ANN ARBOR Don t be nervous, honey. Please. Don t be.
Hannah Smotrich, middle-aged, dark tendrils of frizzy hair falling alongside her smart, expensive eyeglass frames, presses gently on the small of her daughter s back, and urges her forward: Sweetie, dear. Watch. This will be fun. Then in a stage whisper, once her 7-year-old is safely out of earshot, Smotrich turns and confides: We ll see.
Smotrich watches her daughter walk down a hallway painted with a bright cartoony mural of gears and arrows. The girl inches forward with the tentative steps of a child entering a new school.
Which, in a sense, this is.
826 Michigan is a free creative writing program for children that feels as though it were taught by your wry, sarcastic, hip, older sister who listens to the Shins, reads Chuck Palahniuk, keeps up with National Public Radio, eats organic, lives for Wes Anderson movies, and covets her Buffy the Vampire Slayer box sets. That s the short-hand description, but it s a short-hand culture, and 826 is about a sensibility: informed, young, liberal, educated, casual.
All workshops filled on a first-registered basis are free. All tutoring (no appointment necessary) is completely free. (In Ann Arbor, new classes begin in a few weeks, but there s a one-hour parental orientation on Aug. 28.)
It offers after-school tutoring, and help with college-application essays. It has put on poetry readings, and staged theatrical productions, and published four books. And because 826 has become a national initiative, with seven chapters around the country, and considering the literary stars who have thrown their weight behind it from Roger Ebert and David Sedaris to Zadie Smith and Ira Glass you could argue it s the most elaborate act yet to preserve a generation of readers.
826 was started in 2002 by the writer Dave Eggers, whose best-selling 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, enabled him to create a mini-scene around himself, with a literary magazine (The Believer), a publishing house (McSweeney s), and this, a nonprofit chain of writing centers. 826 Michigan is the sixth chapter of what s become 826 National. 826 Valencia, the first, is in the Mission district of San Francisco (at 826 Valencia St.). Then there s 826 NYC in Brooklyn; 826 in Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles. Ann Arbor s 826 is the most recent addition, founded two years ago this summer. The next 826, on the edge of Boston, is expected to open next month.
The point is to develop writing skills in children who can spot condescension a mile away in children who are so familiar with the rhythms and formality of the classroom they re turned off their ability to think creatively, children whose default response, like the culture they ve grown up around, is ironic and knowing.
So a typical 826 workshop might be called Creative Whining, or Burning Cliches for Fuel, or Describing the Ocean to a Blind Person. At a workshop last spring, for instance, the subject sounded relatively mild bookmaking but the method was charming. Smotrich s daughter entered a wide room with a low ceiling and flat lighting. A dozen children filtered behind the Ann Arbor girl, and not knowing one another, they sat quietly and looked around apprehensively.
Jason DePasquale, 32, an Ypsilanti illustrator, stepped forward. He s the instructor, he explained. He s average height, with glasses, and the hesitant air of a graduate student. The kids warmed to him right away. Two things, he announced. One, can you guys help me write a story? And two, if it goes bad, do any of you have a couch at home I can sleep on?
He explained that Mr. Blotch lives in a nearby room. Mr. Blotch is their editor. They will come up with a plot and write a story and submit the pages and Mr. Blotch will either like it and publish it or Mr. Blotch will hate it and I ll be out of job. Mr. Blotch is another 826 volunteer; the man who plays him never shows himself to the children and speaks in a comical disembodied growl over a hidden amplifier. If Mr. Blotch likes the story (and he always does, eventually) it ll be photocopied, stapled together, and affixed with personally designed jacket art. But if he doesn t... DePasquale slipped a sample page of prose through Blotch s window. Seconds later, a flood of long thin shredded papers flew out. The kids giggled.
So think a tutoring center.
By way of Lemony Snicket.
Literally: Daniel Handler, who writes the playfully sardonic series under the name Lemony Snicket, is listed as a major donor. But then, in each city with a chapter, 826 has become a rallying point for its literary and entertainment community in Boston, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., sits on the advisory board; in New York, Sarah Vowell is on the board of directors; and last winter in Los Angeles, the writer-director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) hosted a fund-raiser for 826 that brought out Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, and Foo Fighters and Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.
I think they re fantastic, said Steve Almond, the writer of the bestselling memoir Candyfreak, and a volunteer with 826 s about-to-open Boston chapter. I mean, I ll do whatever they ask of me. It s in my best interest, as someone who chose writing as a career, to try and support them. I don t want to preach to the converted, to people who already read and write and attend book readings. I want to encourage. I had Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., to do it. If 826 were around when I was young, I would have had them.
DePasquale hands out a blue paper of Mr. Blotch s basics, and begins asking if the kids know what setting and plot is. They do. How about character? Can they come up with a neat character?
A kitty cat!
Uh, all right, he says, more?
OK, but we want to be original, he says. Right? We tried a Lenny Potter, but we got sued.
A few giggles.
They settle on the tale of a sad duck named Al-bob Joe-cob who wore earmuffs all the time because his ears were a source of great shame. The kids like it and a streak of confidence enters the room. DePasquale introduces the idea of conflict. Can anyone think how we cause problems?
Silence. Then a small voice.
A rabbit went to... no, a rabbit tried... no, a unicorn comes in and he stabs the duck to death!
DePasquale has a fast reply:
826 is violence-free. Why?
Unicorns don t stab?
A typical 826 workshop is a little Letterman, a little performance art, and a lot like the coolest English class you never sat through. 826 Michigan boasts a roster of 100 volunteers, about a few dozen of which stay regularly active. Some are teachers, some former English majors; a number are University of Michigan creative writing students. Nearly all are in their 20s and early 30s.
