By Wendy K. Leigh
We’ve all heard of being “sleepless” in Seattle, but how about “fearless?” It just so happens the city has a dedicated bureau for that. It’s one that is actively shaping the burgeoning minds of Seattle’s next wave of creative writing professionals – who happen to be humans ages 6 to 18 at the moment. To get an idea of how the city’s literary scene might look in a few years, meet the space-y, zingy, zany creators of the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas, a nonprofit organization that believes in the power of words, well written and well spoken, to open doors to important opportunities in life.
The Bureau, run by an eclectic collection of volunteers, staff and local citizens, offers not only after-school tutoring, but actual publishing programs, field trips, and writing workshops covering far-flung topics ranging from an All-City Comics Club to mythology, sci-fi writing, renku poetry parties, wordplay exercises and writing for games or radio.
The programs are free for any young person, anytime, regardless of background, ability and socioeconomic background, which is core to the Bureau’s belief that successful futures require not only strong writing skills but diverse communication styles and motivation for young people to tell their stories. Andy Herbst, executive director of Fearless Ideas, explains the effects of diversity in their programs.
“We are open to EVERYONE,” states Herbst, who also works with the Rwanda School Project. “How do you want to prepare for a better and more harmonic future if you segregate by race or ability at a very early age? Science shows that learning happens best in diverse settings in a positive and safe environment.”
Workshops and field trips often end with published books or stories, such as in the upcoming “Mad Writing Scientists” workshop in April. Following the premise that scientists use a mixture of logic and imagination to make new discoveries about the world, workshop participants will conduct experiments, use their five senses to understand them, and then employ their imaginations to write “fantastical” stories based on science. Students end up with a published short story and instructions for conducting the experiments at home.
Incorporating writing skills into everyday life is just as important at the Bureau as nudging the creative beast inside, evidenced by recent workshops such as “McDonald’s? I Think Not,” a four-week food explosion that had 3rd-to-5th graders preparing nutritious meals and snacks, then writing fun, freeform stories, poems and songs from what they learned.
Students enter the tutoring space through a portal rather than a door, passing through the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company, a quirky little shop that helps support the center, run by self-described “purveyors of the finest space travel supplies, including scientific theory (in bulk), non-toxic consumables, entertainments for zero-gravity, and soft fiber garments.” Translated by Herbst, that means scientific and other books, NASA space freeze-dry ice cream, t-shirts, and games, toys, and other weird knick-knacks.
“The store is just a pretty random assortment of non-traditional items that are either useful (flasks, pocket knives, etc.), playful (toys, games), creative (resilience in a can, Schrodinger’s cat, etc. that we usually make ourselves), or flat-out weird,” he notes.
The Bureau also uses the space for art exhibitions and special events, such as the release of Kevin Emerson’s latest book, “Last Day of Mars.” Copies of the Fearless Ideas popular annual book are available as well, titled “What to Read in the Rain”, a collection of stories by the best student authors and by well-known Washington writers who support the Bureau. Celebrity musicians, writers, and poets are not uncommon around the Fearless Ideas complex, with some teaching workshops and seminars or participating in special events. Their recent “People Eating and Giving” fundraiser featured music by Tacocat and appearances by the hilarious and irreverent Lindy West, columnist at The Guardian and contributor to “This American Life”, and by Nancy Pearl, the 72-year-old author and super-hero librarian with her own action figure.
In a city where hi-tech abounds, electronic components do make their way into workshops occasionally, such as a project using special Microsoft storytelling software, or when the kids create filming projects or edit their own newspaper. However, Herbst stresses that the focus is on the actual writing, particularly as the kids they serve have varying levels of digital literacy.
“All in all, we are geared to providing writing education and tutoring in a positive and creative environment to promote, of course, writing skills, but also values like creativity, confidence, empathy, and kindness,” he explains. “You don’t have to be a certain way to find a home with us. You can come however you are. If you are a little quirky or different, that’s all right. So are we.”
The Bureau of Fearless Ideas seems right in sync with what Albert Einstein once said, “Logic will get you from point A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” Seattle is pretty lucky to have these fearless flyers leading the way for the next generations.