Friday, December 28, 2007

Writopia Lab Proudly Presents...

Posted by Rebecca Wallace-Segall

This exceptional memoir was written by Writopia Lab writer Leanna S. She started writing it during a 2007 summer writing workshop, continued developing it during her fall and winter workshops, and read an earlier version of it as part of the Barnes & Noble event. Leanna's writing style, honesty, and insight has moved everyone who has had the pleasure of reading or hearing her most recent piece. I am so proud to be able to share it with our blog readers!

By Leanna S.
8th Grader & 2007 Scholastic Silver Key Winner

Receding Tides
Waves lapped gently against the shore, and a cool breeze flowed through the open window. Ripples cast by the wind danced across the tranquil ocean and my brother’s deep breaths echoed through the bedroom. I was only eight at the time, and my dad and I were speaking in gentle whispers at our house in Long Beach. August was coming to a close, and the new school year was drawing inexorably nearer. I had been eagerly anticipating my brother Ethan’s company in school that year: picturing myself as a superior third grader stopping to wave to my little brother in the hall like so many of my other friends had done to their younger siblings. The stillness of the moment made it so serene, but the lull of my dad’s voice brought me back into the moment.

“Ethan just doesn’t understand things the way you and I do, which is why he is going to Churchill and not Heschel,” my dad told me. “He doesn’t learn things in the way that the rest of us do.”

At that moment, I didn’t really have an understanding of what I had just been told. At eight years old, perhaps I hadn’t really started to comprehend what the more significant ramifications of living with a sibling with learning disabilities would entail. But from what I had understood, I was upset at every image of Ethan and I at school together being crushed, gone, and finished like the ocean receded back into the tide.

Looking back on this, my inability to anticipate what might emanate from an event like this is surprising. Later I would discover that our attendance of different schools made up a marginal fraction of the disappointment I would experience next.

Over the course of the preceding year, my parents, with the help of a slew of occupational therapists had diagnosed my brother with learning disabilities, and they had been faced with the challenge of finding a special school that would cater to his special needs.

September opened with me at Heschel for third grade, and my brother at Churchill starting kindergarten – no significant changes, as we had been attending different schools thus far in our lives. Like the ominous calm of the ocean in the morning I had remembered so well from the house in Long Beach, the year had for the most part slipped by, untouched and unnoticed.

But when Ethan entered first grade, things changed.

The first year of homework. My brother had always been particularly gifted in reading, math, English, social studies… basically any subject offered in a first grade class you could think of, my brother could do. You would think my brother would have had a pretty easy time, but he couldn’t apply the skills that had come so naturally to him to his class work, simply because he felt no incentive to do so.

Then came the rise of the reward system.
My parents began to offer my brother a reward, sometimes a new game boy cartridge, or an inexpensive toy that my brother had his eye on, in exchange for a week of completing homework and class work on time and without protest. Later this reward system extended beyond the confines of homework and class work. Gifts were offered to my brother on a regular basis for things as simple as getting dressed in the morning, and getting to bed on time at night.

Ethan had gotten into the habit of making these annoying sounds, and in order to get my brother to control those impulses, they started rewarding him when he stopped with the sounds. I remember one Saturday Ethan had just walked his friend Orli to the door after they had spent the afternoon together. The slam of our front door meant two things: the end of Orli’s visit, and the beginning of my brother’s irritating fortissimo. I heard my brother’s feet thudding away from the door as he burst through the house with a tornado of energy imitating a Nintendo character, probably a character in his new Game Cube game he recently received for stopping making the noise. I practically exploded with rage—I knew my brother was capable of controlling what my parents thought were “involuntary noises” because all afternoon when he was with Orli they had stopped, but as soon as she left he chose to start with the sounds again. I was furious with my parents for rewarding my brother for something so infantile, furthermore, something he was unmistakably competent of restraining.

I was ten years old at the time, and I didn’t understand that my brother needed further incentive to do certain things, but I did notice that my parent were rewarding my brother for things like getting dressed and doing his homework, things they had taken for granted when I did.

As time went on, so did the reward system, and I began to get angry. I didn’t care that my brother was getting all these neat toys and gadgets; I was just utterly baffled and furious at the fact that I wasn’t receiving such attention. I tried to coax myself into believing that I didn’t need those sorts of rewards. C’mon Leanna, you don’t need any stupid game boy cartridges to do your math homework, or any buzz lightyear water gun to get to bed on time, or sometimes, Leanna, that’s so infantile, don’t be like Ethan, don’t let him and his stupid prizes bog you down.

But over time anger just morphed into plain jealousy, jealousy no amount of buttering up to myself would be able to fix. I knew the truth was that Ethan’s “stupid rewards” had gotten me embroiled in a conflict, and I wanted those childish rewards for going to bed on time, whether I really needed that kind of motivation was lost in the conflict. With every new reward, I grew more insanely jealous, my parents tried to explain their motivations behind the system, and to some degree, I understood my brother’s lack of incentive, but any sort of understanding was wasted on my complete and utter resentfulness for the reward system for Ethan’s seemingly trivial accomplishments.

The reward system bothered me, but Ethan never received anything I actually wanted until we got our laptops. Well, until he got his laptop. For many months two years ago I had been studying and preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, and I used some of the gift money I had received to buy myself a laptop. A few weeks after my expenditure, my parents bought Ethan a laptop for particularly good work in school, something I paid for out of my own pocket, but something Ethan received for seemingly (or what seemed to me as) effortless endeavors. I wasn’t jealous; I was just seething with rage. It didn’t make sense to me that my parents who had been trying to teach both of us money management skills would go ahead and deprive me of a laptop, and at the same time take money our of their own pockets so my brother (and frankly, I don’t think it was so necessary that he have his own computer in the third grade) could have one.

Over time, anger and jealousy transformed into sadness—the sadness of loss, as I was beginning to be exposed to exactly what I was missing out on in having a brother like Ethan. As my brother and I got older, and I began to spend more time at friend’s houses with their younger siblings, I noticed that their relationships with their younger siblings were a lot different than the way Ethan and I would interact with each other. My friends would involve their siblings in board games, like Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit, and on occasion when I would stay over for dinner, oft times involved younger siblings in debates while they ate. I was over at my best friend’s house, and we were all taking part in a discussion about communism, particularly enjoying the insight of her brother, who is only a few months younger than Ethan. But at my house, over Friday night dinner, my parents and I were sharing summer camp experiences, and of course, Ethan feels it is absolutely necessary that he interject with an intriguing account of when he and his friends pelted the girls’ bunks with rocks, a tale he later informed us was completely made up.

My dad and I had always been enthusiastic about living room board games, namely Scrabble, and an occasional game of Monopoly. When my brother was younger, my dad and I played alone, but over the past couple of years, when my brother was eight or nine, we’ve tried to included him in our Saturday afternoon Scrabble games, only to be disappointed when his interest in the game is short-lived. When we would play Scrabble about halfway through the game Ethan would say, “I’m bored,” or “I’m tired,” and excuse himself from the table and run to his room. In Monopoly, he lost interest toward the beginning of the game, so my dad would start helping manage his money because Monopoly is no fun with only two people. This prompted me to implement the rule, “No financial advisors in Monopoly.” More often than not, this sent Ethan crying to his room saying, “Leanna, you’re just a sore loser and both of you don’t want me to play.” Ethan grew tired of our games so quickly, which indicated to us that he didn’t have the patience to play.

