by Ellen Orleans
Teenagers are nothing if not unique. What challenges and excites one student, bores, terrifies, or frustrates another. For this reason, when leading youth writing workshops, I rely on a variety of approaches and structures.
For the last two years, in addition to teaching creative writing to general teen groups, I've also been working with gay, lesbian, bi and transgender youth. As a lesbian myself, I am very much at home with these students. Despite their tattoos, piercings, and cropped and flanged hair, I feel close to them. My ease has everything to do with how honest I can be. In these classes, I share my coming out experiences and talk about my queer-themed writings without worry that parents or school board members are out to scrutinize, fire, or sue me for "recruiting" their sons and daughters.
That said, your first consideration when teaching GLBT-themed creative writing workshops has nothing to do with writing style, tone, or topics. It has to do with comfort levels. As teachers, the first comfort level we must look at is our own. We don’t have be “experts” to lead GLBTA writing workshops, but we must be comfortable enough to stay present during heated discussions or stony silences. If we are not "queer-competent"--if we don’t exude a straightforward demeanor and familiarity with current queer concerns-- students will register our hesitancy and either clam up or act out.
Secondly, as instructors we need to create a safe space in which students can be out. Often, this is only possible in a closed container such as a Gay/Straight Alliance occurring outside the classroom, where attendance is voluntary, and participants, while questioning or unsure, are supportive of GLBTA people.
In a classroom setting, you’ll likely have students who don’t feel safe being out. Since it’s imperative not to put anyone on the spot, you may have to rely on students who are “once removed” from the topic; that is, those who have gay friends or family. It may be helpful to bring in a second adult, perhaps a school counselor or out GLBT adult.
If the conversation turns malicious or reverts to self-conscious joking, you’ll need the presence of mind to name what is happening and to discuss it with the students. I often use questions to reframe the discussion. For instance, “When I hear perverted or sick as descriptions for gay people, I feel angry. What kinds of emotions are other people feeling?”
Another way to guide the discussion is with examples of parallel oppressions. For example, you might say, “When I was in high school, I was made to feel like an outsider because I was Jewish. What similar themes of difference and exclusion might be going on here?”
Once you’ve created a safe space, consider how you can encourage a creative one. By creative I mean not only original and inspired, but generative as well. I usually emphasize that the workshop is not about grammar, sentence structure, or a clear thesis. Instead, it’s about self-exploration. Writing out our thoughts moves them from unconsciousness to awareness. Writing can be a first step in recognizing pain, need, and fear. It can also be a first step in healing.
Since your workshops will include students with a range of sexual orientations and identities, include prompts, questions, and samples that different students can relate to, ones that represent students who are gay, have gay friends or family, or have questions about what it means to be gay. (That covers just about everyone!) Actually, when you look closely at “gay” topics, you’ll find they’re really about universal themes such as honesty, duplicity, change, doubt, fear, joy, and connection.
I remember Gregory.
I remember sweat, laughter, and two new haircuts.
I remember wondering.
I remember laughter turning to anger.
I remember panic.
I remember shutting down.
I remember a frozen pond.
I remember snow shovels encased in ice.
I remember ache.
I remember nothing.
Now that you’ve got your safe, creative space set up, how do you get your students to actually write? To encourage them, I offer exercises designed to circumvent that pernicious internal critic. For instance, if I ask students to “write a poem,” many teens automatically worry about being profound, lyrical, or witty. However, if I ask them to write a list poem, for example, their guards drop. Lists—laundry lists, packing lists, class rosters—are common place. With such an ordinary frame work in place (and with fewer preconceived notions) reluctant students write more easily.
A well-known list poem consists of the single phrase, “I Remember….,” repeated 10 to 15 times. Students complete the phrase with a sentence, phrase or single word. Here’s an example.
Even students who hate to write love the Ten Things I Hate list poem. Last year, I was particularly moved by a transgender teen who, as part of his “Ten Things I Hate” poem, wrote, “The Iraq War. The Bush Administration. My chest.” The unexpected shift from the political to the personal made this poem really pop.
