Creative writing underway at Story Planet
Lately, it seems like kids aren’t picking up books. They may be reading on Kindles or computers, but actual books are on the decline—and recent studies suggest that this could be a bad sign for their literacy. According to a 2013 article from The Telegraph, the number of young people reading from screens has overtaken the number reading printed material for the first time in history. And according to the National Literacy Trust, an organization based out of the UK, young people who read daily from an electronic device were “less likely to be strong readers than those who read daily in print, and are much less likely to enjoy reading.” Luckily, organizations like Toronto’s Story Planet are finding engaging, creative ways to reconnect young people with books, storytelling, and the written word.
Like many things literary, Story Planet was inspired by a Dave Eggers project. In this case, however, it wasn’t McSweeney’s magazine, but rather the 826 National project, which is an organization with locations across the United States providing free tutoring and writing support for students and youth, with particular attention paid to creative endeavours. Story Planet is piloted by Liz Haines, a former children’s television developer who wanted to find, in her words, “programs that would allow kids to express their big silly ideas.” After traveling to the States for a visit to 826, Haines became determined to start a similar program in Canada, and Story Planet found a landing pad just west of Dufferin and Bloor.
Story Planet’s headquarters is the Intergalactic Travel Authority at 1165 Bloor Street West. The front of the store houses the Black Hole Coffee Bar and a modest selection of books and space-themed merchandise, while the back and basement hold most of the programming space. Run by a very small staff, Story Planet relies on the help of a network of dedicated volunteers to execute its programming.
Story Planet offers diverse and evolving projects, but there is one program that I find to be particularly interesting. On Friday mornings during the school year, Story Planet runs what they call Alpha Workshops tailored to classes of grade-school students from around Toronto. These workshops, under the direction of Program Coordinator Joe Lasko (and usually led, when I’ve been there, by AAHL Project Director Aaron Feldman), are guided by a simple concept. Over the course of two hours, the students will first discuss and explore different components and genres of stories, then be prompted to create a character and a setting for a story. Using these two elements as starting points, the students as a group will write a beginning and a middle for the story, which is projected onto the front wall and typed out as it happens. Students then split off to write their own endings. The story is accompanied by the work of local visual artists whose work helps carry the students through the creation process. The stories and the accompanying art pieces are then bound into individual books for each student to take home. Volunteers are always present to help keep the progress running smoothly—offering anything from pencil sharpening to spelling advice.
As a writer, I love volunteering for these sessions. The workshop sessions focus on the creative process, and are less concerned with functioning as an extension of the classroom experience. The program directors, Joe and Aaron, try to encourage students to engage in the process without raising their hands, or feeling pressured to provide a “right” answer. While the workshop is meant to be a learning experience, the emphasis is set firmly on the exploration of the most exciting parts of writing and storytelling, independent of graded assignments.
When the students are younger, Joe likes to pretend to receive a phone call from Story Planet’s Mars office as they are all sitting down, getting the unfortunate news that unless they come up with a certain number of stories by the end of the day, the Mars office will be forced to close (the number of stories always conveniently identical to the number of students present). Aaron is an expert at navigating a room full of ideas and voices, knitting the threads into one narrative, no matter how zany the ideas get. Watching him help the students write their story is like watching a busker juggle chainsaws: you’re always waiting for ideas to be dropped or feelings to be hurt, but he keeps everything deftly aloft.
You never know what sorts of ideas will be fielded from the students on a given day, and I’ve heard about everything from scary horror planets owned by McDonalds which are covered in whimsical holograms to lull you into a false sense of security, to a Greek island made of ketchup populated by cyclopses, ketchup witches with eternal life, and an evil Justin Beiber working under the pseudonym “Dr. Porkchop.” I’ve been introduced to characters who were werewolves, who had either no gender or a dual gender, who were made of clouds, or who were members of a crew of pillaging pirate cats, to name only a few. And no matter how many unique ideas are presented, the individual endings of the stories are always the most impressive demonstration of variation and infinite possibility.
In my own writing, I’ve often felt that I’ve written myself into a dull dark cul-de-sac, and it is a matter of immeasurable stress to restart the piece and rebuild the momentum. Taking part in a workshop with writers who are far less encumbered with self-consciousness has helped me come to appreciate the role of playfulness or levity in the creative process. This may sound trite, but if a ten-year old can write three pages in thirty minutes about ketchup witches and the romance between a cotton candy and a top secret unicorn government spy, I need to stop fretting over the motivations of my own anchored characters.
As adult readers and writers, I think it is very easy to forget both reading and writing are skills that need to be learned and nurtured in school, at home, and elsewhere. The free-wheeling fun, encouragement, and motivation that Joe, Aaron, and the whole Story Planet team offer to students allow them to discover all the pressure-free possibilities of being creative that could be lost if not attended to. I’m not sure that any of the students from the Alpha Workshops are old enough yet to have published their work, but I’m sure at least a few will before too many years go by.
They don’t generally let strangers sit in on the Alpha Workshops, but you can always drop by the ITA for a cappuccino, have a look around at all the books, and support the work that Story Planet does. If you’re lucky and you ask nicely, they may even let you see some of the art from the previous Alpha Workshops hanging on the wall in the back room. (Look for the illustration from the story “Super Cat.”) It may very well inspire some diligence in your own writing—or better yet, it may inspire you to volunteer yourself.