Sunday, February 21, 2016

On Writing - Words Shared at the Greenwich Academy Writing FestivalYesterday. @cwpfairfield @writingproject

Writer's Fest, 2016
Greenwich Academy
Yesterday, I was asked to speak to teachers and students from several Greenwich High Schools and they billed me as a Playwright. I had to apologize that I am not a playwright, but I have hosted ten-minute play festivals and encouraged fellow educators to do the same. It was a wonderful experience and I thoroughly enjoyed their Writer's Fest - what an amazing group of young minds. 

Thought on this Writing-Thing

           Fifteen Minutes. Fifteen Minutes of conversation is what I was asked to present and, perhaps, they said, to do a little reading of my own work while I’m at it. This week, I turned 44 years old and I realize that I’ve been at this writing thing for a very long time, even though I’m not quite sure I position myself as a “playwright.” My grandmother used to transform anything I drew, scribbled or morphed into a masterpiece from her own imagination and magic. She loved words and taught me to do the same. Even before I knew how to scribble an A, or a B, or a C, she took my Crayola blobs of pseudo monsters, aliens, and dogs and turned them into poetry, insights, and stories built from her own creativity. As a result, she introduced me to journaling and writer’s notebooks, and before I entered school I saw the blank page as a canvas to record personal and imagined history.
            I am more like my grandmother than a Newbery Prize winner.
Yes, I write every day. Writing has been a major part of my life from the beginning, but I’m not sure I technically identify as a “writer-writer.” My Twitter account says, “Bryan Ripley Crandall is a Nerd. a Thinker. Maybe a writer. a Philosopher? He doesn't know. Teacher, sometimes. Student always. Nerd suffices. Yep, Nerd.” In my world writing is a way of being. It is synonymous with what a person does from sunrise to sundown when he (or she) is not walking the dog, getting the groceries, or cutting their toenails. Writing, in essence, is life.
            Of course, Henry Louis Gates demonstrated that writing is highly political, too, and those of us in Western cultures with a privilege to write tend to be those afforded opportunities to “right” or “wrong” the world. It is a tremendous responsibility. In postcolonial reality Gates demonstrated how writing historically has been equated with reason and that anyone with the power to write has also been empowered to change the world. Sadly, this empowerment does not reach all populations. I’d argue that today’s K-12 schools continue to disempower young people with the lack of writing instruction (but I digress).
            I have written novels that have never been published (nor will they because I don’t share them with anyone). I have written short stories galore and when I taught high school my students loved when I shared them (alas, I’ve never attempted to get them published). I’ve also written poetry and although I’ve had a few published here and there the words were written as a form of breathing – to keep me alive. I’ve never been interested in the publishing world. I’m more interested in recording my world in a way that matters to me.
A colleague in Kentucky once said, “Crandall, you should have the disclaimer in all your workshops and classes that you are not normal and that you freakishly write in a wide variety of genres all the time. It’s just the way you think. For most of us who aren't you, writing is painful.” As Dr. Kelly Chandler-Olcott said to me while mentoring my dissertation at Syracuse University, “I’ve never met anyone who writes to know his world as much as you do. You write everything down before you are willing to make a claim about what it is you know.” I always reminded her, “I hardly know anything, though. I keep on writing things down in hopes I’ll finally have something to say.” She pointed out that she never had a student, either, who took notes in poetic form and who answered questions she asked in prose whenever she called on me.
            I position myself as a teacher before I declare myself as a writer. The writer identity has multiple connotations depending on whom you ask. Friends in creative writing programs across the country share with me their isolated, creative processes. Lawyers I know, discuss the ways they put words to paper to fulfill their litigation responsibilities and to make the most sense of the data they’ve collected. Academic friends in the University discuss their fear of writing and the unfriendliness of the ways they must write to be tenured to keep their job. But I like to ask simple questions with the groups I work with: who in here writes short stories? who has written a chapter book? who creates lyrics, whether in ballads or raps? who sent an email today? or a text? who wrote a thank-you note? Ah, chances are, every single person in this audience has written something and, in my opinion, that makes you a writer.
