One book, two dozen authors
Nearly a decade ago, somewhere in the self-centered cloud of my mid-20s, I was working at a local bookstore and just beginning to reach beyond my own little world to become, for lack of a better term, an engaged citizen.
In my public relations role at the store, I often worked with schools and occasionally spoke to students about the love of literature and creative writing.
One day, I met a woman who taught English at Owasso High School.
We hit it off immediately. Her taste in fiction upended my snobby assumptions about the quality of a humanities education in a “small town” like Owasso.
Not long after our initial meeting, she invited me to speak to her class of seniors. Driving north on Highway 169 the next week, it dawned on me that I’d never been to Owasso. I’d lived in Tulsa for most of my life. But to the uninterested mind, there’s little difference between 15 miles and 15,000.
I planned to give roughly the same presentation I’d given many times before — a stump speech of sorts — some humor, some insight, nothing life-changing. I was only seven or eight years older than these students; how much did I have to offer?
The talk was OK. We laughed, no one threw anything, and a few of them may have even scribbled my suggested reading titles in their notebooks. These were good kids.
Driving back to the bookstore, bored with myself, I had a thought. What if the Owasso High School students and I worked together as one creative force to write a novel? I shared my idea with their teacher, and for reasons that remain unclear, she said, “yes.”
Once a week I was given an hour with the students to work on our book. How does a group — much less a group of teenagers — attempt to write a novel? The biggest hurdle was creating one vision of a story two dozen minds could not only comprehend, but also grow.
The solution came slowly but fully formed. We created an idea board with photos of actual homes, buildings and settings. That way, when we discussed the “home” in the story, everyone knew if had off-white vinyl siding, a red brick chimney and a screen door with a tear that was never fixed.
Each role was “cast” to a real-life actor — in our minds, at least. Headshots and magazine pages adorned the dry erase board at the back of the classroom.
It took some time, but we found our rhythm. The students were split into small groups to work on consecutive chapters and retain some consistency of tone. As you might expect, some kids got into it more than others. Some had a natural inclination for writing; some didn’t. But week after week, we produced.
I’d never had a desire to teach. But stepping into that brief role flipped a switch inside me. Not to teach more, just to do more.
As the end of the semester neared and we finished our project — a rural, coming-of-age novella — I persuaded my boss at the bookstore to let the kids host a book signing. The school printed and bound copies of our book — just enough for the students and their extended families and neighbors, who were the bulk of the audience.
Those former students are now the age I was when we did this crazy project. I wonder if the experience means as much to them as it still does to me. Maybe to a few. That’s enough.