I had never been interested in the kind of learning disability Ethan had, I guess something about knowing what he had was a little discerning, it was almost as if knowing what he had would make it all more real. But as of lately, I’ve seen some of my parents’ books lying around; titles include Parenting with ADHD, and advice on how to give “positive discipline.” For about a year or so, Ethan has been on a medication that helps him control his impulses and helps him pay attention, usually I wake up when the medicine has already started to kick in, so usually we are together when the medicine gets the best of him.

Recently we vacationed in Vancouver, where Ethan and I shared a room and were spending a lot more time together than usual. On our trip, I witnessed what Ethan was like before the medication kicked in.

It was a nightmare.

Ethan would always wake up so early, and in the midst of rummaging through his backpack to find something to do (which of course he did in the most inconsiderate fashion) he invariably woke me up. I was not very pleased with this early morning jolt, and it didn’t help that Ethan had already started with the noises and was seemingly incapable of responding to the word, “Stop.” He had a retort for every comment I could possibly, and the noises and the comebacks in collaboration with the early hour got me fuming.

I yelled at him.

That got mom and dad’s attention through the connecting door. Dad came in and told Ethan to stop, and of course, with the direction from my dad, he discontinued the sounds. He told Ethan to please leave and get dressed in the other room, and Ethan padded out of the room like the innocent little angel he could feign so well.

I was sitting on the bed, and my dad stood up next to me. Almost like a huge wave about to come crashing down on me, I had nowhere to run to, I knew what was coming. “Lee, you can’t get so angry like that. You have to understand that you can’t get from zero to 60. You need to learn to manage that anger. Do you get that heated up with your friends?”

Well of course I don’t! They never do anything to set me over the edge like that obnoxious little creep. He’s the one with the problem—so instead of understanding what a pain he is, you’re going to try to diagnose me with anger management issues!

But of course I couldn’t say that, unless I wanted a week of allowance dockage, maybe two.

“Okay, I’ll try to control it more next time.”

“It makes me sad to see you two treating each other like that. One day, you guys will need each other, to make grave decisions, to commiserate with each other when me and mom aren’t around anymore, and to share happy occasions, and it’s important that you don’t treat each other like that.”

“Sorry, I said I’d try to control myself next time.”

At that moment I was more than furious. If he was sad that me and Ethan may not be able to make those sorts of grave decisions together one day, then I was devastated. He is my brother, so I’m doing the decision making with him, and not dad.

This is where the memoir ended when I read it at Barnes & Noble in front of my dad and 50 other adults at a reading my writing class sponsored.

As I read I saw my dad grinning in his seat, and occasionally we exchanged nervous smiles. When I took my seat next to him after I came down from the podium, I was most taken aback by his reaction. “It was good. Just it was an overstatement. An exaggeration. At least in some parts. When have I ever rewarded Ethan for getting dressed in the morning?”

I explained that it was a reflection of my experience, and that he was perfectly capable of recording his own perception of what happened in his own memoir. After the reading nothing had changed, except for the occasional texts that my dad sent to my cell phone saying, “Now I’m the poster boy for bad parenting.”

But a month or so later, after my parent teacher conference, my dad left me a message saying how proud he was, and that he took notes to show to my grandparents. During dinner they told me what a privilege it was to have been able to come and hear the teachers at the conferences. That night my parents came home with an iTunes gift card to show me just how proud they were. That weekend my dad ordered me two books, and when I asked him why, he responded with, “No reason.”

My writing teacher asked how it felt, to receive a reward in the same way my brother did. “I dunno…” I said. “It felt weird.” The gifts wouldn’t help me do better in school, I thought to myself. I wasn’t going to work harder because I knew that in the end my parents would have a present for me. It’s weird, rather, that this sort of thing works for Ethan, that an inanimate object could provide an incentive and represent the pride of my parents after an accomplishment. But on the other hand, I guess it was always nice for him to know that someone would buy him something just because they were proud.

“Weird?” She asked.

“Yeah. Like good-weird. Kinda like I didn’t deserve it.”
Read more!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Back to Public School WEEK THREE

Posted by Rebecca Wallace-Segall

Sick, low-energy, and achy, I headed out this morning to a public school on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn with antibiotics in tow to lead the third session of a 12-week memoir project. The school hired me to provide creative writing enrichment for their freshmen. After a tough first week, I began to feel like I was making headway last week.

But, unfortunately, things (at least at first) didn't seem as bright today:


Three students appeared for the first time who hadn't been in school for the previous sessions; another three left their essays at home; two decided that they needed to change the entire focus of their essay; one still had a blank page; there was a general feeling of restlessness in the room; I barely had a voice.

So this is what Ms. S., the classroom teacher, and I did:

1) She and I quickly motioned and nodded as she took the new kids to the side and brought them up to speed.

2) The most vocal trouble-makers and I joked around for about half a minute... (They're funny :-) and I laugh easily). When they began to look straight at me I knew they were ready to begin. I called on the same rowdy bunch by name, and asked them several questions about their memoirs--which really means about the personal details of their lives. They began to calm; others began to listen.

3) Finally, two or three other students volunteered to read the current drafts of their memoirs out loud. (Which was fewer than last time, but better than none...)

4) One boy suddenly found his missing draft.

Once the new kids were updated, Ms. S and I rotated around the room to speak individually with each kid, to read a draft if they had one, or to help them flesh out the specifics of their narratives.

What I learned:

Many of them, it turned out, were struggling with writing scenes with dialogue. They didn't think they had done it "right." As I read each one, though, I found that the opposite was true: almost every single one of them had clearly captured distinct voices, humor, or strong emotion on paper in their scenes. True, the dialogue wasn't executed with technical prowess, but I automatically skipped over that part--and realized in that moment that I should have skipped explaining it in the first place. (It may have only served to intimidate them.) Then: Ms. S. explained to me after class that she has tried teaching technical writing of that sort before and that the kids have a lot of trouble with it. But it was extraordinary how easily the story-telling part came to them. The lesson: They have to fall in love with that part before they invest hours of their lives working through the challenging, technical part. My Goal: I hope that they feel that it's worth the work in the end.

THE CAVEAT AND THE PLAN: The principal is trying to get the the school's computer system fixed by January so the kids will be able to type their memoirs into computers by the end of my session with them. One of the students has a computer at home--the other few hundred rely on the moody school network. If the repair goes as planned, though, I will review the proper technical way of writing dialogue with each one privately then as they transcribe their work.)

At the end of the session today, I asked the kids to add more description of face and body language to the dialogue they had written and to write a third paragraph on the emotional context of the piece: how close they were with their cousin who died; how much time they had spent or didn't spend with their dad before he went to jail; how often they saw their grandmother before she passed away; how long they dated their boyfriend before the brutal break-up. They seemed back on track.

