Friday 5: What I Learned from Fort Greene Park

It’s been a joy to wake up on Saturday mornings and take the train to Brooklyn, where I volunteer as a workshop assistant for the Fort Greene Park Summer Youth Workshops. As a young writer myself, I try to look for new ways to experience the world. Who would have thought I’d learn so much from sharing a blanket with the kids? I knew the workshops would teach me a thing or two, but I was unprepared for the life lessons I would take away from them.

Below is my attempt to sort through my thoughts and share a few of them with the world. I hope you find them somewhat helpful, and I hope as well that you’ll join us on Saturday, August 24, for our 9th Annual Fort Greene Park Summer Literary Festival, where you’ll hear these young writers share their work alongside established poets and authors. This is a powerful event you won’t want to miss!

1) Trust yourself.

nywc1_I admit, I’m intimidated by writing prompts. I avoided writing workshops for years and years because the very thought of sitting with other people and being asked to write sounded highly stressful. I can barely grind out a story if I have ten days to think about it, let alone ten minutes!

The cool thing about being a workshop assistant is that it forces you to write. Not later, not after you’ve had a cup of coffee and maybe a donut–but now. The young writers in your workshop have already started writing, so why haven’t you? I frantically ask myself as I stare at the blank page. So I ready my pen and in those ten minutes, my stomach stops grumbling, the steam starts rolling, and my inner editor shuts up, almost.

I am a look-before-you-leap kind of person. Before, I would have described myself as utterly incapable of writing a story without some semblance of plot/character/structure. Since then I’ve learned to ask myself, Why a story? The word “story” begs for greatness. A story has a beginning, middle, and end; it is shaped like something whole and wholesome.

No one is asking me to write a polished story. It’s okay to take my thoughts one at a time, phrase by phrase, and trust that they’ll turn into a coherent paragraph. And it’s okay if they don’t. Because what I’ve found in the process is something far greater–the courage to live and create in the moment.

2) Trust others.

nywc2I think the scariest part about sharing your work is the judgment of your audience. Sometimes I tell a joke and no one laughs, but the conversation moves on, and in five minutes the world will have forgotten about it.

It feels different when I write Something Bad. I imagine people silently throwing tomatoes at me in their hearts, and a deafening voice in my head asking me how on earth I ever thought it was good. I didn’t share most of the pieces I wrote this summer because I was afraid. Looking back, I wish I had.

During the workshops, I met kids who read aloud whatever they wrote, loudly, fearlessly. They taught me that I can still be proud of a piece even if it’s cheesy or unfinished. In fact I must share the “rough” pieces because I owe my fellow writers that much–because we shouldn’t be afraid to expose the parts of ourselves that are not quite together. I’m not perfect, so why pretend to be?

3) Take a snack break.

nywc33A young writer once told me that the workshops were very different from school because they got to sit on blankets and eat animal crackers. Accordingly I’ve learned not to underestimate the small pleasures in life, like food and sunlight. They can make a huge difference on my mood and motivation.

4) Let everything in.
My favorite workshop happened the morning it rained. We huddled inside the visitor’s center or outside on the porch, and the writing went on.

I can’t express why exactly I loved that workshop. In defiance of the moody-looking clouds, the NYWC Team began to spread out the blankets and snacks until the rain shooed us in the direction of the visitor’s center. There we re-spread the gear and hoped that people would still show up.

Writing on a rainy morning is a quiet, thoughtful experience. Writing with others is a bit different because it’s suddenly you and your fellow writers against the world. You’re dry and cozy, and you’re sitting together in a tight-knit circle (our attendance was great, I’ll have you know). Everyone’s here despite the challenges; everyone was rained on, and more than a few were sorely tempted to stay indoors.

I was filled with admiration for the young writers. There were no complaints about the hard ground or the smaller space. Workshop assistant Anneliese brought a ukulele, and by the end we were collaborating on lyrics and laughing as we sang. Sometimes life gives us fleeting moments like that, and there’s nothing to prove and no words to express how great we feel. We can only grasp at happiness and let it go.

5) Stay optimistic.

nywc5The people I met through NYWC are always spreading good vibes. They taught me about the power of positive energy and how quickly it can breathe life into a group setting. Sometimes a smile or a joke (even a lame one!) is all it takes to melt away the stress and remind ourselves why exactly we’re committed to this effort. I’m a better person for having participated in the youth workshops this summer. Here’s to hoping for many more!

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Featured photo credit: Paula Vlodkowsky