Tag Archives: Young Authors Conference

Why Write?—Middle Schoolers Respond

23 March 2016

A few days ago I taught at the opening day of the annual Young Authors Conference here in the Twin Cities. (The bulk of the event will happen in late May.) YAC has taken place for 26 straight years, and I’ve been there every single time. As ever, this was a wonderful opportunity to share the enthusiasm of over 1,000 young writers in grades 4-8. About 80 of them ended up in my sessions, and this year, the conference theme was “Why Write?”

In between bursts of speed writing from prompts (got to keep your chops in order), we became a temporary community and shared some of our answers to that question. Going in, I wondered whether a collection of early teens and ‘tweens—who were largely unknown to each other—would really be willing to open up about such a personal topic. To my joy, many were. Here are just a few of their responses [Note: stock photos are used below]:

In their regular classrooms, young writers are often isolated. At the Young Authors Conference, everybody present shares their interest.

In their regular classrooms, young writers are often isolated. At the Young Authors Conference, everybody present shares their interest.








Why do you write?

  • It helps me make sense of the world.
  • I want to shape things my way.
  • My grandpa is a writer.
  • Because that’s the way I figure things out.

Who do you write for?

  • My friend, “Angie” (who was sitting nearby).
  • I write for myself. I just like my stuff.
  • For my family. I want them to be proud.
  • For myself, so I can see what I think.
  • I write for my dog. My stories are all about him.
  • I write for my goldfish. He died.

Where do you want to go with your writing?

  • I want to write lots of stories.
  • To work in sports journalism.
  • I plan to write dystopian mysteries.
  • I have a whole bunch of ideas—should I put them all in my first book?
  • I just want to keep on doing it and see what happens.
  • Onto the next page!

Hey, I’m with that last comment. Keep the hand moving on the page—who knows what might come out?

The hand moving on the page—watching creation unfurl.

The hand moving on the page—watching creation unfurl.







Once again, those young writers have re-energized me for my own work. It’s such a joy to see their excitement, their concern to do the very best they can, their hunger to learn inside tips. And where else do you enter a room filling up with middle schoolers where early arrivals are all sitting at their desks, heads buried in heavy tomes?

Here’s to future literary accomplishments by young minds that are growing even as we speak . . .

I think she's set to roll, don't you? Look out, world.

Not even old enough for YAC yet, but I think she’s ready to roll, don’t you? Look out, world.

Rare Unpublished Interview

9 July 2014

Webmaster Stephen Kral (if you like elements of this site, he’s the one to thank) interviewed me last year, for possible publication in a West Coast journal. That never happened, so I figured I’d share it here:

SK: What books were in your home growing up? What stories first captured your imagination?

DG: Our home was stuffed with thousands and thousands of books from both my parents’ personal libraries. We siblings augmented those with our own growing collections built around trips to the Salvation Army store on Nicollet Island’s skid row out in the middle of the Mississippi, where books cost a nickel and once a year Grandmom would roll into town and take all us kids to buy as many as we could carry.

I can never remember a time when I didn’t love stories. The first to really capture me were Winnie the Pooh stories, which my mother read to me when we lived in London. When I was 10 or 11, my dad shifted all his childhood books into our house and I immediately dug in. Cursed Be the Treasure . . . The Black Liner . . . Treasure Island . . . Bomba the Jungle Boy at the Moving Mountain . . . names I’ve never forgotten.

In another way, the first stories to grab me were the ones told by my parents and grandparents about their adventures around the world. I knew that if I wanted to sit at the table and enter the conversation I’d need to head off and have some adventures myself!

SK: What kind of stories are you interested in writing today?

DG: Ones that won’t let the reader go. Ones whose influence works around in the back of your mind and reappears at unexpected moments. I tend to find my way into the stories by selecting the terrain (or setting) on which I’d like to work. Then I start mulling over the cultural specifics of the place, or which characters might be involved. Plus I’m always looking for converging themes that can be developed. I want to reshape my readers’ expectations and understandings of life.