Ms. S. made copies of each draft this time, and then gave them back their work to take home. Her in-classroom-warmth and complete involvement seems to be central to the success of this personal-journey type project.

(I will write about group two next week.)
Read more!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I was Tagged in a Game of Holiday Blogger Tag

Last week, blogger and author Debbie Siegel, over at
Girl with Pen tagged me in a "meme," which is funny word for a game of blogger tag. J.K. Gayle at Speakeristic had created a meme, and tagged Debbie.

These are the questions Speakeristic posed to whoever is "it": "Who are the teachers who have most personally influenced you and how?" This post is a public "thank you!" to them all..."

So here I go:

1) My first editor at the Village Voice, David Holmberg, gave me the confidence to love my voice on paper and shared with me these empowering words: "It takes three things to make a successful writer: talent, luck, and enterprise." Thank you, David :-)

2) The women's studies department head at SUNY Albany, Biologist Bonnie Spanier, who has helped to teach generations of young women to think critically. And my favorite political science professor in graduate school, Bernard Brown, for having us read Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. Through readings and discussion, both Spanier and Brown revealed the impossibility of objectivity. It is humbling (and, I would say, vital) for any writer/journalist/teacher to understand the implications of that idea...

3) The Writopia Lab and public school students I work with regularly who teach me a blog-full of insights every day. Thanks guys :-).

I tag:
Mark Wallace at 3PointD
Mia at Mint Jelly
Matt at Matt-a-matical Thinking
Eduwonkette at Eduwonkette
NYC Educator at NYC Educator
Lily Loring at Gotham Girl
Prof Jeff at The Linguistics Club
Read more!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Poetry Slam--Now That's a Competition

Posted by Rebecca Wallace-Segall
(I added a thought and query at the end of this post on Monday, 12/18)

It was the finals. Some of the girls were as young as 13, and barely 5' tall. As start time approached, they sat with their heads bowed low and knees shaking, awaiting the lights to dim.

Of the 12 teenage girls who would perform for an audience and for five judges, five would join
girlstory's team and perform/compete in Washington DC this summer at the beloved national poetry slam. As I took in this scene, I became baffled at the idea of people publicly judging the highly sensitive work of these young vulnerable girls.

And then: Each young girl took the mic, and like holograms, transformed into large, wizened mothers defying age, race, and nationality.

It was the first poetry slam I had been to in years. I hadn't expected to be let in to such private spaces; to feel so much power and pain; to be brought to tears... three times. The girls had written poetic, mostly autobiographical monologues and then applied theatrical techniques to their poetry. The result was mesmerizing.

In the end, several of the performers were clearly more mature and studied than others; and some had clearly chosen better poems to perform. I agreed fully with the judges' choices.

But, as the announcement of the winners was made, seven girls stood defeated on stage--the youngest one completely sullen. She had once again become the small nervous young girl I had seen before the show. Is the judging part really necessary? I thought to myself again.

So, after the event, I decided to talk to a competitive kid about it: my 14-year-old cousin. She is a ballroom dancer, and I have watched her ride similar emotional roller coasters at her competitions. She had invited us to this poetry slam, since her friend was one of the performers:

"Sam, why do events like this one--and like ballroom dancing--need a competitive element?.. I mean, you love dancing and you have so much pride. Wouldn't you work as hard at dancing for just a performance?"



"I don't know, it just wouldn't be as interesting.


"Interesting... It wouldn't be as exciting."

"So you really do not think you would work as hard?"

"Definitely not."

"What about how bad you feel when you don't do well?"

"When you lose, you can sulk around for a little while, but then you just know that you have to work that much harder. And when you win, Becca, it's a better feeling than any performance can ever give you."

As a kid, I didn't thrive under the spotlight, nor under public scrutiny. But it seems that some kids do. I would love, in particular, to hear from young--or older--poetry slam performers on this topic.
Read more!

Friday, December 14, 2007

First Video Games, Now Poker for Good

Posted by Rebecca Wallace-Segall

NY Times writer Gary Rivlin reported this week on a professor and a group of Harvard Law students who formed an organization this fall — the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society — dedicated to demonstrating that poker has educational benefits.

From the article:

They argue that the game, which is probability-based and requires risk assessment, situational analysis and a gift for reading people, can be an effective teaching tool, whether for middle school math or in business and law classes.

“I see great advantage in hitting kids as early as sixth grade, when they’re dropping out of math,” said Charles R. Nesson, the Harvard Law School professor who began the society with a group of his students. “I’m thinking of kids who are into their video games but instead of Halo-3 and World of Warcraft, we lead them into a game environment that has real intellectual depth to it, and feeds their curiosity rather than snuffs it out.”

Teen writer Peter Cohen, a sophomore at Stuyvesant High School, and, um, a video-game veteran comes to mind again. Peter plays chess during lunch, debates competitively after school, and plays lots of Halo-3 during many of his other waking hours. While the Harvard Law students allegedly use Poker to help sharpen their minds, Peter uses his gaming prowess for good as well: he has written several award-winning pieces inspired by his on-screen battles.

Since the internet brought poker, high-tech video games, and social websites into millions of homes--and classrooms--across America, creative approaches to learning have become imperative.

I played poker once and was amazed at how complex and mind-engaging it was. Kids who struggle through probability, statistics, and even basic mathematics often complain: "And what is the point of all this?" It seems valuable to show them how relevant (and fun) applied mathematics can be.

But there are some things to consider while venturing down these new roads:
1) Not all young people have the same healthy response to various forms of gaming;
2) Educators can modify an openness to multimedia learning based on each kids' sensibilities/and monitor students to different degrees;
3) But, most importantly, while progressive education can be the most demanding, challenging, and risky for both students and educators... it remains the most promising.

Read more!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Back in Public School WEEK TWO

Posted by Rebecca Wallace-Segall

I anxiously headed out this morning to a public school on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to lead the second session of a 12-week memoir project. The school hired me to provide creative writing enrichment for their freshmen--and I was pretty confident that I had failed to do so in the first week. But the principal told me something poignant and painful as I was leaving: "The kids are all level-one writers, so they expect to fail this project."

I realized in that moment that their resistance to writing was more of a call for help than an act of fundamental disinterest or rebellion.

So with that, at first things turned around today:


As I came in, the kids sat down and placed the first paragraphs of their memoirs in front of them on their desks. (They had dutifully done them for homework at the prodding of their teacher.) They were quiet and nervous. And staring at me.

"Would anyone like to share?" I asked. One boy tentatively raised his hand. He read his paragraph about his friend who recently became addicted to drugs. I pointed out what was excellent about it. Then, one by one, the others shared their stories aloud: a fatal shooting one witnessed in a park; the murder of an 8-year-old niece; several incarcerations of brothers and parents; the close bond between one writer and his grandmother; the importance of friendship.

Normally when I give feedback, I begin with what I love most and then discuss what could be improved. But I decided in this case to do the constructive part privately. Each 5-minute one-on-one ended with a declaration that they knew where they were going next in their memoir. Towards the end of class, we discussed how to clearly convey a conversation between two people in writing--and then I asked them to add a scene with "dialogue" in the next paragraph of their memoirs. They thoughtfully nodded. It felt so good to see the contentment in their faces... But then...


