PAM: Welcome! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Isabella Watkins, Caitlin Wharton, and Milva McDonald. Hi, everyone!
MILVA: Hi, Pam.
PAM: Hi. Now, Milva has been on the podcast before, back in episode 103, and I’ll put links to that in the show notes. But Isabella, you contacted me pretty recently about coming on the podcast to talk about the writing club that you’re really enjoying and which Milva is mentoring. I thought that was just a super connection and a lovely idea. So, here we are! I’m so glad that we could find a time that all of us could get together.
To get us started, I’d love for each of you to introduce yourself and just share a bit about what you’re interested in right now. That’s something I ask all my guests. What’s making your eyes light up? Do you want to start, Isabella?
ISABELLA: Sure. I’m Isabella. I’m 15. I live in a log cabin in Vermont with my parents and my cat, Ginger. I really love writing and reading. My favorite authors right now are Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Oscar Wilde. And I really love studying literary time ages, like romanticism and transcendentalism. And I also have a few literary fan clubs with Caitlin, like for Wuthering Heights and for Lady Macbeth from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. And we’re also writing a sequel to Macbeth together, which has been such a joy to do.
PAM: Wow. That sounds like fun. It’s really to be able to bounce ideas together, I can just imagine. All right. So, before I jump in, Caitlin, how about you?
CAITLIN: Hi. My name is Caitlin and I live in North Wales in the UK. At the moment, I’m especially interested in playing the bass guitar and drawing and writing and going for walks. And I’ve been obsessed with animals since I was like three. And yeah. I love organizing my room and writing and reading. I’m really excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
PAM: I’m really excited to dig more into what you’re doing. And Milva, how about you?
MILVA: Hi, I’m Milva McDonald. I live in Massachusetts. My four kids, who I unschooled all of them, are grown up. So, I’m enjoying being a grandma right now and I’m exploring memoir and working with the writer’s group with Isabella, Caitlin, and the other members every week.
PAM: That’s awesome. That’s awesome. I like the idea of memoir, too, as we were discussing that in your last episode, your writing.
I would be very curious to hear how this writing group just came together. What’s the origin story of the writing group? And then maybe share its evolution, if it has changed a little bit since then. Do you want to start with that, Milva?
MILVA: Sure. So, this particular group started at a home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A mom who was homeschooling her kids at the time asked me to come to her house every week. And I started doing that. And, Isabella, I think you joined pretty early on, right?
ISABELLA: Yeah, I think I joined the first year that it was happening.
MILVA: So, Isabella, do you want to talk about kind of the evolution of the group?
ISABELLA: Sure. Also, I apologize if there’s meowing in the background. My cat was sleeping on my bed. So, I think he just woke up.
Yeah. So, it was the first class that I joined and it was the first year I started unschooling. I think I was 10, which is pretty cool to think that you’ve been my writing teacher or mentor for a third of my life, Milva. And yeah, I remember I think most of the original members of the group are still in it now. And yeah, we would meet every week and at the end of each semester, we would have potlucks to read our writing to our parents and everything. And it was a lot of fun. We did joint stories or everybody would write different parts of different stories and we would read that at our potlucks and things like that too.
And I think that was what we did for the first few years, until the pandemic. And then we went online. And then, Caitlin joined us I think pretty early on starting then.
PAM: You want to take over, Caitlin?
CAITLIN: Sure. Yeah, so I joined in the latter half of 2020, after meeting a member of the group in 2019 in September. And I was delighted to join them online, virtually, since I live a long way away, obviously. But yeah, it’s been great. It’s such a wonderful group. Everyone is so, so kind. And how welcoming they were to me was overwhelming and it’s just been such a wonderful experience.
PAM: That’s lovely. Yeah. I love what Isabella was sharing, too, about meeting, but also having potlucks and getting together with parents, like other people who are interested, and giving them an opportunity to share what they are having fun with, writing about, that they’re really passionate and excited about.
So, it would be pretty cool to hear, are you reading books together? Is there reading and discussion of books and then some writing? Or is it more focused on writing? Just curious as to how you’re setting up what everybody’s doing.
