A Cause Worth Your Support
Checking in with a former student doing great things.
Four years ago, almost to the day, I checked in with a former student of mine, Adrienne Burris, who had started her own community-based writing lab in Greenville, SC.
As part of that work, she got a new Kickstarter project going that I’m hoping others will see fit to support and I’m pleased to share her story in this space.
John Warner: Since last we corresponded in this space you’ve been up to some stuff.
Adrienne Burris: Yes! Last time we spoke, I had started leading children’s creative writing workshops through Ugly Words Writing Lab while working full-time as a behavior analyst. But not long after, I got a promotion at my “real job” - the one that paid money. My time, and more importantly, my identity, got tied up in that role, and I knew there was no way I could continue to do both things.
With the support of my husband, I was able to quit my job and make a plan to (as hokey as it sounds) “follow my bliss.” We moved abroad for a year so I could pursue my MA Writer/Teacher at Goldsmiths, University of London, giving me a fresh start.
JW: How/why was graduate school important to you? Why did you choose that particular path?
AB: A lot of people ask me this question. Why not just start my business full time, and use the money spent in graduate school for start-up costs? First of all, I needed a fresh start. My identity had been so tied up in my career, that I needed to take a step back to redefine myself. Greenville was full of distractions and relationships that filled my mind with self-doubt. Surrounding myself with new people to bounce ideas off, people who only knew me as a writer and workshop facilitator and not as a therapist, was a special and necessary opportunity.
In addition to the fresh start thing, I always knew I would only go to graduate school if it was the perfect program. I would never go just to kill time, or to delay some abstract inevitable. The MA Writer/Teacher program at Goldsmiths was the perfect fit, as it combined the writing workshops associated with an MFA and the education courses found in an M.Ed. I was also able to add business courses and write a nonprofit business plan as part of my degree. They had a level of flexibility you just can’t find in American postgraduate programs.
JW: And now you’re putting that new knowledge to work. You’re an entrepreneur.
AB: Yep. I moved back from London in October and immediately formed Greenville Wordsmiths, a 501(c)3 that empowers kids to discover their voices through writing. My dream job didn’t exist, so I essentially created my dream job. Along with a team of amazing volunteers, I travel to local schools and provide free writing and publishing workshops for students ages 7-14. Our titles have included everything from “Hot Dog Man vs. The Evil Fat Chicken” to “Cupcake the Magical Unicorn” to “The Perilous Adventures of Super Beaver,” a choose-your-own-adventure story. It was initially inspired by 826 National, the amazing organization founded by Dave Eggers and Nineve Calegari, but has definitely morphed into a beast of its own. Because South Carolina is so rural, a central location does not make sense, and 100% of our programming is mobile.
JW: And there’s a particular event going on now that’s exciting and important. Or at least, I’m really excited about it.
AB: We are trying to raise $17,000 on Kickstarter by June 11 to renovate an old school bus, transforming it into a mobile creative writing lab and publishing house: The Wordmobile. Right now, we deliver all of our workshops in public school classrooms, after-school gymnasiums, and glorified closets across the Upstate. We get rave reviews from teachers and students alike, but it is very difficult to implement. For each workshop, we have to drag all of our writing implements; printing and binding materials; and multiple laptops into the session. In addition, the school or organization must have access to reliable wi-fi (which is rare), an empty classroom or conference area (also rare), and be open to us making a ridiculous amount of noise.
With The Wordmobile, we will have our own space that combines the convenience of on-site programming with the whimsy of a physical 826-style storefront. It will be equipped with multiple seating options; a performance space; and several secret hidden compartments. Students will enter the bus and be transported into a story of their own, one in which our fiction-powered bus has broken down in front of their school. They’ll have two hours to write an amazing story that will get our jalopy back on the road. It will be a statement piece for our community, and help further establish Greenville as a center of creative & cultural innovation.
JW: We should tell people how to donate and other ways to get involved.
AB: Our biggest need right now is financial, so if you have the means, please contribute to our Kickstarter campaign! We have some amazing rewards. For example, at the $250 level, a group of our young writers will write a chapbook about your pet (complete with illustrations). You can also make a lasting contribution by joining The Wordsmiths’ Guild, our monthly recurring donation program.
If you’re local to Greenville, please come volunteer. We need people to work 1:1 with students, illustrators and graphic designers to craft the books, and even actors to portray our evil Master Wordsmith (who hates children and doesn’t think they can ever get a book published).
JW: I don’t know that I have the right to claim this, but I’m proud of you.
AB: Well, shucks. I think you can. I had never heard of 826 until you introduced me to it at Clemson, and that seed of inspiration has grown into kudzu that has completely taken over my life. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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