SK: You have described yourself as “a lifelong vagabond traveler,” as someone interested in life’s side turns and its trails into the unknown. In what ways do you think this vagabond sensibility influences your writing?

DG: The world is a large and wondrous place. As Kipling said, “The wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Kathmandu.” I’m interested in creating and exploring characters who are willing to step out towards the edge of the map and keep going. I also view my passage through life as a series of twists and turns, following unexpected bends in the road.

I think the vagabonding approach has also helped me to hold the world’s demands at arm’s length. I’m a deeply Bible-believing Christian, and one of the messages of that book is that we are but wayfaring strangers, traveling through this world but never at home in it. Our true home awaits elsewhere. I’ve been on the road (spiritually, as well as physically) my entire life. Any demands made by a particular culture, or state apparatus, or whatever, are mere ephemera compared to eternity.

SK: Herman Melville could also be described as a vagabond of a kind and he considered the education he received as a young man on a whaling ship to be more valuable than what he might have learned at a Yale or a Harvard. As someone who has also worked on the deck of a ship, do you share Melville’s sentiment?

DG: I was very successful in academic settings, so I wouldn’t want to act as if they have no value. But I was always restless sitting in the classroom. Real life seemed to be going on outside the windows, while we were being presented sanitized and compartmentalized versions of the same thing. Truth be told, I’m not all that fond of working as a deck hand (Worst job ever? Trimming grain . . . especially for someone with severe hay fever), but the characters we encountered, the ports we explored, and the endless series of mad-panic crises we faced gave me more depth of insight into the thrust and meaning of life than anything a professor could choose to impart.

SK: To what extent is your writing autobiographical?

DG: Much of it is heavily autobiographical. I realized early on that what drove me to write was the same impetus as Jack Kerouac had—to mythologize my life. Of course, I’ve written pieces that are a long way from reality, but most of the time I’m drawing heavily on personal experience.

SK: When and where do you write? What is your writing routine?

DG: I do best in the mornings, especially when working on first drafts. Back in the day, aside from my writing partner (the late, great August Wilson), I seemed to be almost the only writer around who worked in restaurants and cafes, but with the rise of coffee shops and laptops, that’s become a commonplace. For me, the public settings provided a “white noise” background that kept me energized, but nowadays there’s no bustle, just a lot of silent people tap-tapping away. As a result, I’m now most likely to work in my tiny study at home.

Revising often goes well at night, when I can stretch out in a comfy chair and let another side of my personality take over, so that I feel as if I’m revising somebody else’s work. I’m still such a cut-and-paste guy that I’ll often chop out bits and pieces of the story I’m working on and slide them around on a table to see how different sections might work in alternate spots.

SK: As someone who has worked many odd jobs throughout his life, would you consider the work of a writer as much different than that of other lines of work?

DG: As I tell my son Evan, who has a burgeoning writing career, every job provides “material.” As a writer, you’re not just doing the job, you’re also observing who else does the job, and why they stick it out, and what specific techniques or interaction patterns are involved. You may end up finding just the slightest sliver of useful material from a specific job, but anything that gets you out of your ivory tower and into the big wide world is valuable. I wrote an entire book (Tales From the Tinker’s Dam) built around the misadventures of running a country pub in Wales.

SK: I understand you regularly take part in an annual youth writing workshop, how did you first get involved with these workshops?

DG: I joined the COMPAS Writers & Artists in the Schools Roster in 1986. This made me a Teaching Artist, who would travel throughout the state doing short term residencies in schools and helping kids discover the joy of writing stories. (A few years later, I took over the administration of that program and have continued to this day.) In 1990, another group wanted to start an annual Young Authors Conference, for kids in grades 4-8 who were already excited about writing. I helped them plan the event and participated as one of the teachers. I’ve been at that Conference every year since—and will be back at it again next spring.

SK: What advice would you give to a young writer?