MILVA: Yeah. I mean, it’s pretty focused on creative writing, although we do read short stories. So, we started that probably a couple of years ago. I don’t know. A few years ago. We’ll read short stories, a pretty diverse range of stories, wouldn’t you say? We read classic authors and then more contemporary authors and just talk about them, talk about the characterization, the writing. And then sometimes they serve as idea generators for our own writing.
PAM: It’s so fun to have a group of other people who are passionate and interested in the same things. I can just feel the discussions, the conversations just flowing and the excitement and the energy and just how cool it is to connect with others who are as excited as we are about whatever it is we’re interested in. But in this case, writing, reading, stories in general.
So, Isabella and Caitlin, is there anything you want to add about the things that you enjoy about participating in the group?
ISABELLA: Well, definitely as Caitlin was saying earlier, just how welcoming and wonderful everyone is. And just how kind everybody in the group is.
I feel like I’ve known everybody for my entire life and I feel like they know me. And it’s just such a nice place to be and to write together. And also, as you were saying, having a new group of people who enjoy similar things to what you do, and everybody just loves writing and is so serious about it. So, I really love that.
PAM: Very cool. For people who might be interested, and I know we’re going to talk about that a little bit more later, but just to get a sense of what you guys do when you’re meeting up, do you do writing? Do you have like open space for writing when you’re meeting up together? Or is it more conversations and inspiration and then to go off and do your writing and then maybe share when you come back together? Caitlin, want to handle that one?
CAITLIN: Sure. Yeah. I think it’s both, really. I think we often discuss ideas in a group chat. We talk about poetry and our favorite books and it gives us ideas to write our own fan fictions and stories based off of those and sequels and things. We do meet sometimes to write, which is very nice.
It’s nice being in the presence of other people and writing together, not talking, but just being in the presence of other people who are enjoying what you’re doing as much as you are. I think it’s a mixture of both really.
PAM: Oh, that’s awesome. I have written a few books myself, too. And I’ve been in some writers’ groups. I know that it is fun, just the energy, to get together, side-by-side. So, even if you’re just online, say, sitting in a Zoom room or something and everybody’s just working away, doing their own thing. there’s also a special kind of energy that comes with that, too. It doesn’t always have to be direct engagement. So, yeah. That’s why I was really curious to see if that was part of it as well.
Now you’ve mentioned short stories, and that leads nicely into the book that you put together. I’ve been reading and enjoying it a lot. And it’s called, Unlocked: An Anthology of Short Stories and Poetry. I would love to hear the story behind the choice to create the book and what that process was like. Do you want to start with that, Isabella?
ISABELLA: Sure. Well, I think the first class that we had in the fall semester when we were online, I think it was Milva who brought up the idea of putting together some of our short stories. I don’t know if you want to talk a little bit about that, Milva.
Well, before we were on Zoom, we would meet in person and we would have these gatherings that Isabella mentioned, the potlucks. And they were essentially readings. So, they would get to read their work and share it. And we could have done that on Zoom. And in fact, we did have one. Isabella and Caitlin organized one when the book was published.
But I also just felt like they were getting to the point where they had been creating substantial work that could actually be put into a book. And I just threw the idea out there. And then everything that happened afterwards was pretty much them. Because I feel my role is to just throw things out. And even when I was unschooling my own kids, that’s what I did a lot of the time.
PAM: Yeah. Just sharing possibilities without an expectation or, “Now you need to do this thing,” but like, “Hey, this is a possibility. Is that something you would be interested in pursuing?” So, you guys took up that mantle. Caitlin, were you part of it when they first started talking about it? Did you come to the book a little bit later in its development?
CAITLIN: Well, luckily for me, I joined right as they were discussing it, which was great luck on my side. Yeah, I think as you said, Milva, it kind of unfolded and I think the rest of the group expanded on the idea while we were still getting help from you, Milva, of course. And I remember you editing everyone’s stories, which was a great task, but you did it so well. But it was a great project.
PAM: What was your experience, Isabella?