No one had worked on their memoirs since the previous week, and there were no signs of what they had started last time either. By the end of the period, my throat hurt from teaching--and from begging for quiet--above chatting and tapping and banging and laughing and dancing.

But at one point, the loudest kid interrupted me as I was discussing how to write dialogue: "What? So if you say something, and then your mama say something, and then you say something, you start a new paragraph each time?!" Surprised (and happy) by her unexpected interest-doused-in-outrage, I picked up a novel off the shelf, found a page with dialogue, and showed her. "Damn, I get it!" she shouted. And then she quietly began writing a scene in her memoir.

By the end, most of them had found a piece of paper and writing utensil and had quietly put their thoughts to paper for at least ten minutes. I went around the room and read each one's writing and told them how great it was. And then I collected all of the work at the end of class so they wouldn't have to start from scratch again next week.

I don't expect this group to write long, polished memoirs, or that the other group is going to come in next week with perfectly constructed scenes with dialogue. But I do feel confident that most of the kids in both classes are going to get something out of the project. Which is a big change of thought from last week. I wonder if this will be a roller coast ride or if it's only going to get better.
Read more!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Meeting Jaida Jones: 20-Year-Old Published Author

I attended an open house today at Scholastic's headquarters in Soho in order to field questions from inquiring parents, teachers, and kids about The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. (I am one of the writing competition's judges.) It was as fun and interesting as it always is to meet inspired young people.

But the most surprising part of the event was meeting Hannah Jones (AKA Jaida Jones), a 20-year-old co-author of the forthcoming book, Havemercy.

This is her amazing story: In her early teens, Hannah Jones excitedly entered her hard won prose into the Scholastic writing contest. Sadly, she didn't receive any "keys" or even an honorable mention. She tried again over the next few years. And again and again, nothing.

But Hannah knew she was meant to be a writer, and so naturally she kept on writing.

Finally, in Hannah's junior and senior years of high school, she was recognized not only regionally, but also nationally by the Scholastic judges. And by her junior year at Barnard, Hannah and her co-author Danielle Bennett sold their first book. (Hannah writes under the name Jaida Jones.)

Hannah was excited to learn about Writopia Lab and said she would blog for us about her perseverance, the unusual writing process she and Bennett employed in order to create a novel together, and the story of their first book deal.

Look out for her upcoming post! Read more!

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Comedy Writer on Strike

(The following post was contributed by Steve Young, a television writer for Late Night with David Letterman, and the father of star Writopia Lab writer, Rebecca Shubert. He also wrote The Simpsons episode "Hurricane Neddy" and won an Annie Award in 2000 for his screenplay that was produced by Matt Groening, Drew Barrymore and Fox Family Films. He has been generous enough to share his thoughts with us on the life of the TV comedy writer--and on the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike.)

Hello, Writopia Community!

I’m honored to have the chance to offer my observations on being a professional comedy writer. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have time to write this, because I’d be working 12 hours a day writing funny stuff for television. But since early November I’ve found myself with a lot more time. I’m a member of the Writers Guild of America, and I’m on strike.

I’ve been a writer for “Late Show With David Letterman” (and before that, “Late Night With David Letterman”) since 1990. It’s a peculiar kind of writing. The assignments constantly change as new needs and emergencies arise. Within an average hour, I might switch from writing jokes for the Top Ten List to coming up with new ideas for something to do outside with a camera to writing a script for some live bit on the show to writing phony “Fun Facts” to writing a script for something to shoot with Dave after the show…plus I’ll be running to the edit room to oversee the production of a fake commercial or meeting with Dave to refine the monologue. It’s a lot of pressure, and I don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to hit. When something’s needed, my mind has to be able to start churning out material right away.

Most of what we writers come up with doesn’t make it onto the show. Thousands of jokes and ideas get tossed aside each week. That can be depressing, but we get used to it. Despite the shockingly high rejection rate, there’s practically nobody else on the planet who can do this particular job the way it needs to be done. If we’re not funny or productive enough, we can be let go every 13 weeks, but for those who can handle the job, it can be fun, exhausting--and lucrative.

Part of the reason we’re paid well is the Writers Guild of America. TV and movie writers who work on Guild-covered projects get benefits and protections we wouldn’t have otherwise, like a pension and health insurance, minimum pay per week or per script, and residuals. In case you’re not familiar with residuals, they’re payments we receive when a show or movie is re-run or sold on DVD. Residuals are the main reason we’re on strike. The big companies are always looking for ways to pay us less, and now, with the rise of the internet, they think they’ve found it.

You can buy shows and movies on iTunes or watch episodes on a network’s website. We’re not getting paid when this happens. The big companies are making boatloads of money (and boasting about it to their shareholders), but then they turn around and tell us it’s too soon to see if the internet will be profitable. Our position is, simply, if you make money from our work, we should make money too. This isn’t an attempt to grab more cash. We’re just trying to replace the residuals we’re losing as the business changes and everything switches to the internet.

Years ago, we took a bad deal on DVD’s—writers get about 4 cents from every DVD sold—because we trusted the companies when they said they’d do a new deal if DVD’s turned out to be profitable. Well, guess what. DVD’s ended up being a goldmine, but somehow, the companies never got around to revisiting the bad deal. We won’t get fooled again.

The internet isn’t the only issue in this strike. We’re still trying to fix that bad DVD deal, and we’re working to get other kinds of shows covered by the Guild. We want to unionize more animation writers. And we’re fighting to get jurisdiction over reality shows, which right now are the television equivalent of sweatshops. We need to move ahead on a lot of things, but the big media companies are hoping to push us further back.

It’s true that some Writers Guild members make good money. However, 48% of WGA members don’t make the $31,000 a year required to earn health insurance coverage. At any given time, half the Guild membership isn’t employed. Residuals enable writers to survive in the months or even years between jobs. I’ve been very lucky in having a long-term steady job, but I know that may not always be the case. I’m on strike to fight for other writers, present and future, as well for as my own future.

Now instead of writing jokes about Britney Spears, President Bush, or the New York Jets, I’m marching on a picket line several days a week. Even though it’s often cold and grim, I’ve enjoyed catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. Despite the socializing and free coffee and donuts, it’s not really a party. People are getting hurt by this strike. But we all agree it’s a fight we have to continue and win if being a TV/movie/internet writer is to be a decent profession in the decades ahead.

What’s that? You’re saying “He doesn’t seem very funny for a comedy writer”? Yeah, sorry, I wanted to make sure I got all the serious stuff covered. After all, maybe someday these issues will affect you. But rest assured, I’m still hilarious. Check out and see how we’re keeping our comedy muscles toned with strike-related humor. Also, visit for more information about the strike and the issues involved. And finally, visit if you’d like to view an online museum of condiment packets.

Feel free to ask any questions about comedy writing or the strike.

-Steve Young
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Yay, Motivation!

