Today, we welcome Frank W. Lewis to the site to share his perspective on the magic of the  Literary Lots project, which re-purposes abandoned spaces and bring art and literacy programs to the children of Cleveland OH in partnership with the Cleveland PL. It’s exciting stuff!  Don’t miss the first post in the series: The Library as Placemaker.  ~Erinn

chalkboard photoby Frank W. Lewis

Bestselling novelist Mary Doria Russell recently noted on her blog that she started writing The Sparrow — a complex, deeply haunting story about the lone survivor of the first mission to a planet with intelligent life — with no notion of where it was headed. “In September of 1991, I’d produced ten pages about this damaged, almost mute man. Everyone was angry with him, but I didn’t know why, and I had no idea what to do next.” I find this stunning. The Sparrow is a gut-wrenching tale whose many thematic layers include the nature of faith, the clash of cultures, and the human capacity to recover from unspeakable trauma. It won prestigious awards and remains in print 20 years after its release. And it was begun on a whim with just the barest hint of an idea.

Many writers talk about the process in terms of finding one’s way. E.L. Doctorow likened writing to driving at night in the fog: “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Journalist and author David Carr says, “Writing is less about summoning the muse than about hanging in until the typing becomes writing.”

Or perhaps channeling. The common thread in these quotes is persistence, but writers will often allude to something almost mystical as well. Russell says that her routine includes quitting at least once a week in the face of some vexing plot point —  then promptly resuming work when the solution suddenly becomes clear (often in the shower). Eric Anderson, a poet and creative writing teacher who participated in an Ohio City Writers program for teens, put it this way: “It’s like the story wants to be told.”

I’ve read enough about creativity and intelligence to understand, at least vaguely, what’s going on here. The left hemisphere of the brain organizes and analyzes information at the granular level; the right hemisphere steps back and points out connections and possibilities. Trees and forests, forests and trees. This aspect of writing — of creativity in general — fascinates me. It’s fun to believe that there might be elves living among those trees, whispering to us when we’re distracted by the mundane.

literary lots meadow

Kids get this. They’re open to the everyday magic that we no longer see and thrill to the delight of visiting imaginary places. So when Kauser Razvi approached me about helping with the Literary Lots, I didn’t need much convincing. More than anything else, a single word she’d used hooked me: “Fantastical.”

As Kauser explained last month, creative use of existing and potential public spaces is a big deal in Cleveland, where the population keeps shrinking but the old borders remain in place. That’s an important element of Literary Lots. But so too is capitalizing on that fascination that kids have with stories by meeting them on their level — which is higher than ours.

That’s why I love Kauser’s vision for Literary Lots — it’s ambitious and inspired. Reading books to kids, and engaging them in arts and writing programs, that’s all great; but offering those things in a story-inspired setting they’ve never seen before is better by leaps and bounds. It engages kids in new ways, bringing together resources only adults can provide and the creative energy only kids possess. It helps them see the possibilities for urban neighborhoods, and the power of ideas. And we hope it will serve as a launching pad for still more ideas.

Writing is about far more than telling stories. It’s the science of expression. It’s algebra with words. It’s the social studies of one’s own life. Writing exercises all the mental muscle groups and sharpens vision. It’s the most powerful force available to humans. It is — and I say this with a straight face — a form of magic. And kids need to know that some magic is indeed real.

 

lewisheadshotFrank W. Lewis is the founder and executive director of Ohio City Writers, a nonprofit youth creative writing center in Cleveland’s most vibrant neighborhood. In a previous life he was a journalist, which wasn’t nearly as much fun.

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