To a passerby, the four people wandering around the University of Montana campus Monday afternoon looked lost.
Really, they were focused on every detail around them, picking up on different colors and scribbling in composition books. The three high-school students and their teacher were part of the first Words With Wings summer writing camp for teens, sponsored by the Missoula Writing Collaborative.
For three hours every afternoon this week, the students gather in UM’s Liberal Arts Building to hone their skills. While this is Words With Wings' 12th year teaching students ages 8 through 13, it's the first time workshops have been held for 14- to 17-year-olds. A second session will be held next week, led by poet Rachel Mindell.
On Monday, they got icebreakers out of the way, but even those had writing and creative thinking built in.
"Wow, I love the sound of writing," said local singer and songwriter Caroline Keys as the students sat in silence except for the sound of their pencils tapping the paper.
Keys and author Emily Freeman are leading the workshop this week, Keys concentrating on songwriting, Freeman on fiction.
As they laid out their community norms – guidelines for the week on how they wanted to treat each other – they were thoughtful with language. Rather than speaking in the negative ("Don't do this"), Keys asked everyone to use the affirmative, such as "Be brave."
"Well, I think constructive criticism is good, not dismissing something out of hand," said 14-year-old Meredith Walker.
Despite a few informal rules – no laptops, everything is handwritten, no phones to distract you – Freeman was quick to point out that this is not school.
"This is not about making a thing the right way for the grade," she said. "This is an opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and get creative."
Breaking out of their comfort zone was difficult for some.
"I think this group is comprised of 85 to 90 percent introverts," Walker said.
Freeman agreed that was probably true, and said for introverts it can be "depleting by being 'on' too long around people."
Therefore, the workshop was laid-back.
"We get to make this thing into whatever we want it to be," Keys said as they made rough plans for the week ahead. "This is a nice break from the mania of summer."
Three students decided to spend the week learning about songwriting. Eighth-grader Veronica Stimpfling said she always comes back to the Gorillaz, specifically the song "Superfast Jellyfish." Senior Caleb Anderson returns to "If You Could See Me Now" by The Script. And junior Alex Spaulding finds inspiration in music without lyrics, such as Miles Davis.
Keys led the first exercise of the week: focusing on the small things.
"Details are so important," she said. "Choose a color and let's go out on campus and notice everything that is that color. Often things that really draw people into songs are those tiny little details."
As they stepped out the LA building's doors, Anderson took off to find his color and write in peace. Stimpfling and Spaulding stuck with Keys, intent on the task at hand.
After 10 minutes of scribbling in their composition books, they gathered on a bench. Each student read what they'd written and their peers had to guess what color they had chosen. Spaulding chose blue, Anderson orange and Stimpfling green.
Keys gave notes on each student's writing, highlighting words and phrases that stood out and interpreting how they could be used in a song.
So many songs have colors in the titles, she said, mentioning "Purple Rain," "Yellow Submarine" and "Brown Eyed Girl.”
They couldn't think of a song with "orange" in the title, though Keys joked that they could go with, "Orange you glad that ..."
All three students groaned.
"No puns!" Stimpfling said.