By Emma G.
(8th grader, 2007 silver keys winner for short story)

I loved Dan’s last piece and it made me start thinking about my own encounters with procrastination. When it comes to academic areas--homework, tests, getting forms signed--I’m on top of it, I get things done. I guess you could call me a motivated person where tangible goals or rewards are concerned. I don’t consider procrastinating an option when I have something to work towards--a grade, for example. So even though I have always loved creative writing (outside of school), it was never an area where I was motivated--because I never had a tangible goal.

Once I discovered Scholastic's writing contest, I became motivated--I had a goal to set for myself.

I didn't even care about winning the little "silver key" to pin on my collar. I actually was totally confident I would lose. I just knew that there was a publicized deadline, and that others would be disappointed if the story was not finished by mid-January. In fact, still, the greatest satisfaction comes from printing my story for the final time, reading it over, in awe that these words, this completed story is mine. I am an author… well sort of.

I have always associated satisfaction with grades and words of praise. Looking at a to-do list I would always leave me-stuff: reading, scrap booking, and, of course, writing, to the end, rationalizing this with “what am I going to get for doing stuff for myself?” Well, the scholastic contest gave me an answer. For the first time I sat down at a computer and just typed, immersing myself in my stories, working for weeks on end. And, when January arrived in flurries of snow and days locked in my study with my stories and a cup of tea, I finally finished my piece, titling my last version “Emma’s FINISHED version of story”. It was edited, had an end, and I had never known that print could be so beautiful.

I want to become a writer when I grow up… so I guess it doesn’t make sense that writing was often not a main concern. Lately it has become a priority though, as not finishing is no longer an option. I have even taken to writing “Work on story” in my homework planner, just to remind myself that I have a goal in mind, and that goal will not be fulfilled by always leaving writing to the those five minutes between math homework and studying for science.

Everything I have done with Rebecca, especially workshops, have taught me something that was reinforced about a week ago. My mom went to a wake for a woman who worked in her office, the switchboard operator. “It was interesting,” she mused. “They had a photo montage and there were lots of pictures of her and her family, her and her friends, but no pictures of her behind the desk, at the switchboard. I guess in the end all that work you put into your job, that’s not always what even matters most.”
I know studies, homework, tests, etc. are essential but sometimes even more important are family game night, a phone conversation with your best friend, or just sitting at the computer and writing a story. If I grow up to be a writer I’m not going to be writing stories about my math homework… I’ll write stories about those special everyday life experiences that often plunge towards the bottom of my to-do list.
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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Pro-crastination Vs. Dead-lines

Posted by Dan Kitrosser: Playwright, WL Teacher, Funny Guy Extraordinaire

I am very bad at getting things together. Even as I write this blog, it is after, weeks, dare I say, months of Rebecca asking me to do it. In fact, I was supposed to do it an hour ago, but then I got a phone call, and I had to schedule a rehearsal, and one actor in a reading of my new play wanted to switch parts, and then other things happened. I had to go to the bathroom, and then my roommate came home. Even now, I'm stalling getting to the point. My procastination defines me in a way that I think is unique and profound, and that other people think is exhausting and irritating.

So why am I telling you about this? What is the virtue of my proctrastination?

I'll say this. Whenever I think about myself as a writer, and about myself as a procrastinator, I think about that inevitble moment when I do complete something, when it needs to be done and how that motivates the spirit and the artist. And I think about (here it comes, the reason for the rambling preamble) the 2002 Philadelphia Young Playwrights Festival. I was 18 when I won for my play "be here now," which went on to be a finalist in Stephen Sondheim's National Playwriting Competition. I don't win things often. I've never won a raffle, or a lottery. I'm terrible at video games, and then there's sports. Ahh, sports. To feign a champion's spirit, I've been known to shout "Victory!" in the supermarket when they have the brand of chips I like. And yet, winning the festival in 2002 wasn't the standout moment of that experience for me.

What is the standout moment?

It was printing the play off my computer. It was binding it with three brass fastners. It was biking a mile to the post-office, paying for the postage with my own money. It was making entering this play a covert operation (insert Mission: Impossible theme music). It was getting everything together, being in charge and in control of the fate of my play.

The year before, I had submitted a play to the festival and recieved a very nice reponse. The reader, who gave me a four paragraph critique of my play, wrote at the bottom, "No matter what rank this play gets in the festival, attention should be paid." And in 2001, of the 1021 entries, I didn't place. The truth was that the play had nothing to do with me. It was about five gangsters. I'm not even one gangster! My skill at 16 wasn't enough to make a play about five guys from the wrong side of the tracks be vital. This was not the play that needed to be written by me. But that reader's response was like Burgess Meredith from Rocky telling me to stay in the ring.

And so I submitted another play. A personal play. A play about me, my family, my life. And I was so nervous about what people would think or would say or would do that I submitted it in a secret--I didn't tell anyone. Again, it was a covert mission.

But there's nothing like seeing one of your plays go into an envelope and then into a mailbox. You want to sit with it, hold it, flip through the pages forever. You want to procrastinate letting your baby go. But there are deadlines for submissions, and there's only so long a postal worker will let you stand in front of his mailbox with your bike on the floor flipping through your play. Looking at "be here now" then, I didn't know that in six months I would be watching it on Philadelphia Theatre Company's stage, I didn't know that in a year, I would be asked to be a judge for the Festival, be asked back as a teaching artist, write more plays, act Off-Broadway. None of that was important. What's important is that every time I finish a play, I cradle it, I touch it, I hold it.

That hasn't changed.

Submitting to festivals gives me the focus, though, to get everything together and to send it on its way. Like I say to my students, "Plays are meant to be seen and heard." Writing is a very personal, private experience and festivals allow us to take that experience and share it with the world.
It still may take me forever to return emails, phone calls. Don't talk to me about the dishes that pile up in the sink. But I can get a play out there, because that's where it has to be.
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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Back in Public School WEEK ONE

Posted by Rebecca Wallace-Segall

This morning I headed to an innovative public high school on Flatbush Ave in Brooklyn, NY, to begin teaching a 12-week memoir workshop. It was exciting--and extremely challenging--to be back in a rowdy, inner city public school classroom after three quiet years of a Manhattan private school (not to mention the last eight months of hanging out with the please-please-teach-me-more WritopiaLab kids.)

Surprises on Flatbush Ave:

1) The first group of freshmen seemed to like the idea of memoir. Three girls raised their hands to talk about the deaths of friends--one was there when it happened. But writing on this first day was clearly out of the question. Maybe what they liked was the idea of being heard. The harder part will come next week.

2) As the principal gave me a tour of the school, he was both authoritative and genuinely warm with every kid he passed in the hall. And seemed to know all 140 by name. Was very moving to watch him interact with "his kids."

3) The second group didn't want to hear about memoir, or talk about anything. It was a sub, the principal, and me and when the principal left the room for a moment, one kid spit out the "f" word three times as quickly as he could and then looked straight at me. I took in the challenge, stared back, and sparred: "That was disrespectful." He disappeared into a chat with a friend, and I immediately felt old and silly--and frustrated that I wasn't connecting with these kids. Then, magically--and I mean magically as I take absolutely no credit for this--by the last 10 minutes of class, almost the entire group became engrossed in writing the first paragraphs of their memoir. I was caught off guard, suddenly teaching creative writing on Flatbush Ave.

