Just Write It

Journey fans: Taking a few days hiatus to a) lead Young Writers Project'sFall Celebration of Writing (more here: youngwritersproject.org, b) I need to plan it out a bit and c) I need to get some of my slides converted to digital.)

In August 2006, when Young Writers Project came to be as a nonprofit, I created a Web site and within weeks it was out of control AND had become a community. Before Facebook and Tumblr and Twitter and Instagram, this was a social media site before anyone had heard the term.

The site, the community, was based on trust: No moderation, treat people with respect. For teens, respect and civility means safety, the safety to take creative risk, the safety to write how you really feel and think and not worry about getting slammed. The activity exploded with posts and commenting and collaborations. I was, in all this, an afterthought, a ghost, as in "who's gg?" Cool.

What I saw there, what I see there now on the new site that is open to youths anywhere in the world, is that they know digital writing. They feel it in their bones. They know there is an audience of peers to help them shape, change, improve, expand, continue their ideas. This gives them motivation. They jump in. They know, too, that professionals may come by and offer additional help or will help them gain certain skills through informal live workshops. This gives them confidence. And they also know that their best work will get presented to valued audiences -- in newspapers, on radio and TV, on stage, on other Web sites and/or, in our digital monthly magazine: The Voice, the gem, the Holy Grail.

This is such, sweet, sauce.

Our vision: Help youths gain the confidence and communication skills they need to shape their world.

Our motto: Just Write It.

Like this:

Our method is simple. And it comes in three parts:

  1. Explore the idea, gain enthusiasm for it, own it.
  2. Take in feedback, consider it, re-explore your piece. Polish it.
  3. Find audience for the best to affirm the ideas, the voice, the effort.

All in a civil online space.

So below is a prime example of what happens. What began as a poem, became a poem with a photograph, became a digital story with narration, became a digital story with the author's own created music.

Digital writing spurs the evolution of expression.

Enjoy this:


Her words:

The author/videographer/photographer/musician is a high school senior. She's been working with us since fifth grade. Her name is Erin Bundock and she is from Shelburne, Vermont. Remember the name.

The Journey (2) -- Bears

July 5, 1983. Somewhere in the Labrador wilderness on the edge of a lake, on the edge of the railroad tracks.

With the last blare of the train whistle a memory, we set about pitching three tents, making a cook area and getting the canoes down by the water. It is fairly flat, scrub alders and a few tall tamaracks.

We six had been jammed together in two pickups for the three days it took us to get to Sept Iles to the train north. Along the way we had all picked up colds or some kind of stomach thing, though that may have been from any one of the restaurants along the way, ingloriously named Restaurant #547 or Restaurant #2308. All dreadful. So in the pickups and for most of the train ride, we had hunkered down in our seats in silence and rested our bodies and prepared our minds for what lay ahead.

But nothing has prepared me for this trip.

I am a freelance journalist. I'm 32. And in my lifetime I've paddled canoes 2,500 miles in the wilderness. But that is nothing. Carl, 62, has 25,000 miles, his son, Doug, more than half that, but his specialty is rapids. Russell is an unknown, a friend of Doug's with a sly sense of humor, a narrow nose and a .22 rifle. Paul is a three-year med student who seems worried; I don't think he's trained much -- he hasn't had time. Gordie is a young hippie from my hometown, nephew of the pharmacist, funny. Gordie was supposed to bring a satellite radio.

We shuffle around to make camp; there is no order, no understanding of who does what or who is in charge. So we work on our own things and bungle along until finally Carl takes hold and breaks the silence and we are happy, for the moment, to be led. 

Within an hour tents are up, canoes set, fire going, pasta in the pot and Russell finds us a couple of lake trout that liked his fly; cornmeal fillets snap in the fry pan lard. We eat standing, madly waving off the black flies. When we're done, someone, I'll never tell, reveals the last half pint of whiskey. Gone.

After dinner we hang the food bags -- smoked meat, carbohydrates and starches, beans, lard, honey and syrup -- in one of the tamaracks 30 feet or so from the tents. It is bear territory. No question. But No way they can reach the three canvas bags gently swaying 15 feet off the ground.

We go to bed in the light, weary. It will be 10 or so before dark; 4 a.m. will bring dawn.

