Ohio City Writers to Serve Young Scribes at Lorain Avenue Center

Last year I led an after-school creative writing club for fourth- and fifth-graders at my son’s school. On the first day everyone introduced themselves – name, grade, what kinds of books you like, etc. Everything was going fine until we got to Mary Jane, who stood up and declared: “My name is Cheez-It. I was born on Mars, and I moved here from California yesterday.”

For about two seconds, no one reacted. Then hands shot up all around the room as the other kids begged to change their answers. To restore order I had to prom-ise that the following week we’d set aside time to choose nicknames for everyone.

I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. But to my great relief the kids came back, week after week, and dove with increas-ing confidence into each new project. We deconstructed some well-known super-hero origin stories, then created our own. We listened to awesome songs about triv-ial topics, like Run-DMC’s “My Addidas,” and penned our own lyrics– some of which weren’t trivial at all but deeply heartfelt. We wrote short plays, which resulted in some chaotic, half-improvised perform-ances, which drove home the importance of working through your story on paper. At least I hope it did.

At any rate, we had fun, and the expe-rience affirmed my then-tentative plan to leave journalism behind for good and open a non-profit creative writing center for Cleveland kids.

If an idea becomes a reality the first time someone calls a meeting to discuss it, then Ohio City Writers was born on October 20, 2010. That’s the day I met with Eric Wobser and others from Ohio City Inc. to pitch my plan. As it turned out, Eric was familiar with the San Francisco-based model I am emulating and had long believed it would be a perfect fit for Ohio City. Eric then brought in Cleveland Public Art and Councilman Joe Cimperman, and a plan came together.

Sixteen months later I write this in the storefront space I’m renting in the Miller Building, at West 32nd and Lorain. Since signing the lease late last year, I’ve been painting, acquiring furniture, raising money and otherwise preparing to open the doors to young aspiring writers from across Northeast Ohio.

Ohio City Writers’ mission is to organize programs and volunteers to help kids and teens hone their skills with the written word and, by extension, their critical-thinking and problem-solving abilities. As The College Board’s National Commission on Writing asserted in 2003, “Whether on paper or on screen, writing is an over-looked key to transforming learning in the United States.” That’s because writing is about far more than telling stories. It’s the social studies of one’s own life. It’s the science of personal expression. It’s algebra with words. Writing exercises all the mental muscle groups and sharpens vision. As Flannery O’Connor once put it, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

Of course there are literacy programs in Cleveland, and organizations that engage kids in writing as some large or small portion of their missions. I’ve met with folks at many of them. My goal is not to replace any of them or duplicate efforts, but to expand on what’s available in Greater Cleveland. What will make Ohio City Writers different is our ability to organize workshops in every conceivable type of writing, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and led by people with real-world experience. Our students will benefit from the guidance of accomplished and passionate writers, from every genre and discipline, from across Northeast Ohio. And whenever possible we’ll help students turn their written words into publications, blogs, podcasts, songs and performances, through collaborations with local publishers, artists, venues and anyone else who wants to support the cause.

In fact what you’re reading now is the introduction of one such collaboration. Ohio City Writers’ role in the reboot of The Argus will be getting kids involved as contributors. What better way to connect with your neighborhood than to write about it?

When I set out to build a network of supporters for OCW, I started with people I’d worked with and met during my years as editor of Cleveland Free Times and Scene. Those small circles widened quickly, and I am continually amazed and inspired by the way the Near West community in particular has rallied around the project. Ohio City Inc. and Detroit Shoreway made the previously vacant storefront space available at start-up-friendly terms; I’d be nowhere, literally and figuratively, without them. Open Yoga Gallery, Happy Dog, Great Lakes Brewing, Prosperity Social Club and Market Garden Brewery have all hosted fundraising events, and Palookaville Chili is planning one. Sam Cahill of Second Shift Design Studio is building tables for us. An Ohio City babysitting co-op donated a load of notebooks, pens and pencils. St. Ignatius High School has agreed to encourage its students to volunteer to work with younger kids. And every week I hear from new folks who want to get involved.

In 2010, when I was still pondering whether to pursue this project, I read Children of God, the magnificent sci-fi novel by Cleveland-area writer Mary Doria Russell. Near the end I came across this line: “It will be well, he told himself, and let the universe take care of itself while he took care of one apt and eager student.” This single, beautiful sentence nudged me closer to committing and still serves as a guiding principle. Is it pos-sible to change the world one child at a time? I don’t know, but I can’t think of a better way to try.