Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Unconventional Art of Writing

Warning: Venting session. Help me understand!

A few weeks ago, I participated at a youth summit sponsored by Ceasefire here in Chicago. This is the first time I’ve ever participated in an event of this magnitude. Now, I’ve lived in the city’s urban neighborhoods my whole life. From Chicago’s Westside, to Chicago’s South side. I’ve heard the horror stories of what our youth face in today’s streets. I’ve known someone, or know someone who knows someone, whose been murdered by violence. I’ve worked with youth in some form so I “know” what they are going through. And yet, I know nothing.

Entering the church, where the event was held, I noticed that there were three seating sections parted by rope. We were instructed that the visitors, or non-gang members, will be seated in the middle because two rival gangs would be joining us for the event. Okay…I thought in my head. My nineteen year old nephew, who reluctantly joined me at this event, gave me a look like …what the heck did you get me into. I smiled at him and told him it was okay. I knew the organizers. It was fine. We sat.

The youth began trickling in. First, kids who looked from ages 10 – fourteen sat in the middle. And then two busses brought the others. One gang went left, the other right, and sat. I held my breath. These were kids. Some wore their hats tilted left, others right. They wore baggy pants and jackets. Most had earrings, but they all could not hide from their baby faces. They were kids. The youngest was twelve, maybe. While we waited, one gang began representing to the other and a scuffle ensued. It was cleared out right away with the assistance of a dozen or so security and police officers.

Then, the real program began; the individual youth had a chance to speak their thoughts. It was an open dialogue to address the violence in our neighborhoods. A girl, no more than twelve, was the first to speak. She was tall, wore a team jacket, and mismatched socks. Her hand was trembling and she kept her eyes to the adults on stage. She went on to tell us that she was approached by two female gang members who threatened her should she not represent their gang and took off with her gold chain. She said that her older brother used to pick her up from school, before he was gun down.

A boy followed her, a short white kid with curly blond hair that fell to his eyes. He looked ten, if that. He told us that he was in worse shape than the other kids because he’s white and he sticks out amongst the groups in his neighborhood.

The leaders of the summit proposed no answers, just truth. A gang member in attendance went up and admitted that he has done some terrible things. His accent thick with slang, I couldn’t pick up all he had to say. He did say, however, that dying for the streets is senseless. But what else is there?

I share this with you because these are the children we have forgotten. These are the children that are filled with stories waiting to be told, to be acknowledged. We can point fingers at a system that doesn’t work, at dead beat parents, at them for choosing the wrong path, but that doesn’t make the problem go away.

With all that said, I started looking at youth programs available in these neighborhoods. I even went to one to check it out. They have a great afterschool program, a great arts program that consists of dancing, music, theatre, art design, and set design. I asked, what about writing. The director scrunched his brow as if he had no clue what I was talking about.

“You know,” he said. “I don’t think our kids write.”

I quote because those words burned into me. I refuse to believe that our kids—or more specific those kids—don’t write. How many times have we, as writers in our own youth, or even now, picked up pen to paper to relieve some of our own trauma? How many times have we wrote and burned diaries, how many times have we felt relieved to have an outlet like writing.

And so, I am on a mission. I want to challenge our youth to write. I want to teach them that writing is a form of art. I want to create a curriculum that can meet their needs. It’s not meant to be a therapeutic group, though I’m sure they will probably have powerful stories to write. It’s not meant to be an educational group, though I’m sure they will learn. It is meant to be an art group.

This idea is in its infancy, as you can tell.

So, what do you think, is writing an art? Should it have its fair share in the spotlight?


  1. writing is definitely an art, just as painting or playing an instrument is an art. Pretty much everyone can cook an egg, but not everyone can write a story. That said I think your idea is hugely inspiring and it seems I've heard something about similar efforts that were successful. Your aim may be to produce art, I suspect more will come of it than that. Damn, I almost wish I lived in Chicago to partner up with you! Good luck!

  2. Writing is art, it's therapy, it's communication, it's emotion. These kids could benefit from it more than anyone else I could imagine. My son teaches disadvantaged kids at a KIPP school in Texas, and the writing these kids do is amazing. Best to you in this awesome project. Please let me know if I can do anything to help.

  3. Put down the weapons and pick up a pen or pencil. That got to me, the child that said, "what else is there". Writing to me is painting with words. Oh yes, an art. The stories coming out of the children may help them to not explode but rather to drizzle out their stories. Rap music is a form of poetry and expression, whatever it is they want to write.

  4. Thanks Marcy, and please if you know of any resources, or brains I can pick, feel feel to bump them my way.

    Hi Karen, I would love to pick your sons brain with my idea. I already have an organization I'm targeting, I just need to find a curriculum to start with. I'm pretty sure it'll change once the class gets going. I want this to be youth led so I don't lose them. I'll shoot you an email. Thanks! I'm so excited. I want to keep this momentum going.

    Thanks Basque-Land! It's funny you mentioned poetry because when I ask kids about writing as an art, it's all they come up with--poetry.

    Thanks again!

  5. Writing an art? Well of course it is. Anything that you use to express yourself through is an art. Words can be a medium just as paint and canvas.

    I think this could turn out to be a really wonderful, life fulfilling porject. I really hope it comes to fruition for you. I really think every school needs a program such as this, and it isn't just enough to make the kids take English classes, but writing class.

    Ans a reminder, you signed up for my blogfest that's happening in less than two weeks. ;)


  6. Imagine the amazing things that would be written if these kids all wrote! I do think that writing is under appreciated as an art form, rather than merely entertainment for "smart people" or sources for movie ideas.

  7. Thanks Jodi!

    Hanny, I agree. It's an afterthought, if that.

    ** Keeping fingers crossed that I can do this. I'll be sure to keep you updated. Thanks everyone!


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