DG: Stay nimble—everything will change. Stay committed—everybody will offer conflicting diversions. Dig deep enough within yourself to find pain or confusion that can be spilled onto the page. Lower your ego; raise your observation skills; ignore trends. Most of all, learn the joy of revision. You’ll be doing it forever.

SK: Are you working on anything currently?

DG: I’ve recently wrapped up the latest version of a short story collection that I’ve been reworking for years, called Wrestling with Angels. Trying to find a publisher for that and a coming-of-age novel called Paradiso.

I’m also working on some travel articles from recent trips, but the market for those has changed dramatically. I may transform some of them into a book-length manuscript I keep fiddling with. Hard to tell what shape that will end up taking, but that’s part of the joy of the process.


Young Authors Conference Delights

24 July 2013

The last word in the title of this post can be read as either a noun or a verb. What is not a matter for debate is the joy I receive each year from teaching at this conference. I’ve been doing it steadily since YAC’s inception in 1990. Each day hundreds of 4th-8th graders from around the Twin Cities metro area pour into the halls of Bethel University to discover the wonders of working with professional writers. There are a couple dozen of us each year, covering the waterfront of genres and styles. Some years I do “Creating Characters.” Other times it’s “Doing Dialogue,” or “Starting Stories.” (And, no, there’s no requirement that session titles consist of two alliterative words.)

Whatever the title, the point of the sessions is to give eager young writers some fresh tools for their tool box, and to inspire them to keep digging deep inside themselves for expression and insight. As I tell the students, “We’re not all on the same road; we’re not all heading in the same direction. But wherever you are and wherever you’re going, it’s my job to move you further down the road of writing.” And then we take off, going a mile a minute and bouncing back and forth with bits and pieces of text, questions, story slices, and the like. For some of these kids, this is the first time they’ve ever been in a room filled with other dedicated young readers and writers. No longer are they the oddball who actually enjoys cracking a book. Now they’re trading favorite authors and offering up exceptions to every rule proposed. (As I say, “This is creative writing. Every rule can be broken—but before you do, you better know what the rules are, or there’ll be no creativity in the breakage.”)

Not actually from YAC, but this photo shows the author in action during a COMPAS Summer Writing Workshop in 1987.

Not actually from YAC, but this photo shows the author in action during a COMPAS Summer Writing Workshop in 1987.

The conference is run by the wise and energetic souls at Success Beyond the Classroom (particularly Gina Jacobson), and after the conference ends they send out examples of student feedback. I treasure these lists. Who wouldn’t? Here are some comments from the past two years from participants in my sessions:

“We got to do things for ourselves and learned new things versus reviewing the old ones.”

“He didn’t lecture on, and we switched off between talking and having us do stuff. He was funny.”

“I learned a ton in this class and got a chance to write, revise, and write more.”

“Because he really gave me a lot of good ways I should start my story and make good things happen so the reader can get hooked on it.”

“I enjoyed this session the most because dialogue is something I desperately need to work on and it improved my writing already.”

“I enjoyed this session because it was fun, the class kept moving forward, new techniques were taught, and I really enjoyed his thoughts.”

“I learned that when using dialogue I can show it in many different ways. Finding new ways of doing that was great.”

“I didn’t want to stop writing in this session!”

“I got to write an amazing story with a great beginning.”

There’s plenty more where those came from, but the point of listing them is to show that these young folks are serious about their work. A surprising number come up to me each year and say they’re writing a book already, or have a series of stories underway. I’m looking forward to seeing some of those names on the spines of books at my local library.

What I'm talking about: again from 1987 Summer Writing Workshop, the girl on the left is Vaddey Rattner, author of IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN

What I’m talking about: from 1989 Summer Writing Workshop, the girl on the left is Vaddey Ratner, author of IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN

Each year, when the conference is over, I drive away with fragments of conversations still bouncing around my head as I return to my own work with a renewed sense of vigor and enthusiasm.