Young Writers Retreat

Paige Gribb - Publishing Intern

We had quite a week here in early July with nine aspiring high school writers at the Young Writers Retreat. We spent five days fine tuning book ideas, meeting key people in the writing biz, and of course writing up a storm—all culminating with book pitches and discussions with a panel of agents, publishers, editors, booksellers, and authors. What could be better?

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Day one, and we were already off to a running start! In the morning, we discussed our writing preferences, book ideas, and goals for the week. We got to run our thoughts by Melissa Coleman, a local published author; in return, she told us about her current writing. We then spoke about the art of the query letter and worked on writing great pitches for our own books. Some writers found it a useful way to reassess the book ideas they were already working on; others used the letter as an opportunity to figure out a brand new story idea.

Ideas flowing and pages filled, we took our notebooks out of The Telling Room and into Portland itself. We popped into Longfellow Books, where we got behind the scenes of the bookstore business with the help of the store’s owner, Chris Bowe. We finished our day with free writing at the Portland Public Library, and left pumped for the rest of the week!

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On Tuesday, we met at The Telling Room and went straight to Mechanics Hall, a gorgeous private library with a rich history. With the help of our guides, we learned the story behind the old shelves and relics, portraits of members past, and the various rooms (including an upstairs ballroom!). We started thinking about the importance of settings and got to work on our own writing for the rest of the morning. 

Upon getting back to The Telling Room, we met with author Lewis Robinson, who explained his writing process and his way of concocting story ideas. He led us through an idea-creating exercise, and we came up with lots of potential stories!

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We spent all morning on Wednesday discussing pitches and crafting book excerpts, and then marched out to the Portland Public Library for one of their Brown Bag Lectures. We listened to Ron Currie Jr., another talented writer, talk about his writing and read from his newest book, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles. He was so engaging that we forgot to eat our lunches!

After a quick break in Monument Square to gobble down the food we meant to eat at the lecture, we made our way to the offices of Maine Magazine. Editors Sophie Nelson and Katy Kelleher welcomed us in, provided us with stickers and copies of their newest issues, and gave us the lowdown on what it’s like to work for a magazine like theirs. They gave us a tour around the building, and we left with new insights on writing professionally.

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Kerri Majors, author of This is Not a Writing Manual; Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World, and editor of YARN (Young Adult Review Network), stopped in first thing on Thursday. She conducted a workshop called “Think Like an Editor,” in which she asked us to play the role of an editorial board and look at writing from a different perspective. 

When she left, we followed her right out and made for Might & Main, a design company that, among many other things, creates compelling book covers. Sean Wilkinson elaborated on design’s role in book marketing and showed us some of Might & Main’s recent projects. And what finished our visit? Writing, of course! 

What a beautiful (or should I say well designed?) place to inspire us as we jotted down our next scenes.

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Friday came quickly, and we were polishing book pitches and excerpts for our soon to arrive panel! Again at the Portland Public Library, we figured out how we wanted to present our books and ourselves, and we spent the morning practicing short pitches with each other. 

Before we knew it, the clock struck 1:00, and we were back at The Telling Room watching Portland-area professionals file in: Edite Kroll, agent at the Edite Kroll Agency; Audrey Maynard, editor at Tilbury House Publishers; Patty Hagge, writer-in-residence at The Telling Room; Joshua Bodwell, executive director of Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance; Chris Bowe, owner of Longfellow Books; and Melissa Coleman, author of This Life Is in Your Hands. So much knowledge and talent sitting around one table, ready to hear about our writers’ books!

One by one, each young writer walked over to the panel. Sitting with them or standing before them, each author pitched their book. Each time, the panel listened attentively before offering constructive and encouraging feedback. Our authors received written comments and compliments from each panelist, and spent a short while mingling with them with post-panel snacks.

Once the panelists left, we had a little time to ourselves before the retreat had to end. Of course, it was just the moment for a little celebration, so we dashed to The Gelato Fiasco. Gelato was the perfect treat to beat the heat and end a productive and fun-filled week.