It is dusk when we hear the bears. We are all awake. But silent. We know better than to move or speak. My head is close to the tent door and slowly I turn it so I can see what they are doing. They are jumping like fat men. And swatting. And growling. Damnedest sight. Three enormous black forms trying to reach something they can't. They do this for five, 10 minutes. More it seems. They grow frustrated. It is getting darker and harder to see them, sometimes I don't; I just hear them. They start wandering on all fours, towards us, then away, under the food, over to the tree, and then back to us, I hear one of them bash the cook box. I begin thinking that maybe we won't make it past day one of our 50-day journey.

I close my eyes.

In my mind, I see this:

The Journey (1) -- Train

Who doesn't have a story about a train?

And when we hear these sounds, those stories come alive:

My story is this.

Flip back in time to July 5, 1983. Five other men and I are about to begin what will become a 50-day, 800-mile canoe trip into the center of Quebec wilderness, then north to the sub-arctic region of Ungava Bay. We intend to follow the route NOT taken by a Hudson Bay Company explorer in 1620. He did not take our route because the passage was considered too dangerous -- almost constant rapids and drops.

We take the train from Sept Iles, proceed north on the edge of Labrador and then, at a spot agreed upon with the engineer, the train stops and we unload our canoes, food and gear. Everyone gets out. Mostly the train is carrying Montagnais and Naskapi -- small, nomadic Cree tribes -- and Inuit. They are alternately confused, amused, respectful of the six white men with a strange language who are embarking on this journey. They are friendly. They have given us information on the rivers and territory using drawings and maps. They wish us luck by gesture. The engineer and conductor and brakeman all shake our hands, and everyone gets back on the train. Except us.

We watch as the train gains motion and then momentum and pulls away north, up a slight slant to the left, then, as it approaches a corner to the right, we hear, in the distance, the double whistle blast, a goodbye, as the train and its red lights on the last car disappear into the wilderness. We are left to the lonely silence of our thoughts as we turn and look to the edge of the lake that will begin our journey.

We set about to make camp and supper.

#digiwrimo 6 -- The Ideas

Sometimes, maybe all the time, I feel like this picture.

The inside of my brain

I always feel like I'm in a rush, swirls of wind and color and noise all about me, trying to keep up with the voice within to do this and then that and then the other thing. Everything always seems so damned urgent. Why is this?

Perhaps it comes from years in the news business. Or from running a nonprofit. But I suspect it's genetic, too, just the way I was put together.

The blind rush forward takes me down unexpected paths to unexpected ideas and-- some good, some, well, less than good. But that's OK; there are always plenty.  Often I find something that needs more money, or more expertise or more time. It is difficult to breathe in and give the idea some care and feeding. To figure out how it can actually be done.

In the newspaper business I used to plan for three possible stories: There was the go-outside-and-breathe-and-then-come-back-in-and-write-it story. There was the story where you go out and most everything works, you find most of the people you need, you gain an understanding, you see the framing question and story. And then there's the fun level, when you go out and find something totally unexpected, something far more interesting than you imagined.

In the nonprofit business it's figuring out how to do it with what you've got, the resources that are available. How can you execute the idea to the best level possible? In a word, how can you nurture the idea -- with all urgency -- and find the resources you don't have, to take the idea to the level you really want. The level of cool.

Now that's a challenge.

#digiwrimo 5 -- The Photograph

I remember the first time I saw this photograph. I was in the library in high school. My assignment was to do some research about the time and conditions surrounding The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Even then, I loved Steinbeck's writing, the power of his subjects, his characters, his descriptions. And I was deeply moved by Grapes of Wrath.

'Migrant Mother' - Florence Owens Thompson, 1936; photograph by Dorothea Lange

'Migrant Mother' - Florence Owens Thompson, 1936; photograph by Dorothea Lange

The school librarian led me to a book of photos taken during the Great Depression, and as I thumbed through it, there she was, full page, starting out at me: Ma Joad. Or so she seemed.  I did more digging and read some of Steinbeck's news articles on the migrant farm workers -- one in Life magazine -- and learned that from that journalism, Steinbeck had crafted his novel. His fiction had more power than reality. I was captured. I decided I simply must become a journalist. So I did.