3) The principal explained to me after class that the kids, for the most part, are "level one writers" and therefore assume they are going to fail at the creative writing project. I felt so much pain in that moment and wished I could go back and start from the beginning... and assure them that I will be helping them through every step.

4) As I headed to the subway after school, I passed half a dozen vegetarian Guyanese restaurants. I was surprised--I had never heard of this particular specialty, let alone seen so many variations of it in a row. I asked a restaurant manager about the trend. "I did it, and then everyone copied me." I am a vegetarian. I was tired and hungry.

I am looking forward to more surprises and lessons next week.
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Monday, December 3, 2007

Institution-Driven Awards & Self-Esteem

Posted by Rebecca Wallace-Segall

Ah, another element that I wish I had included in the WSJ op-ed...

Some quick history: The Scholastic Awards (established 85 years ago) was the first major institution that sought to connect, inspire and celebrate young creative writers. Back then, mainly young scientists, mathematicians, and athletes had the opportunity to vie for impressive awards and to ultimately be publicly celebrated. The founders of the Scholastic Awards wanted to change that.

They believed, it seems, that the existence of an institutional honor system would serve to demarginalize and empower young creatives.

Now: Decades later, the Scholastic Awards play a similar role in the lives of the young creatives I have the pleasure of knowing. It inspires them with deadlines and with high standards; it makes them feel like there is a place in the world for them... and that they are valued. And best of all, it gives them the opportunity to feel like actual writers... which they are.

Of course, all of this has wonderful impact on their self-esteem. Winning recognition is only one factor of this rich equation.
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Friday, November 30, 2007

Was it worth it?

Posted by Rebecca Wallace-Segall

Over the months last fall, one of my 8th graders worked arduously on her first screenplay. She brainstormed, wrote & rewrote, enthusiastically showed up for regular meetings with me, and then sent it in to the Scholastic Art & Writing event with the hopes of being awarded with a regional or national award. The previous fall, she had won a regional award from Scholastic for a short story and was feeling confident about her new endeavor.

But by March the news came in: She was our only 8th grader who hadn't been recognized by Scholastic last year. I asked her (out of sheer curiosity) if she thought she'd wasted her time since she hadn't been recognized. "What?" she retorted in shock. "Now I know I want to be either a screenwriter or a director!" With that, we promptly began working on a play that she entered into Stephen Sondeim's Young Playwrights competition. She won third place and we had a ball at the award ceremony.

She is currently working on her third script--she will be sending it into Scholastic this January.

I wish I had included an aspect of this anecdote in the Wall Street Journal piece. There is so much joy that is involved with creative writing projects. It really isn't just about winning or losing. Read more!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Wall Street Journal Op-Ed

Monday: the Wall Street Journal emailed me, letting me know that they accepted an op-ed I wrote for publication. Tuesday: an editor called me to let me know it would run Wednesday (wow, that was fast). Wednesday: as the op-ed hit the stands, I was suddenly hit with dozens of details and thoughts I wish I had included... So I will post some of those thoughts tomorrow. For now, here is the piece that ran on Wednesday.

In Praise of 'Thought Competition'

November 28, 2007; Page A23

Monday: After a long day at his New York City private school, Ben, 16, heads to my creative writing lab to work on his heartfelt memoir about his parents' bitter divorce. Tuesday: Alison, 15, rushes from her elite private school in the Bronx to work on her short screenplay about a gifted, mean and eccentric boy. Lily, 13, pops in whenever she can to polish her hilarious short story narrated by an insomniac owl.

Ben, Alison and Lily, along with another few dozen who attend my afterschool writing program, also attend top-notch New York private schools that cost upwards of $25,000 a year. So why, one might wonder, do these kids need an extracurricular creative writing coach? The answer is simple, though twisted: Their schools -- while touting well-known athletic teams -- are offshoots of the "progressive education" movement and uphold a categorical belief that "thought competition" is treacherous.

Administrators of these schools will not support their students in literary, science or math competitions, including the most prestigious creative writing event in the country: the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. So we at Writopia Lab help these kids to join the 10,000 young literati from across the country who are hurrying to meet the event's January deadline, as well as deadlines for other competitions.

For decades now, psychology and pedagogy researchers have been debating the impact of competition on young people's self-esteem, with those wary of thought competition taking the lead. Most New York parents of public or private school students have felt the awkward reverberations of this trend -- which avoids naming winners -- when Johnny takes home a certificate for "participation" in the school's science fair. (Do you hang that one up on the wall?)

But some, and ironically those who attend some of the most desirable schools in the region, feel the reverberations in deeper, more painful ways. "Two years after my son left a school that prohibited him from entering a national math competition," says one mother, "he still writes angry essays about why the jocks in his former school were allowed to compete throughout the city while he wasn't allowed to win the same honors for his gifts." Sam, her son, felt uncool in the eyes of his peers, and undervalued (and sometimes even resented) by the administration.

"We don't want kids to compete individually, put themselves in vulnerable positions as individuals," explains a leading administrator. "They can compete within teams," explains another. "So the focus is on community building rather than on personal value."

But what about Sam's sense of personal value? Aren't human beings fabulously varied in their gifts and sensibilities? Excellent teamwork can be important, but is it the only admirable achievement? Should any school in the United States prevent broader acknowledgment of a young, creative mathematician?

Mel Levine, a professor at the University of North Carolina and one of the foremost authorities in the country on how children learn, believes the impact of the collaborative education movement has been devastating to an entire generation. When students are rewarded for participation rather than achievement, Dr. Levine suggests, they don't have a strong sense of what they are good at and what they're not. Thus older members of Generation Y might be in for quite a shock when they show up for work at their first jobs. "They expect to be immediate heroes and heroines. They expect a lot of feedback on a daily basis. They expect grade inflation, they expect to be told what a wonderful job they're doing," says Dr. Levine.

What is most surprising about the brand of educational progressivism that denies creative and innovative teens the right to compete for public acknowledgment is the seeming lack of interest in distinguishing between positive or negative competitions. Positive competitions award a good number of entries with a range of awards, and, in some cases, send constructive comments back with the manuscripts. Negative competitions, on the other hand, may charge high fees to enter or award only the top three entries.

Last January, 28 of my students rigorously workshopped, edited and entered 45 submissions to the Scholastic event, and 28 pieces won recognition on the regional level and another five on the national level. In April, 24 of these students went to New York University to have honors bestowed upon them by famous writers, and another five went to Carnegie Hall to receive national awards.

Still, students would quietly ask me over the following year why one of their pieces was or wasn't recognized. We would compare how much time they put into one piece over another, the risks they took in one, the original elements of another, and how new a genre was to them. But most importantly, the conversation turned to a defining aspect of an artist's world: the reign of arbitrary judgment. My students know that they don't each share the same response to their peers' work, and they proudly tout individually refined sensibilities. So the real questions they should be asking themselves are: Did they try their best? Have they learned in the process? Are they excited to try again?