We miss our group of young writers already, and we can’t wait for next year!

Recently, Jack Marrie of Longfellow Books gave this rousing introduction and praise for our new release Illumination to our young authors before they read for a public audience: 
“I moved to Portland two and a half years ago and soon after began hearing about The Telling Room. I’ve admired the mission of The Telling Room from the start, and likewise those who choose to offer their time, ears, and expertise as mentors and facilitators. Of course, most of all, I admire the young voices that put themselves “out there.”
"As highly as I think of The Telling Room, I’ve never volunteered myself—yet. Why?
"Because I’m frightened of (you) young people. I’m lazy, and I’m unsure that I can match the creativity and discipline that is surely required to bring about such a body of work. And Illumination, while raising my esteem for the program even more, has done nothing to dissuade my fear. By producing the kind of personally revealing, imaginative, sharply perceptive, often funny, and always well crafted works, you have confirmed all my anxieties and sense of intimidation.
 “You have also produced a brilliant collection; a brave collection; a collection I’ve enjoyed reading very much. Congratulations, and thank you.”

Recently, Jack Marrie of Longfellow Books gave this rousing introduction and praise for our new release Illumination to our young authors before they read for a public audience: 

“I moved to Portland two and a half years ago and soon after began hearing about The Telling Room. I’ve admired the mission of The Telling Room from the start, and likewise those who choose to offer their time, ears, and expertise as mentors and facilitators. Of course, most of all, I admire the young voices that put themselves “out there.”

"As highly as I think of The Telling Room, I’ve never volunteered myself—yet. Why?

"Because I’m frightened of (you) young people. I’m lazy, and I’m unsure that I can match the creativity and discipline that is surely required to bring about such a body of work. And Illumination, while raising my esteem for the program even more, has done nothing to dissuade my fear. By producing the kind of personally revealing, imaginative, sharply perceptive, often funny, and always well crafted works, you have confirmed all my anxieties and sense of intimidation.

 “You have also produced a brilliant collection; a brave collection; a collection I’ve enjoyed reading very much. Congratulations, and thank you.”

Al Miller - Director of the Theater Project, Brunswick

Working with the YWL students this year has been an ordinary and an extraordinary experience for me: “ordinary” because they are teenagers and after working with this age group for fifty years, I get surprised but not often; extraordinary because each has a remarkable story to tell and most could tell that story in several languages most of us are not acquainted with.

Last year I worked with Ali, a YWL student from Iraq, as a mentor in The Telling Room. At the end of that experience, during which time Ali and I got to know each other and I became acquainted with other YWL students, I was a convert. This was a remarkable program! Adults worked closely with these teens who had such amazing stories they were learning to tell in English, a second, third or fourth language for most of them. The learning was mutual: they learned from us and we learned from them, the truest education. I was eager to do more.

This year, I got that opportunity. In February, I began working with the YWL students once a week, introducing improvisational and ensemble theater techniques. Our goal was to integrate theater into their storytelling. “Our goal” was really the goal of the two Mollys and me; the students bought into it slowly.

After sitting in high school classrooms for six hours, they often weren’t eager to start another activity that seemed both school-like and bizarre, and included neither nap nor snack nor hanging out, those most desirable of after school activities.

They put up with me, and by the time we finished, each of them had “bought in” to some degree, some fully. When they presented their pieces in performances at The St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland and The Theater Project in Brunswick, audiences listened and were moved. These students are now our neighbors, our fellow citizens, and they have stories we cannot imagine until we hear them. They enlarge our lives and we can enlarge theirs if we listen to them.

As always happens, I learned from them. I learned to listen, to be patient, to nudge and encourage and sometimes insist, and I learned that good conversation takes time, time, and intention. I wish them all well. I already miss them even as I move to other projects and I hope I’ll see them again, any and all of them! Their stories are now a part of my life.

