit I was nervous about how they might cope giving and receiving criticism at their age and stage of social and emotional development. But, as so often has happened as convener of these writers’ groups, I was blown away by their engagement with the process. Their insight was amazing, and the sensitivity with which they delivered their critiques was inspiring.
These kids adopted the principles of critiquing in such a mature and perceptive manner that they put some of the aforementioned adult writers to shame. They responded intuitively to their peers when they thought the writer may be sharing personal details, they were sensitive and supportive and encouraging of each other.
These kids are going to be amazing writers. I am in awe of them. And incredibly proud of them.