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Creative Writing Centers Help Students Become Published Authors

Helmed by a best-selling author, a nonprofit with 826 writing centers lets inner-city students be heard.

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The authors of Be Honest write about heartbreak, education, immigration, and the influence of politics with a kind of on-the-ground command you might not expect—but that's because they've lived through it.

The book's authors are dozens of high school students across the country in the latest collaborative effort from 826 writing centers, a nonprofit formed by bestselling author Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What is the What) and teacher Ninive Calegari. The nonprofit has worked with more than 24,000 students in eight cities nationwide.

The centers, located in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Boston; Chicago; Los Angeles; New York; San Francisco; Seattle; and Washington, D.C, focus on writing—a subject many students don't excel in—and makes it fun. Each is its own quirky entity, attached to a retail store that helps support the center's costs.

Students in Boston learn in the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Lab; in Los Angeles, it's the Echo Park Time Travel Mart; and in New York City, it's the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. In the Museum of Unnatural History in Washington, D.C., you'll find hindsight sunglasses, sabertooth dental floss, and flow charts designed to help identify mythical species.

826DC's Museum of Unnatural History in Washington, D.C. hides a back room tutoring center.

As an author, Eggers has an attachment to books, so each center publishes its own titles. Thousands of volunteers across the nation help steer the students through the writing process.

Volunteers from the 826 center in Washington, D.C., worked with students in Cardozo and Woodrow Wilson high schools for about 12 weeks each to produce two books over the past two years: The Way We See It, which is about life in Washington, D.C., and Get Used to the Seats: A Complete Survival Guide for Freshmen, which features essays and personal letters about things seniors wish they had known coming into high school.

"You get to see seniors in high school, who are still really young but feel like they know everything there is to know in the world, reflect back on their life and what their early high school experiences meant to them," Joe Callahan, 826DC's executive director says. "It's both heartbreaking and hilarious."

Get Used to the Seats' stories include tales of students' attempts to fit in, their regret about not putting enough effort into their schoolwork, and their daily routines in the hallways and classrooms.

Students get to be creative, but also learn writing mechanics and style.

"It's not just writing for writing's sake—sometimes we're tricking them into learning different forms," Callahan says. At a recent workshop held at the center, students were asked to write a 500-word story; then cut it down to 200 words; then halve it to 100 words.

The book is then edited by professional book editors, a foreword is written by a well known, local literary figure—826DC's books have features by crime novelist George Pelecanos and filmmaker Spike Jonze—and the book is published and sold in the center. Profits go toward future publishing projects and workshops at the center. In D.C., students are already getting started on a book of poetry that will be published in May 2012.

"It's all about students to expressing themselves in their own voice, being heard," Callahan says. "In the poems, it breaks down to them talking about their world: teenage angst, love."

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