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Dena Riegel - TR Volunteer

I’ve planned on being a volunteer at The Telling Room since I moved to town years ago.  I remember learning about it and I immediately wanted in.  Trouble was, I was still coming out of the “I can’t imagine writing again!” phase that sometimes comes after college, when every 15-page essay is a masterpiece completed only under extreme pressure, some healthy immature procrastination, and heavy judgment.  The writing high was great when completed, but I really needed a breather.  Even though I loved writing, I didn’t think I’d be a great role model:

“Hey, kids.  To be honest with you, I’m pretty burnt out about this stuff at the moment.  Um.  How do YOU feel about writing outside of school?”

Fast-forward 6 years, and I’m on a TR field trip – maybe my favorite thing about my own school-gal days – as a volunteer.  The teacher plays his harmonica like a benevolent Pied Piper, and the kids look over their shoulders after he tells them to explore, not quite believing that someone won’t scold them for playing with the old-fashioned type-writer or for leafing through the books or plopping down on the couch.  A few catch my eye, expecting a reprimand, and instead I smile at them.  It’s a lot of fun to goad kids to do what they do so well- snoop and explore and touch everything – in a space made just for them.

I suppose I feel sort of the same as those kids.  The TR Writing Studio, with it’s perfectly bohemian rice-paper lanterns, scholarly Turkish rugs, cozy chairs pulled up to farm tables (like doing homework at the dinner table), and shelves full of old favorites – Island of the Blue Dolphin, Hatchet, The Giver, is set up as an invitation to be at once internal, creative, quiet, and also sharing, social, and friendly.

There’s the space, and then the staff, which make the atmosphere so entirely comfortable – they’re so much fun, which shouldn’t be surprising.  These are people who can get children excited about an activity that involves sitting still.  They make every volunteer feel like a celebrity guest speaker.  The things that kids say when they sit down to a writing prompt remind me that my adulthood, in many ways, is trying to remember some of the wisdom I had when I was ten.

One True Thing

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Patty Hagge, writer in residence

Every week I offer a prompt to begin our staff meeting. This week I brought the Ernest Hemingway quote, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” 

I suggested that everyone write one true thing, the truest thing that you know. When I got blank stares, I said, “Start writing something, anything, and when one word seems particularly heated to you, ask yourself what your story is about that word. For example, if you write, that snowstorm was crazy, you might say, what is my story of crazy, and write that sentence. If you keep this up you might find something that rings true to you right now.”

Then I said, “Okay, go!” which is always my favorite prompt. There was some sighing and eye rolling, and someone whispered under their breath, “This is hard…” but everyone started writing. I let them write for five minutes or so, then asked them to choose something to share.

There was some hesitation, so I read mine, “I love the feeling of someone loving me, and it feels like a warm blanket.”

Here is what the rest of the staff said:

“Things are always changing.”

“You always will feel the sun on your back again.”

“All of the best moments in my life happened without any planning.”

“I wanted to sit in the sun, but that meant I was turned away from my sons playing on the floor. There are times when I want to be in two places at once.”

“We are dreamers.”

“It is easier to imagine the truth in the future than to speak the truth in the present.”

 

What is your one true thing?

 

Zombie Apocalypse

Jean Martens - Volunteer

"We don’t like to write," said the eighth grade boy, arms folded on the small round table along with two of his peers. "It’s hard for us when we’re in class and have to write - we’re more into science and math." "Oh", I nodded understanding.

Shortly thereafter we walked along Wharf St. in the Old Port, along with classmates and a handful of adults. The assignment was to find a story in this block of cobblestones and historic buildings, and to take a photo of where that story takes place. The air was mixed with questions, becoming electric with possibility as boys and girls let their imaginations run wild.