            Writers commit language in textual forms, whether digital or on dead trees, in order to accomplish a goal. My niece texts. The Liberian boys who are seniors in College now recognize they get funds from me when they email me to say their bank accounts are in dire straits. A sports enthusiast catches my attention on Twitter by posting 140 characters on a subject that interests me. My point: we are all writers and the way professional writing gets categorized is somewhat tricky.
            I knew Kwame Alexander and Matt de la Pena, both winners of Newbery prizes for Young Adult Literature, before they were winners of Newbery prizes. They were writers before they were writer-writers in the construction of national awards. They are now writer-writers indeed. Me? I am just a thinker and writing helps me to think. So, I guess I am a thinker-writer who, from time to time has sketched out ten-minute plays, poems, narratives, articles, doodles, opinion pieces, book chapters, grants, and speeches.
            Ah, but I’ve taught over a 1,000 K-12 students in my career and I have read remarkable pieces of writing from a majority of them. They aren’t Pulitzer Prize winners or recognized for artistic contributions by the Kennedy Center, but they were committed to putting language to the page and with this, they caught my attention, dazzled my imagination, and intrigued my intellect. They have been writers, too. With them, we started Poetry slams, ten-minute play festivals, and published Op-Eds in a variety of newspapers. It was with them, too, that I first learned of Jeffrey Schwartz and his work at Greenwich Academy. We were both published in the same book, Teaching the New Writing and we are a population of teachers who write about our teaching practice. We put our student voices into a world that too often would like to keep them silenced.
            I am proud of my dissertation accomplishment and the writing that followed since because it has been the culmination of a eight-year project working with relocated refugee youth in and out of school. I’m also proud of the numerous grants I’ve written in the last four years at Fairfield University – grants totaling almost $400,000 that I use to invest in classroom teachers and students, especially those ostracized and marginalized by our society. I think I’m also proud of the grants that are rejected, too, because I learned from them that my vision isn’t always aligned with those who have the most money (and that’s okay). I’m also thrilled to have just published the 3rd edition of POW! The Power of Words, a collection of Connecticut young writers resulting from Young Adult Literacy Labs and a teacher institute at Fairfield University, a culmination of my research and 22 years of working with K-12 schools. Finally, I have maintained a daily blog and, to date, I’ve had close to a million readers. That’s crazy. Who are these people who find their way to my mental meanderings? Am I writer? No, not really. I am a thinker and blogging allows me to share my writer's notebooks online.
            So, what have I been thinking about lately? Well, I wrote what I wanted to say today. I had to write it out so I knew what my thoughts actually were.  I’ve also been thinking about deconstructing violence in the English classroom, an article tracing my work with the NO MORE VIOLENCE project in Louisville and the importance of deconstructing violent acts as depicted in young adult literature. I share the heroism of Vicki Soto and the work of the Newtown Poetry Project led by Carol Ann Davies. I’m also thinking about my political collaboration with the CT Mirror: Special Report: Education, Diversity, and Change in Fairfield County, and the interactive website made available to anyone with a search engine. I'm working on writing how that website came to be.
            But, you know what? None of that writing matters as much as having the opportunity to respond to a letter sent to me on Google Docs by Chitunga, this kid who chiseled his way into my world. Nothing is as important than the notes I send to my sisters, mom and dad via Facebook and text messaging. Words matter. It’s like those I recently wrote in a workshop with 75 middle school kids when they challenged me, on the spot, to write something using random words they shouted out:
I am the metamorphosis / the madman with muscle / hatching from the chrysalis / of an MLK dream, / the miracle of a caterpillar spreading its celestial wings / in mind-blowing movement / and a magical monkey / chomping on a leaf / while getting older / because I’m becoming more aware every step of the way.
I also told them,
U gotta write / for what’s right /& fight / with all u’r might / To insight incite / and to ignite a spotlight / to put yourselfin the limelight / outright & forthright / A’ight?

According to my calculations this is the 3rd page of words and that should have me around 12 minutes (with 3 minutes left to spare). I will give those minutes up in hopes to create more dialogue for all of us in the end. Today, I was asked to do a workshop on ten-minute plays and that is what I’ll do this afternoon. In my opening remarks, however, I wanted to paint a broader stroke about this writing thing and the ubiquitous impact it has. Thank You.

1 comment:

  1. Bryan-- you are in inspiration! Thanks for visiting GA.