The goal of positive competitions is to help young people identify their strengths, overcome their limitations to the best of their ability, and process their disappointments. Luckily, there is an extraordinary range of projects -- both collaborative and competitive -- that inspire kids to produce their best work, bond with their peers and prepare fully for adulthood.

Ms. Wallace-Segall is a New York-based writer.
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Monday, November 26, 2007

Creatively Deprived

By Nico G.

Rebecca wrote a wonderful post about the lack of creative writing in schools. While it is true that some private schools and well-funded public schools choose to not emphasize creative writing and to not celebrate their student writers, most public schools don't have a choice in the matter for two reasons: they don't have the funding to set up substantial writing programs from the city and state, and creative writing is not part of the school's required curriculum. Therefore, there is little creative writing in these schools. It is not always a purposeful decision to deprive students as much as it is out of the school's reach to offer this to their students.

Furthermore, some schools simply don't have teachers capable of helping students with their creative writing and cannot afford to hire anyone. Understandably, the English teachers at these schools try as best they can to teach students what they need to know for the gobs of standardized testing students must endure. If creative writing were ever to emerge as a major leg of public education, changes would have to be made on a state level, to make sure schools are required to emphasize it. Otherwise, it will not be done in a substantial way.

Sadly, caught in the middle are students already introduced to and/or interested in creative writing. To these kids, I urge lots of reading, and even more writing. If your school does not offer you the opportunity to creatively express yourself, and you do not have access to a program such as WritopiaLab, consult your English teacher privately, and discuss your predicament with them, or you can do what many writers have done throughout history and teach yourself how to craft stories with the help of already published works. Just because you're deprived of a creative writing program doesn't mean you're deprived of sharing your voice with the world.
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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Lessons from the Newest Generation of Writers (& Thinkers)

By Rebecca Wallace-Segall

The teens leave. Once again I sit here in a charged silence--reflecting. Reflecting, this time, on the two shy but suddenly irreverent 15-year-olds who were exploring the emotional and creative boundaries of the boy's memoir and the girl's short story. Their comments were confident and rich--they have changed so much since they first started coming to workshop in July. The silence is broken when the 8th graders arrive, two girls with short stories, two boys with memoirs in tow. The girls dazzle us with the elegant complexity of each of their main characters. The boys show us that, in the right setting, they, too, can think, speak, and write about the emotional themes of their lives. They leave, and I reflect:

Most people have low expectations of young people's creative writing--and often, it is one-dimensional, confusing, and unengaging. But that, it turns out, is only because few bother to allot time to cultivate it--to teach it. And it is such a shame because young people derive so much pleasure from it. My students complain about the stress of hours and hours of homework but then stay up late at night happily typing away at their creative writing pieces. And it is only good for their brains: they learn to apply linear themes, abstract concepts, and technical writing skills to their fantasy worlds. What makes for better, fuller, more enjoyable learning than that?

Finally, I realize it is time to rename the blog(!): Lessons from the Newest Generation of Writers. I will call Andrea, our fabulous tech intern at Vassar, to request that the blog be updated accordingly.

Another Sunday workshop down.
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Friday, November 23, 2007

Three Thanksgiving Top Tens

Posted by Rebecca Wallace-Segall
(Photo: Jeff Segall)

Last night we were having so much fun at our Thanksgiving dinner (what with an Iraqi Muslim immigrant, a female Rabbi, an aging famous rock star, and a scattering of writers, artists, and professors) that we forgot to go around the table and each say what we are grateful for this year. So I will get it all out here...

Ten modern authors that I am grateful for:
Nicole Krauss, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, David Sedaris, Daphne Merkin, James Baldwin, Susan Faludi, Angela Davis, Hannah Arendt, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and... of course, J.K. Rowling...because she has inspired so many Writopia Lab writers. Also, I am incredibly grateful to all the new graphic novel memoirists--Satrapi, Bechel, David B, etc--for broadening the landscape of entertaining, meaningful prose.

Ten Writopia Lab experiences I am incredibly grateful for:
1 & 2) The enthusiasm and dedication of our tween and teen writers to their work and to Writopia Lab;
3 & 4) The individuals and organizations who have been supporting us with donations sans our 501c3 status;
5 & 6) Our talented and ultra-competent student interns, Nico Grant (Brooklyn Tech) and Andrea Listenberger (Vassar U.);
7) A colleague as prolific, committed, and funny (!) as Dan;
8)The pleasure at seeing the excitement among the Writopia Writers as they anticipated standing at the podium at Barnes & Noble;
9) And then hearing the crowd react (with laughter, gasps, applause, etc) to the writers' hard won prose;
10) Looking forward to going to work each day.

Ten writing exercises I am grateful for:
1) Multiple Narrator Group Story (thank you Ena, Jennan, Carmel, and Julia for developing that one with me. It is so much fun, and incredibly helpful in illustrating the difference between short story and short, short story.)

Character Discovery Scenes: Main character goes through a series of events:
2) Main character interacts with a supermarket cashier; and then 3) A fire breaks out
Alternative versions depending on what needs to be discovered:
4) Main character is at a family reunion; 5) or at a Bday party as a young child; 6) or at her wedding; 7) or at a funeral. (These very serious exercises were inspired, ironically, by improvisational comedy classes I took at the Upright Citizens Brigade)

New Character Find:
8) Writer begins a letter to someone fictional who passed away, who the fictional narrator has conflicting feelings about; or 9) Writer begins a letter to a fictional unborn child who the fictional narrator has conflicting feelings about. (Thank you Leslie... your story inspired these two great exercises!)
10)Is there someone you see all the time, who seems particularly interesting, appealing, weird, or mysterious? Write a scene with the person you chose shopping in a supermarket. There should be physical description of the character and of the contents of his or cart. There should also be some chit chat (or some kind of interaction) with the cashier.
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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Writopia Lab Featured

By Rebecca Wallace-Segall
(Photo: Mark Gimein)

Rebecca Honig Friedman, a cultural critic and well-known blogger, called me last week for an interview about Writopia Lab. She had originally found out about Writopia Lab last April when the Jewish Week ran a piece about the work I did at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, a progressive Jewish day school located in Manhattan. Friedman's often light-hearted, entertaining blog focuses on media, culture, gender and Judaism. The interview was just posted on her blog.

~~Rebecca WS~~ Read more!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Schools: Celebrate Teen Writers

By Rebecca Wallace-Segall
(Photos: Jeff Segall)

The National Endowment for the Arts reported today a downward trend in fiction, poetry, and drama consumption by Americans--with the youngest group, ages 18-25, hit the hardest.

According to the study, the ubiquity of electronic media has made the difference. Certainly obsessive IMing and Facebook surfing takes us away from our books, but, as educators, we actually have control over the more perilous culprit: the fact that most school administrators don't do much to reinforce the notion that literature should take center stage at school.

Here's a way your school can help young people realize the pleasure and value of reading: fund a creative writing program that can support qualified creative writing teachers; celebrate your young creative writers as proudly as you celebrate athletes, actors, and general academics; plan readings during the school year held within the school's auditorium that place writers on stage under the spotlight.

