Young writers are full of horror
What I learned from teaching a workshop to 10 year olds about anxiety, horror and distrust
I recently taught a writing workshop to a group of 10-13 year olds. The focus was on crafting science fiction and fantasy, something I’ve written about and talked about for many years, but I’d never delivered a workshop to such young writers before.
Part of the challenge was the range of development and skills. 10 is actually very different to 13. A 10 year old can potentially still behave more like a very young child, while a 13 year old is verging on wanting to be an adult. I didn’t want to talk down to them or overly simplify the workshop, so we properly went for it with an exploration of character, themes, coming up with ideas, plot, avoiding tropes and more. It was challenging stuff, especially for the younger writers, but they all handled it.
Young people are fiercely intelligent, way ahead of the curve in understanding shifts in culture and language, see the world in a more tolerant and nuanced way and are generally quite impressive compared to anyone my age (I’m 42).
The main revelation for me was in the interests of the group. There were about ten writers in the workshop and dominant themes became clear very early.
In short, these kids are terrified.
The workshop wasn’t just me talking, it involved a lot of exercises and sharing of work, which gave me a real insight into what motivated them as creative people. Horror was the overriding genre of choice, with monsters and dire situations framing every discussion. When discussing futuristic settings, it was dystopias that they latched onto.
When they weren’t exploring the more monstrous end of the horror genre, they were poking at their inherent distrust of authority. Repeatedly there were themes of not being able to trust adults or authority figures - of being let down by older people.
A vein of anxiety ran through all of their story ideas and writing. The worlds they were creating in the workshop, or in other writing they shared, were about uncertainty and decline and a lack of safety.
I should stress, all of the writers were very relaxed in the workshop and seemed to be enjoying it. The anonymous feedback afterwards was all very positive. Conversations were positive, enthusiastic and there was a lot of wit between them. These were clever kids, engaged and insightful and eager to improve as writers.
But the themes that preoccupy them were so much darker than I’d anticipated. This is a generation that has grown up in a crumbling UK, with two years of Covid-19 dominating their memories. Go back a bit further and Brexit hit the country just as these kids were starting to form actual memories and opinions; regardless of how their parents reacted, or which side of the ideological divide they were on, I’m sure they would have absorbed the country’s general tension and malaise. In 2022 a war broke out on mainland Europe. They are acutely aware that they have been born into a climate crisis, due to the abuse inflicted upon it by previous generations.
Political upheaval, a global pandemic, environmental apocalypse and war close to home. And that’s without factoring in more personal issues that they might be dealing with. It’s so much more to deal with than anything I was aware of in the late-80s and early-90s. The world was still a mess back then, but to a 10 year old in the UK I felt very insulated from it all. Perhaps that was my family context, or the lack of the internet, or maybe I was just a bit thick. Kids today are smarter and more informed than I was at their age. And, of course, you can’t avoid noticing the climate crisis.
I’m primarily glad that these particular children and teenagers have writing in their lives as a way to express themselves, and to work through these concerns. Writing is a way of examining our fears and worries, turning them over in our brains and tipping them out onto the page. Sometimes that can make them less scary, or at least more manageable.
I worry for the kids who don’t write, or don’t paint or draw, who don’t code or compose music, who don’t build stuff out of LEGO or in Minecraft. The kids who don’t have safe ways to release the pressure.
The current British prime minister (feels like that could change any moment) recently announced a bizarre policy to force everyone to study maths until the age of 18. It was a weirdly specific tweak to the education system, very much coming from a man who has made a lot of money and knows how to manipulate numbers. Numbers are important (and I wish I was more competent at wrangling them), but they don’t help us deal with what’s inside our heads. Maths helps pay the mortgage, sure, but it’s the arts that get us through the day.
Of course, I don’t have an extensive background in teaching younger kids. Perhaps children this age are always filled with worries? They’re at an age where they become aware of their general lack of control, but are still a good half-decade away from being able to do anything about it and gaining real agency.
Despite all this, my main takeaway from the workshop was hope. Any time I interact with young people I'm usually filled with a optimism. They’re clever, kind, tolerant, diverse in their thinking, imaginative. The sooner they inherit the Earth, the better.
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Thanks for reading. I’m very curious to hear responses to this one.
In other news, I received this in the post:is a fellow writer on Substack, this being his first published anthology of short stories. I'm looking forward to diving in. Look at that cover, though. Beautiful work.
One of the big benefits of writing on Substack in 2022 was being surrounded by other fiction writers, all of whom are poking at the edges of how publishing online works. I expect that to continue through 2023, though as Substack continues to grow it’ll be interesting to see how the community shifts.
Thanks, and hope you’re all well.