It's a warm Thursday afternoon in downtown Bend and the streets and plazas are full of young people blowing off some after-school steam, but inside an Oregon Avenue shop, there are four high school students with heads down and pens racing across the pages of composition books. There's the silly banter to be expected from high school freshmen and sophomores, but for the most part, the students are serious about their writing. The four girls aren't required to be here and there's no extra credit to be had, but they are writing nonetheless, as many of them have been doing for several months as part of The Nature of Words Storefront Project, a free drop-in writing workshop series.
The Nature of Words is known to most as the literary festival that descends on Bend each fall, bringing to town well-known authors for readings, discussions and workshops. While that festival is still going strong and will return in a few weeks (November 3-7) with authors like Barry Lopez, Brian Turner and Anne Lamott, there has long been much more to the non-profit organization than just the one week per year of author events. The Storefront Project is one of the many educational facets of The Nature of Words. The organization also provides Words Without Walls, a program that visits area schools, as well as correctional facilities like Madras' Deer Ridge, giving extra writing and language arts instruction.
Jamie Houghton, The Nature of Words' program director, says the Storefront Project is modeled after 826 Valencia, the non-profit space in San Francisco founded by author Dave Eggers that provides tutoring and workshops for the area's youth while keeping a working "pirate supply store," offering novelty eye patches and the like, operating out of the front of the building. In Bend, the first Storefront Project sessions were hosted out of Dudley's bookstore, but when The Nature of Words opened its downtown office this last summer, the workshops found a permanent home.
"We try to make this as free form as possible and the kids are welcome to bum around as long as there's someone in the office," says Houghton.
On this Thursday afternoon, the students are working with local poet Cassie Moore, who is instructing October's month-long series of poetry classes that focus on the performance aspect of the medium. Moore leads the four girls through a process during which she asks them to dig deep into the emotions and sensory experiences of a particular memory. After half an hour, the students have written poems ripe with descriptive language and they read them assertively. Summit High freshman Vanessa Rodgers says she's nervous to read in public, but with a little encouragement, relays a poem that includes the deliciously literary line "there's sand in my sandwich and it tastes like the Earth down here."
This is Rodgers' first time at the Storefront Project and that's perfectly fine with Moore who, like the other instructors, wants to keep the classes open to drop-ins. Many of the students quickly fall into the fold of the program, returning weekly and contributing to group projects like the mini books the group makes. The Storefront Project is meant to engage aspiring writers, but it's also an integral educational tool to have, especially at a time when creative writing programs - and the arts as a whole - are sometimes taking a backseat in public school curriculums. For students like Bend High sophomore Marlee Norr, the program provides a forum to practice her craft outside of the conventions of her school environment.
"The teachers at school give out grades, and that's their job, but that's not what we do here," says Norr.
As the afternoon sun casts longer shadows through the storefront windows, the class draws to a close and the students chatter about their plans for the rest of the day - which for some of them includes sitting down to write more later that night. All of them say they'll be back soon.
"I'm really excited that this is here. I wish [that] when I was a teenager there was something like this," says Moore. "Poetry and writing can be healing, empowering and therapeutic."