"I’ll bet there are zombies down there!", one student remarked, looking through a dirty window to a vacant room below the street level. As in other "field trips" I have volunteered for, participants are welcome to use words, ideas and even photos taken by another that spark their creativity. Collaboration is welcome. Within moments a group gathered by the window, interrupting one another with stories of what they imagine is happening with the zombies in the empty room. 

Back inside, sprawled on couches and sitting at tables, many of the boys began to write stories and draw pictures of what several called, “The Zombie Apocalypse”. The room was quiet except for the hum of these and other stories coming to life on paper and laptop.

All too soon came the call to pack up and form a closing circle. Boys were overheard excitedly sharing their first paragraphs on google docs with each other, planning a sleepover that night to continue writing their stories. 

Such is the magic of a supportive context, encouragement, inspiration and freedom that unfolded the arms of these students and unleashed their creativity.

Poetry Field Trip
 
Jean Martens - TR Volunteer
 
Pencils on paper,
I remember…
I forget…
Events of 4th grade lives,
details weave memories.
Words being erased by
a hand with nails painted,
some coral, some lime.
Birth of a brother,
a parade, a cookout,
finding a five leaf clover,
non-competitive.
 
However much you wrote 
is perfect for you.
Sharing the writing with a partner:
What’s missing?
What do I want to hear more of?
What to take out to find
the real essence?
The harmonica sounds,
fingers snap,
changes from sloppy copy
to final copy.
No wrong answers!
 
Emily Baer - Development Assistant
We are pleased to announce a new partnership with the Old Bug Light Foundation and $10,000 in support of our Telling Room Teaching Artist Initiative. Through this initiative, we give our students direct access to professional writers and artists who provide unparalleled instruction in the art of writing. This instruction occurs primarily in three of our programs: Afterschool Workshops, Young Writers and Leaders, and In School Residencies.
Telling Room Afterschool Workshops cover everything from poetry, to hip-hop, to personal essay or fantasy fiction, and challenge young storytellers to think differently about writing and the spoken word. An incredible cadre of professional writers and artists lead our workshops, divulging the secrets of their trades in the process.
Young Writers & Leaders (YWL) is a free, afterschool literary arts program for teenaged refugee and immigrant English Language Learners. The program runs for nine months each year, engaging each student in weekly afterschool sessions that provide: creative writing and arts programming, job skills and leadership training, and one-on-one literacy tutoring and college prep assistance. Each year, YWL students are paired with a professional writer or artist from the community who serves as a mentor and coaches them through their creative writing experience.
And, our In School Residencies provide the opportunity to work with us for an extended period–usually six to twelve sessions–on an intensive writing curriculum built around our yearly theme. Local writers and artists lead exciting and dynamic sessions for students of all ages and create the opportunity for students to work alongside their creative heroes and peers and creative colleagues.
Each of these three branches of programming offers students across Maine unparalleled opportunities to work directly with some of Maine’s best writers and artists and provides an invaluable creative experience for both our students and the professional writers and artists they work with.
The Telling Room has a strong history of bringing professional artists into local classrooms, allowing students the chance to develop their ideas under the guidance of adult mentors actively engaged in perfecting their craft and wholly dedicated to the idea that storytelling can be a powerful and transformative act. From the beginning, we have sought to engage teaching artists in a very real way and we strive to pay them equitable wages for their time and talent. We rely on their energy and enthusiasm to create exciting and engaging programming and to provide students with a vivid idea about what it means to be creative person in the real world.
In working with Teaching Artists to tell their stories, students are able to take ownership of their ideas, take responsibility for their creative impulses, and gain the confidence to engage in productive social discourse to advance and protect their sense of community, wellbeing, and tolerance. And, working with real writers allows students to begin to feel like writers, already fully functioning members of an artistic community. Similarly, Teaching Artists gain immeasurably from the energy and curiosity of their students. By bringing together the two ends of the creative–the novice and the expert–we are able to create an environment of creative alchemy, a place where magic happens on and off the page and lives are changed in the process.