ISABELLA: Well, I was very fortunate to be the formatter for the book, which was a lot of fun. So, after everybody put their stories in, I got to figure out how to format it. And yeah, that was a lot of fun. Nobody I knew had done that before, so I learned it all from scratch, through reading things. Amazon has a platform called Kindle Direct Print. So, it has a lot of material about formatting and things like that. Learning that process was a lot of fun and also working with everybody.
And I’m sure I’ve bombarded all my friends with tons of emails about, what do you guys think about doing this? What do you think is our deadline for putting stories in? Or like, what do you think about this? But yeah. It was really fun working together with everybody and I was honored to have Caitlin and two other members of our group illustrate my story, too. Their illustrations are just gorgeous and I just love looking at them. So yeah, it was an amazing experience.
PAM: Oh, that’s so fun. Yeah. I published my own books, as well, and I really enjoyed learning that technical aspect. There are so many different things, like you said, from illustrations to the editing to the formatting, to even, well, the writing to start with and choosing what stories, poems and things we’re going to go in there. And then the order for the reader’s experience.
There are just so many fun aspects that come up when you choose to do a different kind of project that takes it further. So, that’s really fun that you guys were excited to do that. And it’s not an impossibly hard one, either, not an overwhelmingly difficult one. There are tools now that help with the formatting. And the fact that we can publish our own things, that’s really exciting.
Now, Isabella and Caitlin, I just wanted to dive into the unschooling aspect a little bit, because since you don’t go to school, you do have much more freedom in how you choose to spend your days. And Caitlin, you listed a whole bunch of other interests that you’re pursuing, as well. I’m sure you’re keeping yourself busy too, Isabella.
Because I know my daughter around that age, her friends just couldn’t understand that, if she didn’t go to school, why wasn’t she so bored? Because they didn’t realize that there are other things to do. School tells them what to do and that’s where their friends are and everything. So, just to imagine not going there was really hard for them.
I’d love to hear a little bit about how your days flow. How do your creative writing, illustrations, music, and everything else weave through your days? And Caitlin, why don’t you start?
CAITLIN: Yeah. I totally get that. I think most people think that I just sit around all day and just do nothing really, but I feel like I’m quite busy, which is a good thing. But in terms of how I weave my writing throughout my days, I think I’m mainly thinking of ideas and subjects for stories and poems.
And I often find myself trying to convert everyday situations into more of the fantasy genre, which is a habit I’ve obtained, really. But yeah, I try to write more than I think about writing, but sometimes that doesn’t happen for me. But I try to get my ideas down quickly on paper when there’s a natural pause in the day.
PAM: I love that. “I try to write more than I think about writing.” That is a really fun observation, because both are fun, right? Both are fun and exciting, but just the little reminders to make note of things, make note of ideas, figure out a process. I have gone through so many processes myself from trying to carry a notebook around with me, to a notes app on my phone, because I’ll have that closer often if I’m out and about and something strikes me. It’s just figuring out ways to weave it into our days, isn’t it? So, Isabella, how about you?
ISABELLA: Well, yeah, I also carry around my phone and write notes on it if I think of poems or something like that, dialogue that I want to add. I think I spend most of my day writing or daydreaming or thinking of stories. I like to say I have an Anne Shirley temperament. I just like to daydream like Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables did.
Currently, I’ve been working on revising two novels that I wrote three years ago. And Milva actually revised one of them, gave me her feedback and read one, which I really appreciated. And I’ve rewritten a great deal of it also since then, and I just think about writing and just write for most of the day, every day. It’s just what I do, I guess.
And I love writing with Caitlin, too. That’s like the highlight of my day, when we get to meet on our Google document and just write stuff together.
PAM: I love that, too. For some stuff, I work with other people. It’s so fun when you’re both there in the document and almost having a conversation. And for us, it’s flipping around a paragraph. One is doing one, one is doing another, and then moving them around. And yes, it’s so fun to figure out the different tools and the ways we like to work together with other people.
And also, I love, Isabella, that you’re just immersed in stories. I imagine there’s some reading time in there as well. And the daydreaming. I love stories, too. So, as soon as you got in touch about talking about this, I thought that would be awesome.
