This post, from Robert Nagle, originally appeared on Teleread on 7/23/09.
Quick: when you [were] a teenager, how fantastically awesome was your writing?
Imogene Russell Williams cautions young writers who wish to get started too early:
In your early teens, you’re not necessarily aware of how derivative your literary outpourings are, and the extent to which your reading shapes your writing; and you may not yet be sufficiently master of your own voice to take on high-falutin’ genres like fantasy and romance. (I speak from experience. At 13, I was passionately devoted to a high-fantasy epic featuring Dallien the dark prince, a charger called Bayard whom I’d pinched from Prince Caspian without realising it, and a large, coniferous forest – Mirkwood after the emigration of the spiders.)
(BTW, despite the boring name, the Guardian’s Book Blog is easily one of the best group litblogs on the Internet).
Williams mentions several recent teen works and even a work written by a 9 year old. She cites Diary of Anne Frank as the model, although that case was clearly extraordinary . (See also: Zlata Filipovic’s excellent Zlata’s Diary).
Now with printing/publishing costs becoming more affordable, lots of young kids have self-published interesting things as part of school projects. We can mock, but I would have loved to have a published book to keep in my scrapbook of memories. Instead I spent my creative efforts writing original Dungeon and Dragons adventure modules.
One obvious source of youthful creativity is blogging/journaling, but practically speaking, U.S. schools can’t sanction them or use them for class unless blogging sites are COPA-compliant. (I’ve been told that content filters on some school networks block blogging networks altogether). I suspect school districts subscribe to walled-off COPA-compliant student communities for students to share their writings. That shouldn’t discourage young people from journaling in the wild, but they have to do it on their own time. Schools and teachers can prep students for potential problems of online writing and help them to take reasonable precautions. But only the teen can take the important next step of actually starting an online journal.
It takes a few decades for a young person’s writing skills to develop. That’s not a reason for a student to put off writing. Far from it. Writing improves with practice. Even bad writing can record thoughts and feelings of a time period. (And if you don’t record them, these thoughts are gone forever). Perhaps people’s verbal skills before 20 aren’t optimal, but they are more than adequate to present facts and daily events. Sometimes in fact, inner city youth may have lots to write about but little motivation. (Projects like the Freedom Writers’ diary have tried to rectify this by encouraging students to write down their anxieties).