It is years later -- too many years if you ask me -- and this photo still captivates me. Over the years, I have learned a lot more about it.  The photo almost wasn't taken. Dorothea Lange was on the road in 1936 headed home after several days of shooting pictures. She drove past this woman and her children and saw them beside the road in a sad looking tent. For 10 miles she thrashed with herself about not stopping. Finally she turned around, returned to the woman, snapped six frames and headed back home. It was unusual for her; normally she'd stop and connect with her subjects. She'd at least get the woman's name. She didn't.

Decades later, a reporter found out the woman was Florence Owens Thompson, a longtime employee of a local hospital. Turns out Florence hated the photo. So did Lange -- Lange because she felt it wasn't hers, that it had become a symbol out of her control; Thompson because she felt it made her and her family look bad and glorified poverty.

I also have learned that John Steinbeck saw this photo. It was what spurred him to take action, to look into the issue of migrant labor, to write the news and magazine articles and, finally, to write a novel that still opens peoples' eyes about migrant labor.

I've used this photo many times in writing groups. I've encouraged teachers to use it with their students. A powerful, compelling photo always yields great responses. Even from ex-drug addicts. On Wednesday nights, I used to lead writing sessions with people recovering from opiate addiction. One night I had them write to this picture. None had seen it before. All of them described the woman as a drug addict, further proof of how we let our own experiences frame others' stories.

That night, I also played them the recording below, of Florence, in her late 70s, talking about that time in her life back in 1936.  "Wow," said one of the ex-addicts. "And I thought I had it rough."

So take a listen. It will change how you view the photograph. And it will show you the power of sound, of real voices, in digital writing.

For more ideas surrounding this photo (and a transcript of the recording and more background), click here.

#digiwrimo 4 -- The Mailing

YWP hunkered down...

Young Writers Project is a whirlwind today. We are gearing up for our fantabulous Celebration of Writing this Saturday -- a full day of workshops, a Celebration with a keynote, youth readers and door prizes, live streams, a roving youth news crew and lots of chocolate and great food.

AND, we're doing a mailing to friends, donors, parents, etc., begging -- in a nice way -- for some money to keep us going AND to match an amazing challenge from a Boston foundation -- if we raise an additional $50,000 in increased or new gifts, the foundation will give us $50,000. So we're writing letters, signing them, putting notes on them, folding them, inserting them, closing them, boxing them and, then, posting them.

Sometimes we get a little giddy. Actually often we get a little giddy. Here is what it sounds like, or what YWP Board Member Kathy Folley sounds like:

#digiwrimo 3 -- The Day

This is what the day looked like:


This is what it sounded like:

It was a gray wind. The bell you hear has a story. My Aunt Ruth, who died in 2006 at the age of 95, was a force. She knew what she wanted. Every day. And she did it. One day she was shopping in Portland, Me., and she went by this wind chime store and heard a chime that sounded like a bell buoy. She loved it. She walked right in and bought it and had it shipped to me with a note that said: "Geoffrey, I bought this for you because I knew you missed the sea."

This is what we did, I swear to god:

Put new weather stripping on each of the windows.

Washed the windows.

Made a gallon of applesauce.

Cut, chopped and stacked a half a cord of wood from the drug-from-the-woods pile of limbs and downed trees. Wood for the sugar house come March.

At sunset, watched the colors go from gray to gold to orange to red and listened to the birds.

At dark, which came too early, heard a small group of deer walk by me in the woods in back.

#digiwrimo 2 -- The Day

The light electrifies the morning, all green and yellow and orange and brown. Heavy frost last night.  Late fall in Vermont. The birds are moving; the animals are restless. Changing patterns, changing seasons.

Last night, coming home from work, in the dark before the moon rise, I came around a corner, open fields on either side and there was a buck deer, 10-points, standing at the edge of the ditch on the left side of the road.

One hundred feet ahead on the left. Standing there. Deciding.  He. Did. Not. Move.

I slowed. And then I saw him move, turning his head towards me as I pulled up next to him, our eyes on each other, just for a moment; I zipped down my window. In a smooth, steady motion, he turned and was gone, disappearing into the black like a mystery.

I continued on.