Though 826 regularly brings its workshops and tutoring to area schools which is often how parents first hear of 826 the group looks for a sensibility and enthusiasm in its volunteers, not a teaching degree. We interview everyone, said Amanda Uhle, executive director (and one of only two 826 Michigan full-time staffers), but we don t keep a list of qualifications or anything.
Which may be one reason they seem so effective, said Jeff Gaynor, an English teacher at Clague Middle School in Ann Arbor. I had them come in and I told them I had definite aims. I didn t want a free-form thing. And they were accommodating. They set goals, they kept a structure. Without losing a personal touch. They were very considerate, and having someone fresh is so motivating for students sometimes. Having someone who is motivated and engaged is better. Having them fun and happy is more than kids tend to expect.
Anything that gets a kid writing is good, said Cynthia Beekley, superintendent for the Springfield Local Schools.
One thing educators have come to realize is most of us identify good writing whether or not we re trained as educators. In some ways, creative writing is the easiest writing to get across: There isn t as much an emphasis on rules.
That said, programs like 826 may be an answer to the push for extending school hours, said Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank. But community-based programs tend to suffer from low evaluations, so it s hard to say how effective they really are. You have to wonder if all the pomp around [an organization like 826] can be enough in the end.
Indeed, despite tutoring hundreds a year (and roughly 20 a day), including a fair number of students from the northern Toledo suburbs who attend the workshops, 826 Michigan is not a financial powerhouse. They rent a sprawling rumpus room strewn with work tables, second-hand couches, and canisters stuffed with crayons. Unlike the other chapters, most of which are in working-class neighborhoods within easy walking distance of schools, 826 Michigan is on the outskirts of downtown, in a nondescript office park, between a former tamale stand and car dealership.
Being a nonprofit, annual operating costs are modest though high enough to worry about around $200,000. Funds come from benefits and grant money and the sale of compilations of student writing.
And oh, yes, monster goo.
Each branch operates a small storefront each instructional space sits behind a clever store full of things to spur the imagination, albeit useless things. The store sets the theme of each 826. In San Francisco, the wooden plank and beamed interior of 826 resembles a pirate ship, run aground in the Mission District. (If you need a glass eye or treasure map, and are visiting the Bay Area, it s your best bet.) In Brooklyn, 826 is a supply shop, for all your superhero needs; it s where New York buys its grappling hooks and cans of anti-matter. (The instructional areas are reached by passing through a secret door.) In Chicago, 826 operates a Boring Store, which had a Bland Opening, and sells perfectly boring stuff, like suede harnesses for your carrier pigeon. And in Ann Arbor, it s the Monsters Union Local 826, which sells condiments for tasteless children and jars of drool.
There s no cash register, just a cardboard monster head that donations get shoved into. One day earlier this summer it was empty. As Uhle walked around the shop pointing out monster accessories, she picked up a jar of drool and said, You know, if we ever do sell this one, we re gonna have to make a second.
Still, Eileen Pollack taught a workshop for 826 recently, and she was shocked by how many kids turned out. She s the director of the creative writing program at the University of Michigan; I m no brand name, but I ve held literary events for adults where no one shows up at all. Anyplace that gets a dozen teenagers to show is doing something right. There can be a sanctimonious feel to writing programs, and there s nothing sanctimonious to them.
Yet something nagged.
Ann Arbor is a literary town to begin with, she said. We have terrific teaching and fine book stores and poetry slams. My son hangs out at these places. To write here is not some geeky thing to do. It s cool. So it s not that 826 is not needed, but I can t help think it s icing on the cake.
Indeed, a supportive literary community is one of the prerequisites for a new 826 chapter, said Joel Arquillos, executive director of 826 National. Affiliates receive a loose set of programming ideas and the 826 brand; each chapter is required to be financially self-sustaining. We don t have the budget to expand, he said. We couldn t handle a big expansion, but I think we ve received proposals from every major city in the country. Truthfully, we don t know what expansion means, but the focus isn t on that. It s on places we are and helping those children, those communities.
A self-sustaining literary community is the reason 826 is in Ann Arbor to begin with, said Steve Gillis, who founded the chapter with $350,000 of his own savings. He figured grant money would be easier to land in Ann Arbor. He s now estranged from 826 for myriad reasons, he explains, but one, he says, is that the staff doesn t want to expand out of Ann Arbor into more under-served neighborhoods of Detroit. To call it disappointing is mild, he said. They just want to remain in a little safe haven.
However unintentionally, Gillis words seem to echo through 826 s mission. Helen Jacobson, a former teacher with the Boston and Cambridge school systems and the president of the 826 Boston executive board, said the best thing 826 can do is teach kids that there is a world of people who survive by being creative, and that they might aspire to it.
On a spring night, Roger Kerson, bald, confident, an MFA with the jittery vibe of a young Richard Dreyfuss, teaches Animals Behaving Badly in the 826 Michigan space. The goal is to write in the voice of an animal, to sympathize, to identify a telling detail. He holds up a picture of two grizzly bears and asks each student for a fact.
They re bears.
They re ugly.
They re brown.
They re near water.
Both have a mouth open.
They re wet.
Kerson nods, and nods, and nods, but on the last detail they re wet, the boy said, simply, observantly he stops and smiles with warmth, as if he has seen the future and this 8-year-old, this boy who noticed a grizzly is wet, will be a writer. Good, he says. Good. We ve wet bears. Anything else?
The same boy says, They re wet, their jaws are open, and water is dripping from their teeth.
Kerson says nothing.
He takes a seat and smiles.
For information on 826 Michigan, call 734-761-3463 or go to www.826michigan.org.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6117.