By Donald Liebenson
4:16 PM EST, December 21, 2012
Learning last year that Bob Boone, one of my former teachers at Highland Park High School (never mind when), was still teaching creative writing to children and adults filled me with the kind of joy you get when you return to your hometown decades later and see a favorite childhood haunt is still open for business.
Mr. Boone (I still call him that) was one of the “cool teachers” at a time when so-called progressive education was in vogue. Never in a million years would staid English teacher Ms. Borman show her class “Beach Blanket Bingo.” High school administrators encouraged him to be creative with the curriculum, and he developed classes in communications and creative writing (“I was in the right place at the right time,” he says).
His passion for teaching writing was infectious.
"He was really devoted to and fascinated by the student writer," said Ted Fishman, an HPHS graduate and author of the New York Times best-seller "China, Inc." and "Shock of Gray." "He always loved the sense of discovery student writers experience when they found their voice or the tools to observe the world on their own terms."
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Mr. Boone became a freelance teacher some 35 years ago. Operating out of the Glencoe Study Center, which he opened in 1979 to tutor high school dropouts in pursuit of their GED, he has founded several outreach programs, including Young Chicago Authors. He is on the advisory board of the East Village Youth Program, for which he teaches creative writing.
He also conducts workshops for teachers and tutors about using writing prompts that compel even the most reluctant to marshal their thoughts and get them on paper.
Boone has written a well-received memoir about teaching, "Inside Job," as well as a collection of short stories, "Forest High." He has just published a second book of writer's prompts, "Joan's Junk Shop," which seemed like an opportune occasion to check in.
Q: You've been teaching for almost 50 years. How have you managed not to burn out?
A: I really like working on my own (as a freelance teacher). It would be hard to go back to a classroom. I think about what it was like to teach 140 kids a day, all the classes, and all the study halls, grading all those papers. I don't know physically if I could do that anymore.
Q: Why did you decide not to return to a traditional classroom setting?
A: I took one year off in 1977 to write my book (about Hall of Fame baseball player Hack Wilson). During that time I did some tutoring and worked with GED students. I decided I liked being a freelance teacher and writer. I opened the Glencoe Study Center (in 1979), and it became my home office, a place I could continue to write and to work with students. When I started Young Chicago Authors (in 1992), this is where we worked out of.
As much as I loved teaching at Highland Park, these opportunities came along. Creative writing grew and filled my life. I got a sense I had something for these people, and I said to the principal that I would continue to teach night school but that I was going to take another year off to see what else I could do. I'm still here.
Q: What is your teaching focus now?
A: I'm focusing on the first phase of writing, helping students and adults get started and to get the words on paper. Last spring I led a program at the Glencoe Public Library called "Discovering Creative Writing."
Q: Has mobile technology been a help or hindrance to you in regards to how students think about or approach writing?
A: In the classes I teach, some students might have a computer, but most still work with yellow pads. To get through school, you still have to be able to do all the writing that you and I had to do when we went to high school. Good writing still needs the seven Cs: It needs to be correct, clear, complete, concise, connected, convincing and compelling. I don't care if you're writing a sonnet or you're writing about a sonnet, these are the words you would want to have said about your writing.
Q: You've taught baby boomers, Gen Xers and now millennials. Do you see a difference in the generations in their work ethic or their approach to creative writing?
A: A teacher who's been in the same school for 20, 30 or 40 years would be in a much better position than I to generalize about a generation of kids. For the most part, kids are kids, and the students I get have made the decision to come to me.
Q: Is creative writing a skill that can be taught?
A: Can you teach someone to be a William Faulkner or a James Joyce? In that sense, you can't. But you can help individuals discover some writing power they didn't know they had or help them improve their writing.
One way is by giving them access to models, such as a story by John Updike, and pointing out places where the characters were especially well motivated or the settings well detailed. I love to teach reading more in terms of creative writing and not reading as a study of literature. I'd rather talk about how the author crafted a particular short story.
Q: In terms of method, you've published two books of writing prompts, "Joan's Junk Shop" and "Moe's Cafe," with Mark Larson. How did you develop them?
A: Writing prompts build up confidence by pushing the writer to fill a page with words. (The first time I used them) I was working with a GED student and trying to get him to write. In our conversations, it emerged that he had never been on a farm. I asked him to imagine spending a weekend on a farm, getting up early one morning and looking in the barn, where in the corner, a cat had a mouse cornered. I asked him a series of questions designed to elicit descriptions of what was happening and his feelings about it. What were the cat's claws like? What were the smells in the barn? What sounds did he hear? I told him to put these observations into a letter to a friend about what it was like to be there.
Q: Do you use writing prompts differently in teaching children and adults?
A: With adults, I employ prompts that tap more into their memories and experiences. With younger kids, I use prompts that ... deal with the imagination.
Q: Speaking of filling a page with words, what do you think of initiatives such as National Novel Writing Month (in which participants are charged with creating a 50,000-word novel in a single month)?
A: I've almost done it several times. I thought I would do it just to try doing it. Gimmicks can be constructive. I don't see anything wrong with it.
Q: What is the future of creative writing?
A: Writing is not going to go away. I think with email and blogging there seems to be a tremendous emphasis on being clever, in being precise, getting to the point and finding the right words. Good writing is still respected. How many jobs in the future are going to require good writers, it's hard to say.
Q: And what is your future?
A: This is really what I'm doing now. The prompts and the teaching style I've adopted is the first step in getting developing writers started, to get them to relax and to have fun writing. It's what I enjoy doing and what keeps me going.
For the past 23 years, Donald Liebenson has written features with an emphasis on culture, community and entertainment. He lives in Highland Park.
"Joan's Junk Shop"
By Robert Boone and Mark Larson, Good Year, 116 pages, $19.95
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