A possum. A skunk. And when I got home, in a lower branch of one of the oaks, an owl.  I got out of the car, stood in the drive and adjusted my eyes as the moon rose and the world lightened up in a bluish white, I made out owl's form, and then he was as clear as glass.

I wake up to this morning to the white frosted colors sparkling, brisk. All reminders that we must slow down to see, that we must find time to stop and be gentle to ourselves.


#digiwrimo begins...

I'm cheating of course.

It's not Nov. 1, when #digiwrimo formally begins. But that's OK. I just need to warm up. My intention is to just write stories, whatever comes to mind. I am not going to worry about why or how they come out, I am just going to give myself 7-10 minutes and see what comes.


I am sitting at my desk at Young Writers Project in Burlington, VT. I have my fall coat on because I just went outside to the Indonesian food cart and was quite shocked at how cold it has gotten. I got a chill. And I realized, too, that I should have worn my coat. Sad news for the vendor -- too cold to order and wait. I will content myself with cider and a p,b&j.

I have a full floor to almost-ceiling window to my right. Here it is on the, er, left. We are in a historic building and we look out over a parking lot and then a train yard. It is the last vestige of historical Burlington which once was a major seaport on Lake Champlain, the almost Great Lake, that connects to the Hudson River via canal to the south and the St. Lawrence River via the Richelieu River to the north. In the Revolutionary War the Lake was a strategic thoroughfare and was the scene of several conclusive battles. In the 1800s it was a major lumber port. Now it is a tourist attraction.

But I like the reminder of what once was.

American waterfront cities have destroyed themselves and much of their history with development -- condos and fancy restaurants and boutiques with gold-leaf signs beckoning you in to buy high-priced products. I am sorry if I sound harsh, but that is how I feel.

My ancestors were sea people. My great-grandfather was a Swedish seaman who immigrated to the U.S. in 1862 where he was immediately given citizenship and conscripted into the Civil War and sent to blockade the South. Later, he became a sea captain in the China trade -- gone for several years at a time -- and then a Boston Harbor pilot. He told his son that the era of wooden sailing ships were over and he should find another occupation; the sea is no place for a man, he said, the steel, engine-driven freighters were taking over. My grandfather ignored him, to an extent, and became a harbor pilot and raced pilot schooners out to the ships to bring them into port; later he brought in the big destroyers for re-fitting and the ocean liners. By his retirement, he told my father that the world had changed, that giant tankers with small crews were taking over; gone were the sail makers and the dock workers and all the other sea businesses. The sea was no place for a man, he said. So my father went inland.

And those are the things I think about sometimes when I look out my window or I wander around the train yard and look at what many would consider an ugly view. I love it. It is real and industrial and speaks of the past.

What would you write?

Photo prompts are extremely effective ways to get kids (or adults) to write. Regular use of visual prompts will allow for regular, engaged writing. And regular writing -- practicing writing --  improve skills, i.e., practice makes writing easier, builds the writer's confidence and enhances the quality of their work.

There is another theory at work. I've been interested to hear teachers say that open-ended assignments -- Write about whatever you want to write about ... or Write a story... -- often bring the least imaginative responses and lower quality responses. If you restrain that freedom just a bit, but offering a visual prompt or an evocative phrase as a prompt, you are more likely to see greater imagination and engagement.


So this is one of a number of appealing photos we've gleaned from shorpy.com My response: (and what is yours? Go ahead, write something in the comment box! Have fun with it!)

Every day we do this. Every day we bake in our tiny little house and our tiny little yard here in Terre Haute. And then Dad comes home. And we get in the Packard and go down for a shake or a Pop or a burger. And some AC. Love that AC. Dad usually buys 10 minutes worth but it's well worth it. Between the shake and the cool air, I feel alive again. But I don't like it when Dad makes us close the windows. He says it keeps the cool in longer, but it makes me feel scared, like something is going to come out of the tubes and crawl into my ears.

Going viral ...

So an odd thing happened to me in a space of 36 hours: A story I wrote and posted on cowbird.com more than a year and a half ago went viral, thanks to a recommendation from upworthy.com. Wow.  

It began as a dribble. A message from a friend who said she got a message from a friend who'd gotten a message from a friend to read my story Lily  about a small moment in my life with my youngest daughter.