I also wanted to just move a little bit to talking about tips for people in who might be interested in forming some type of group, whether it’s parents or young adults, teens, whatever. We may find that we’re interested or passionate about a particular thing and then at some point, we are interested in connecting with others who share that interest or that passion.
I was just wondering if you guys had any tips for people who are hearing about this and think that it sounds like a pretty cool idea and they’d like to start putting something together. Do you want to start, Milva?
MILVA: Sure. So, when I started doing these groups, it was actually when my adult kids were young and somebody asked me to do it. And I had been in writing groups. So, I just said, well, we’ll just do the same thing I do in my adult writing groups, which was that we would get together, share our work, and write together. So, we do writing exercises, creative writing prompts, and then we share it.
And I think, to me, one of the key pieces of it, which I think was reflected in Caitlin and Isabella’s comments both about the environment being kind and welcoming and I’ll say I would use the word “safe”, because when you’re writing, you’re expressing yourself. And so, creating a container for that is, I think, so important and so meaningful and that makes it so valuable to everybody.
The other tip that I would give to any adult who is starting this maybe with a group of younger people or anybody, really, is to join them. You’re writing, too, and share your work. I know because I’m the adult that I’m looked at as the mentor, but I feel like I’m just another member of the group. And I’ll share my ideas and I’ll share my writing. And I think it makes it more comfortable and also, just make it fun. That’s what it comes down to.
PAM: Right? Exactly. That idea of participating alongside each other, as peers, as all members of the group, I think that is very important and very valuable, because it helps remove some of that power dynamic that you were talking about. Like, teacher/mentor. Yes, you’ve got more experience and you’re happy to edit and give feedback and participate fully in the conversations. But as someone who also shares that passion and excitement, you can participate fully with joy and fun in what’s happening and what’s going on.
The other piece that stood out for me was how everybody’s mentioned feeling safe and how it’s a very kind environment. I found that for kids and teens at school, there is so much focus on not only grades, but competition and being better and needing a lot of validation that way. You know what I mean? Because they’re just so used to that lens. Was this good or was this not good? versus just conversation about it. And feeling peers more as competitors, because of the grades that they’re used to and just the way that that environment, that system is set up. It’s harder for them to just relax and be kind to others and not take conversations and feedback as judgment and feel like it’s a personal attack on them, versus, we’re just having a conversation about the work and we’re all interested in learning more. It’s just that different perspective.
But I find that when unschoolers get together, there is so much more energy and support of each other, because we’re all interested in this thing and we’re all excited about it, versus that competitive nature that can kind of come in when that’s all that they’ve known really in how to engage with peers. It’s much more judgemental, maybe, is a way to think about it. Does that make sense, Milva?
MILVA: Yeah. I would say that this is an environment of mutual appreciation and they really value each other’s perspectives and voices. And it’s not about if anybody is better than anybody else. It’s just that everybody has a unique voice and contribution and I think you guys genuinely enjoy each other’s writing. Do you agree?
PAM: Yeah. Okay, Isabella. Would you like to pipe in? Anything to share about tips for people that way and more about your experience in the group?
ISABELLA: Yeah. Well, as you both mentioned, definitely being in an environment where everybody else is just so supportive and where everybody values everybody else’s voice, that is really such a wonderful thing. And I guess that doesn’t happen all that often. So, it’s just so nice to be in a place where you know that everybody else really cares about what you have to say.
And also, just the fact that we focus on the joy of writing and not the really technical parts. I know when I first joined, my spelling and grammar were terrible. And they’ve improved through reading and stuff, but being in a place where nobody really cared about that or pointed that out, that didn’t affect how people viewed what I wrote. They just were interested in hearing about the story and the characters and nobody really focused on the technical aspects. So, it’s just nice to be part of a group that just focuses on the joy of storytelling and creating stories and worlds and just being in them together.
PAM: I love that point, because it’s so true. And Milva, with your own kids as well, you know it is something that we discover through unschooling that these little facts, these skills, they develop over time, but they don’t need to be pointed out, big red X on them, fixed, “Do it the right way next time.” These things just come with our joy and following the things that excite us and that we have fun doing. And we do pick up all those other little bits along the way.