Emily Baer - Development Assistant

We are pleased to announce a new partnership with the Old Bug Light Foundation and $10,000 in support of our Telling Room Teaching Artist Initiative. Through this initiative, we give our students direct access to professional writers and artists who provide unparalleled instruction in the art of writing. This instruction occurs primarily in three of our programs: Afterschool Workshops, Young Writers and Leaders, and In School Residencies.

Telling Room Afterschool Workshops cover everything from poetry, to hip-hop, to personal essay or fantasy fiction, and challenge young storytellers to think differently about writing and the spoken word. An incredible cadre of professional writers and artists lead our workshops, divulging the secrets of their trades in the process.

Young Writers & Leaders (YWL) is a free, afterschool literary arts program for teenaged refugee and immigrant English Language Learners. The program runs for nine months each year, engaging each student in weekly afterschool sessions that provide: creative writing and arts programming, job skills and leadership training, and one-on-one literacy tutoring and college prep assistance. Each year, YWL students are paired with a professional writer or artist from the community who serves as a mentor and coaches them through their creative writing experience.

And, our In School Residencies provide the opportunity to work with us for an extended period–usually six to twelve sessions–on an intensive writing curriculum built around our yearly theme. Local writers and artists lead exciting and dynamic sessions for students of all ages and create the opportunity for students to work alongside their creative heroes and peers and creative colleagues.

Each of these three branches of programming offers students across Maine unparalleled opportunities to work directly with some of Maine’s best writers and artists and provides an invaluable creative experience for both our students and the professional writers and artists they work with.

The Telling Room has a strong history of bringing professional artists into local classrooms, allowing students the chance to develop their ideas under the guidance of adult mentors actively engaged in perfecting their craft and wholly dedicated to the idea that storytelling can be a powerful and transformative act. From the beginning, we have sought to engage teaching artists in a very real way and we strive to pay them equitable wages for their time and talent. We rely on their energy and enthusiasm to create exciting and engaging programming and to provide students with a vivid idea about what it means to be creative person in the real world.

In working with Teaching Artists to tell their stories, students are able to take ownership of their ideas, take responsibility for their creative impulses, and gain the confidence to engage in productive social discourse to advance and protect their sense of community, wellbeing, and tolerance. And, working with real writers allows students to begin to feel like writers, already fully functioning members of an artistic community. Similarly, Teaching Artists gain immeasurably from the energy and curiosity of their students. By bringing together the two ends of the creative–the novice and the expert–we are able to create an environment of creative alchemy, a place where magic happens on and off the page and lives are changed in the process.

The Art Department

Andrew Griswold - Communications Director

Our fall residency at King Middle School wrapped up a few weeks ago in exciting fashion. After eight sessions of intensive writing over two months, we switched gears and turned Marcia Salem’s classroom into a publishing house art department, asking her twenty ELL middle schoolers to help imagine the layout of their forthcoming chapbook. This was the first time we’ve tried this in a TR intensive-in the past, students wrote with us and submitted their stories, but they had little input into the bookmaking process. We’d take their words with us on the last day and appear a month later with a tidy book to show off to their family and friends. We decided that model should change.

After choosing a title for the the book as a class last week, we arrived on the last day with three cover concepts for the students to evaluate. In small groups, they worked out which of the three images best fit the theme of their work: “dreams of the future.” It was incredible to hear what came from those discussions.

The students are first-year english speakers who often have trouble finding the right words to express their ideas, but this activity had them buzzing, debating, and sketching alternatives to what we’d presented. They added elements to further our basic concepts, changed font layout and colors, and made great arguments about why some images reflected their writing better than others. They also tackled the book’s interior, deciding to include author photos and bios, choosing fonts and laying out a story page template. We had no idea this work would appeal to them at all!

We love presenting student work to our young writers in a pretty package, but we’re even more excited to do it with their input. I can’t wait to see how this group will react when they see their concepts become reality. More to report after our book party late this month…