That night, I got a tweet from Adam Mordecai, god bless his soul, who said that that his site, upworthy.com was going to feature my story. Brace myself, he said.

Wow again. The dribble became a flood. Views zoomed. Just like that. Then 75, 85, no check that, 105, 200 tweets and retweets and favorites and 50,000 views in 12 hours, no make that 60,000, and then 150,000 new views and that was, is, SO cool. Really. It is. You write something. You get some response. Nice response, I might add, and then 18 months later, a tsunami. A writer's dream. ( And on the same day that my pal, Stephen Kiernan, formally sold movie rights to his new book, The Curiosity. So what's the THIRD great thing to happen? Can't wait.)

But, like any recovering journalist, I have some observations, questions, perspectives:

  • The site, upworthy.com, is a powerful force in driving traffic.
  • Most of the Twitter-shares were simply the Upworthy headline and links generated by the simple press of the share button beside the story on upworthy.com. 
  • I responded to many and got some delightful replies back. 
  • And I await some statistics, but I fear that not that many people followed the link to cowbird.com and then explored and found some of the wonderful stories there.

So the activity, to me, follows an observation: we adults read something, pass it on, follow other people's links and pass them along, too. We have specific people, sites and feeds that we follow. And that's about all we have time for.

When the Web began (back in the early 1990s; I remember because in 1995 I led the creation of what was then the THIRTEENTH newspaper site on the entire Internet -- imagine!) the catch phrase was to "surf" the Web, as in explore, find something new and unexpected. When was the last time you heard that phrase? It was the joyous, adventurous time when it was smaller and more manageable and not dominated by monetization and largeness. It was anarchy; and exploratory. Now? I, we, want help in knowing what to read. We don't have time to surf, to sift, to explore. And, too, our behaviors are changed. Tell me.  Now. What should i read? Which is why upworthy.com works.

Does it lead to a deeper connection? Do these "viral" moments lead to more viewers, sustained viewership that leads to more people exploring my own work or the work of the amazing storytellers on cowbird.com? Or, even, to the work that really  consumes me, youngwritersproject.org?

Probably not. We are, now, overwhelmed with notifications and promotions and links and favorites and so it is not in our behaviors patterns to add more, or to explore or to find new. We look at what is in our world -- our friends, interests, value-systems. 

Which is the irony of my and many of my former colleagues' lives as recovering journalists. We are not, necessarily, bumping into the unexpected. We are not surfing. And we are not buying newspapers where we turn the page and find a totally riveting but unexpected story about something we knew nothing about.

And that's where a site like Upworthy comes in. This is the new newspaper. And their curators are, in fact, serving the same purpose as newspaper editors serve(d). And the site's ecclectic collection, though narrow in some respects (just like a newspaper) by necessity because their own definition, criteria and purpose needs to be clear so that it can succeed.

A side note is that we are also noticing at Young Writers Project that kids, formerly explorers, now want, expect, demand these same kinds of curatorial or aggregating services/features/sites as adults. I don't have time to comb through all that, tell me what is the best, what should I read?  And kids are acting like adults in other ways: They want things to work. Now. Always. And when they don't, they're frustrated. They explore less. They have less of a sense of how Web sites work. They're more fearful of what might happen if they press the wrong button.

I remain a Neanderthal. A digital citizen raised in the Early Jurassic Period. I still prefer reading the physical version of the New York Times to its incarnation on my iPad. (I actually sneak out to buy the NYT sometimes at the local filling station.) I love surfing the Web. I'm pissed that stumbleupon.com doesn't give you random stuff but tailors it to your interests and patterns. And my entire family tries to flummox Netflix by simultaneously watching slasher movies and the latest never-ending BBC series.  And it is why I remain a recovering journalist -- I'm always trying to figure out why or what something means.

Because in my heart I really should just sit back and relish this rare and enormous audience. Real people appreciating a small thing I wrote. So I'll admit it. I love that so many people are reading my little story about my daughter when she was 2. As one reader told me, Feel the love, man. Feel the love. I do. I swear. 61,370 times and counting. Make that 70,300 ... 102,517 ... 169,404. Cool.

But at one newspaper where I once worked, each day's stories went to 300,000 readers. On Sunday's, 400,000. Every day. Every week. My how the world's communication system has splintered.