Although a good list poem can stand on its own, as a follow-up I often ask students to choose one line and write more about it. This gives them an automatically interesting topic and the opportunity to explore further.
Another poetic style I teach is called a Diamante (pronounced Dee-a-mon-tay). A diamond-shaped poem of seven lines, the diamante works well for students who don’t think of themselves as “creative.” The diamante begins with a noun and ends with a related noun. In between, it goes like this.
running, joking, exploring
playful, curious, ridiculed, ostracized,
doubting, withdrawing, withholding
Line 1: Topic noun
Line 2: Two adjectives that describe Line 1
Line 3: Three -ing verbs that describe Line 1
Line 4: Four adjectives: the first two describe Line 1.
The second two adjectives describe Line 7
Line 5: Three -ing verbs that describe Line 7
Line 6: Two adjectives that describe Line 7
Line 7: Synonym, antonym, variant, or repeat of Line 1
As a follow-up, ask students to write their diamantes on a chalkboard or on sheets of paper posted around the classroom. Then invite everyone to walk around, read each other’s work, and comment on them using sticky notes.
Word prompts give students a starting point for their writing. Choose words that are emotionally loaded or have multiple levels of meaning. Students can start their writing with the word or phrase, or use it two or three times in their work, or simply write about it. Here are prompts I’ve used in the past.
Popular. Outsider. Gifted. Discreet.
They say I'm not a normal boy.
“That’s not ladylike.”
The one place I can be myself is…
The first person I told.
Why I didn’t want anyone to know.Something you should know about my sister.
“It’s only a phase.”
“This will just kill your mother.”
“You don’t look like one.”
Successful prompts are open-ended and not preachy (students can tell when they are being manipulated). The ones above are applicable all kinds of non-conformity and difference. To what topics can you see these sentences being applied? Try comparing a straight student’s response to Why I didn’t want anyone to know with that of a gay student. Even though the two may be writing on completely different topics, their writing might share similar emotions around secrecy and trust. This can be a first step toward dissolving barriers and fears.
Many students who don’t like writing do like to give advice. In this exercise, I hand out advice column type questions for students to answer. While the responses might not be highly literary, they are often terrific discussion starters. You can also ask students to write their own questions. Here are some examples to get you started:
My friend of mine told me he’s gay. Now I feel funny hanging out with him. Will people think I’m gay too?
I’m a lesbian but if my father ever found out, he’d kill me. What should I do?
A friend of mine from the swim team told me she’s bisexual. Now, I feel strange undressing in front of her. I’m not homophobic, but…
Biologically, I’m female, but I’ve felt like a boy my whole life. My parents say I’m going through a phase, and am a victim of society’s sexism. It’s more complicated than that. I want to go to a different school where I can enroll as a male. How do I convince them?
My religion says that being gay is wrong, but I also know I’m supposed to “love my neighbor.” What do I do?
I’m a straight female with short hair who dresses kind of butch. Everyone thinks I’m a dyke. I don’t care, but I do want to date guys. How do I break through assumptions without conforming to an archaic dress code?
My parents divorced three years ago and I’m pretty sure my father is dating a guy. I’m not crazy about it, but the worst thing is he thinks me and my sister don’t know. Any ideas?
I’m a 17-year-old gay senior who’s attracted to a 26 -year-old man. My friends say he’s too old but I like him a lot. Is it okay to date him?
In any discussion about GLBT concerns, to support queer students, it’s crucial that workshops not turn into referendums on the “morality” of being gay. Ask students to write from their hearts and their own experiences, not from rhetoric they’ve heard. It’s okay to be honest, but also respectful. A good writing class raises doubts, admits fears, sheds light, and, perhaps most importantly, gives hope.
Ellen Orleans, MFA, is a teacher, the author of several books and owner of Night Owl Writing and Design, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has a previous article on Serendip, "Money, Homes and Trust: Economic Diversity Issues at Wild Sage."