Schools can play an active role undoing the marginalization of literature and literates in their schools. But will they?

The photos posted (above) were taken at Barnes & Noble during the Q & A session after each tween or teen writer read their own original short story, poem, or memoir, or helped read a play written by a workshop participant.

~~Rebecca WS

Read more:
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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Barnes and Noble Reading, an Experience

By Lily G.

Reading at Barnes and Noble this Monday was definitely an exciting, fun, and only slightly scary event. =). I read my humor piece about a yenta-ish, Star Wars-obsessed owl somewhere in the 4-6:00pm portion of the event, and I think it went reasonably well. In turn, all of the brilliant pieces I heard, ranging from short stories to memoirs, held a captivated audience that gasped, laughed, and clapped at all of the right moments. Well done!

I had been to a reading at Barnes and Noble last year in the same room, and I did not read half as well then as I did this time. LOL this time around I actually remembered to speak into the microphone. The people I heard projected very well, but the only problem for us young writers at these events if there ever are any is that we do not do our work justice by mumbling it. So let people appreciate your hard work, and articulate!

The question and answer session that I was included in was brief and laid back, but the audience asked good questions and were met with great answers! I could tell they appreciated being responded too, especially if they asked difficult questions that involved the writers of memoirs. I have only written one memoir, a piece of writing I felt was rather hard to put into words, and I imagine it would be all the harder to read it out loud. So a round of applause for all of the valiant memoir readers!

Anyway, that is my experience of the event, and two thumbs up overall. I know I was not present for the majority of the time, and different people have different perspectives. So if anyone who participated is hanging around the blog, why not reply with your feelings? Finally, in case I was not clear, I think the reading was a fabulous success, and hopefully there will be more that are just as memorable in the near future!
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Tuesday, November 6, 2007


By Rebecca WS
(Photo: Mark Gimein)


How important are titles of narrative, prose, and poetry anyway?

I spent hours online last night with my WritopiaLab writers as they frantically sought to name their prose, brainstorming everything from literal or blunt emotional declarations, to elusive metaphorical abstractions. Some wanted poignancy, others wanted straight-forward clarity, most wanted a hit of poetry and to go to bed.

Everyone's excited right now since we're preparing for the Barnes & Noble reading this Monday and for the Scholastic Writing Event in January. But is a title really worth an hour or more of rigorous story-analysis mixed with mind-numbing word play?

Well, for those of us who actually enjoy getting lost in the analytical ends of the creative process, the answer is clear: There are few challenges more fun than aspiring to combine literary thought or concepts with subtle allusion. But when it's late at night, or it's not really the thing that inspires you, or it just so happens that you are NOT in the mood, then what? When everything is said and done, aren't titles as ephemeral to readers as passing scenery on a highway?

Maybe sometimes, but not when they are good! When titles have reached their full potential, they are the all-important signs that guide us as we head down a new freaky, mysterious, craaaazy... or just unfamiliar road... And they do much more than just that.

First of all publishing houses spend months debating titles of books. They consider: Will this title provoke people to buy the book? Does this title suggest something that the public has not known before? Does it rightfully convey the tone of the book? If the book has a lot of humor is the title playful enough? And, ultimately, does the title suggest the full breadth of the work?

Clearly, we are not trying to sell our short stories and poems to people as publishers are trying to do with books. But we do seek to convey a sense of originality, draw our readers in, and, ultimately, suggest a full literary experience. No big deal! (Hehe)

Well, kudos to Writopia Lab writers, because based on last night's brainstorming sessions, our titles so far sometimes intrigue our readers with a clear, albeit very short, statement regarding the heart-felt material they are about to explore; sometimes draw readers in with a bold, unexpected use of parentheses; and often win readers' trust with a poetic allusion. If we have done one or two of these things at least, our readers are on board from the start.

And, ideally, for the full literary experience, after a reader reaches the end of a story, she should be able to look at the title again and see a double-meaning, a reference to something she discovered only after reading the story.

If any WL writers are still having trouble titling their pieces, please email or call me today. Happy elections day!

~~Rebecca WS~~
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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Introducing "Write On!"

Creative writing has been known to not only be an expression of self, but an interpretation of other people, and the world at large. Of course, this wisdom is learned at some point throughout life. While younger writers understandably don’t know everything about life, through their writing, they can begin to understand their own lives and observe others’ lives. It’s important for young people to express themselves through a positive outlet, and there is perhaps no more interesting release than writing fictional short stories, plays, and memoirs. This is the foundation of the workshops at WritopiaLab, and the guiding force behind the upcoming newsletter.

Write On! is a monthly reminder of why young people write. Our goal is to share our perspective and the perspectives of young writers throughout New York City. This newsletter will keep the entire WritopiaLab family abreast of what’s going on within the program and in the lives of our alumni. Each month, Write On! will feature a student-written short story and poem, demonstrating the immense talent of the kids enrolled in our workshops. We will also feature student recommendations of the most intriguing cultural spots in New York, the most inspirational vistas in the City, and in every issue, a young guest columnist will take us through the methods of their writing process. Write On! is a celebration of WritopiaLab’s incomparable students and of New York. It will be a bright, informative newsletter that maintains our mission – to bridge gaps between young, urban writers, showing them the commonalities of their intellectual pursuits, and offering them an opportunity to express themselves in ways they might not be able to otherwise. Read more!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

When one boy plays video games... he finds inspiration

One of my students, Peter, a sophomore at Stuyvesant High School, has the coolest approach to writing:

As he plays a video game (I would imagine in 7 hour stints at least), something magical (or creative) happens: Within moments, characterological motives, personal histories, and superhuman powers begin to emerge in his mind, and before long he finds himself thoroughly immersed in the emotional ramifications of the game, and ultimately in front of a computer screen banging out his 86th sci-fi story of the year.

Peter's stories are dynamic, deep, and of course, action-packed. Since middle school, he has won multiple awards from Scholastic's Art & Writing event for his writing.

But of course Peter's experience raises some highly unpopular but interesting questions about the value of video game playing: Can some video games (violent ones included) sometimes play a positive role in inspiring the minds of youth? Can they transcend their insidious time-wasting, violence-encouraging, obesity-making, inclinations?

Based on Peter's experience, I think they can sometimes. And, then, his experience made me think of my own... back in the early 1980's...

I remember playing (um, 25 years ago) Atari's primitive Adventure game of dragons, swords, challises, and invisible mazes for hours on end. And I remember spending even more time afterwards hunting down huge pieces of paper throughout my apartment in order to map out my character's escape route through the game's mazes... Once I had my tools, I covered my entire living room floor with the blank canvass and began drawing. Finally, I remember triumphantly standing to view the final product.

While games may be culprit to untold social pathologies, let us acknowledge that games also seem to lend themselves to more interactive imaginative play than they are typically given credit for.

In any case, video game playing certainly has served Peter's writing much good. Not to mention my imaginative play time as a kid, too.

~~Rebecca WS~~
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