When Adrienne Burris, founder of the creative writing lab Greenville Wordsmiths, walks into a bookstore, you see a wide-eyed, tortoise-shelled, skinny jeans–wearing twenty-something, a millennial Audrey Hepburn from the opening of Funny Face.
When Adrienne Burris walks into an elementary school classroom, you see a harried, browbeaten editorial assistant, desperate to turn things around for her failing publishing house in spite of the tyrannical Master Wordsmith she works for, the same guy who is about to Skype her computer and be really, really mad she’s getting all these great new ideas from a bunch of meddling kids.
So hurry up and give her a story, and save her from this horrible fate.
A lifelong reader and writer, Adrienne spent her childhood in the tiny town of Johnsonville, South Carolina, next door to her grandparents’ tobacco farm, an hour from a movie theater. She remembers locking herself in her bedroom with the latest Harry Potter and not looking up until it was done. “Growing up in a rural area forces you to be creative,” she says.
She married and moved to Greenville, and first began thinking about Greenville Wordsmiths—a non-profit that encourages students ages 7 to 14 to hone their creative voices through writing and publishing—in 2012, when she found herself disillusioned with her day job as a therapist for children with autism. Her husband Ben asked: if she could do anything, what would she do?
The answer took her to England to complete a one-of-a-kind master’s program in Creative Writing and Education at Goldsmiths, a wildly collaborative arm of the University of London. Her classmates were professional writers who wanted to be better educators, and teachers who wanted to be better writers. The story-making workshop she developed as a result runs on a sense of wonder and empowerment. The Master Wordsmith (played on-screen by Adrienne’s friends from around the world) doesn’t believe anyone less than 100 years old should be published, but Adrienne knows these kids are special, with lots of fresh ideas. As they call out their storylines, she types them up, emailing behind-the-scenes volunteers who illustrate, print, and bind books to present to the students at the end of 90 minutes. Like magic.
Wordsmiths started in one classroom a month, and now there are wait-lists and inquiries from new teachers every day. Inspired by Dave Eggers in his major-metro 826 National creative writing and tutoring centers, Adrienne offers programming that fits our small city sprawl. In addition to her classroom workshops, she also runs a weekend writing club that meets in a refurbished Bluebird school bus, outfitted for maximum inspiration. “It’s a space kids can walk into and feel it’s different,” she says. The Wordmobile is filled with hidden trinkets—tiny dragons, finger puppets, a mailbox full of letters waiting for a response. Adrienne can offer a different creative experience on the bus. “Kids need that one-on-one support, someone to tell them what they’re writing is awesome.”
When you ask what makes her want to be that someone, she says she’s more comfortable around kids than adults, and she talks about that sense of freedom that gets stamped out as we get older. She and Ben just adopted their first child, a tall, spirited four-year-old who spent his foster days going by Spiderman. “Kids make me more free,” she says. But it’s a bigger freedom she’s giving back. “Our vision is for every child in Greenville to be published before high school,” she says. Imagine going into life with that feeling under your belt. Pretty great magic to behold.