And also, it doesn’t mean we’re all going to become perfect spellers and perfect grammarians. That’s what editors are for. That’s what spell check is for. It’s learning the tools, as well, that that can help us along the way, because we’re just looking to communicate our stories more effectively on paper at that point.
Even in adult writing groups, it’s the same thing. We can use those tools. Just because they’re kids, we don’t have to teach them and tell them they can’t use the tools. It’s like, “Don’t use the calculator,” “Don’t use the spell check.” “You need to be able to be picking up these skills on your own.” No. This is the world that we’re living in and we have access to all the tools that are there for us. Caitlin, do you have anything you’d like to add?
CAITLIN: Well, I totally agree with what all three of you have said. I couldn’t agree more with it.
I think that if I joined a critical writing group at the start, I think it wouldn’t have done me any good for my writing. I think joining a supportive and kind group is just what I needed. And also, I think having a great tutor and a really great person who will bring ideas to the group like Milva does and understands the concept of not being a teacher, like in that role. Not having someone who will shout at you for things. Having someone who is more like your peer is a lot nicer. I think it makes all the difference.
PAM: Yeah. I can just imagine. For everybody listening, just imagine the difference in energy and in showing up and in wanting to come back and in feeling good about yourself and excited to learn more and to engage more if somebody is judging you and shouting at you or telling you all the things that you’re doing wrong, versus enjoying your ideas, enjoying the pieces that you share, enjoying the stories, enjoying the comments, the conversation. If you’re looking at it like, “Oh, I want my child to participate,” well then make it fun, make it enjoyable, engaging, and make it that they want to come back.
That wasn’t even the purpose for this particular group. I’m just saying, it’s just so fascinating to see that so often, people will think, oh, I want them to learn and enjoy. They have an interest in writing in creative writing, so I need to teach them really quickly. So, I need to get them grammar books, get them reading classics, the books that I think they should read, et cetera, and getting so much more top- down. But like everybody’s been saying, it is a world of difference when instead you go bottom-up, you go supportive, helpful. We’re all peers. Milva has more experience with writing, et cetera, and stories, because that’s something she’s been passionate about for longer. So, she can bring that perspective. She can bring that experience.
But when you come as a peer and share that excitement and joy, and you celebrate that piece, and you get together celebrating and sharing those pieces that you love, it’s a night and day experience. Isn’t it?
MILVA: Yeah and I just want to add also that I think that the idea of teaching writing, people are always learning from each other in the group, not just me, certainly. But there’s also the concept of their identity as writers. So, when we start a group, the bedrock, the given, is that everybody is a writer. We’re not learning to write. We all write. We are writers.
And I don’t know that I’ve actually ever come out and said that to a group of kids at the beginning, but it’s the premise that I go in with. And they just absorb that and they realize, wow, I’m a writer. And then, everybody’s writing. It’s not something that they’re learning how to do. They are learning as they go, of course, but they are already writers. So, I think that’s really important.
PAM: Yeah. That’s the energy that you bring. Even if you don’t say it. And sometimes, the energy is more important than the words. Cultivating that environment. One could say it and then not live it in the energy. Living it and experiencing it is more important than the words. And the words can just confirm what they’re already feeling. So, I love that very much.
It sounds awesome. And I’m very happy that you guys have found each other and how it evolves over the years moving forward. I think that’s wonderful. I want to thank you guys so much for taking the time to speak with me today. It was a lot of fun. And before we go, can you guys let everybody know where they can find your book online?
MILVA: Isabella, go ahead.
ISABELLA: Well, you can find it on Amazon and on Kindle. It’s called Unlocked: An Anthology of Short Stories and Poetry by The Young People’s Society of Story Writers.
PAM: I love that name, too. And you both wrote the introduction. I enjoyed that, as well. There’s a little bit more information about the writing group there. So, I think that would be really interesting for people as well, especially if you’re thinking about it, if you’re curious about it, pick it up. And I’m really enjoying reading it.
MILVA: Yeah. I hope people pick it up and read it. It’s really great.
PAM: Yeah, no, that’s awesome. Thank you so much, everyone. And have a wonderful day. Bye.
MILVA: Thank you, Pam.
CAITLIN: Thank you.