Monday, June 24, 2013

Young Writers Workshop

As the semester was winding down and I was facing a long summer without a regular paycheck, I applied for every part time gig that came through the MFA listserv, and scored quite a few of them. Last week, I spent five days working the best of the bunch by serving as a counselor during UNCW's annual Young Writers Workshop. From the UNCW website: 
The Young Writers Workshop provides a place for aspiring writers to experiment, meet other writers, and follow their creative interests in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. YWW participants take part in daily creative writing exercises, craft lectures, writing workshops, and readings. The week offers a valuable and exciting experience for young writers interested in learning more about their craft.
This year was the biggest camp yet, with 46 attendees, all between the ages of 14 and 18, and six counselors (myself included), all of whom were current MFA students. I'm not really sure how to capture the amazing experience of those five days in a blog post, so I'll let the few photos I managed to snap during the course of the week serve as my guide. 

Lavish dorm room living.

We arrived Tuesday at noon to complete last minute tasks, checking into our rooms, and wait for the campers to arrive. The counselors lived in the dorm with the kids, though we each got our own room, thank god. We also ate all our meals with the kids in the college cafeteria, and sat in on most of their lectures and writing exercises. We weren't allowed to leave campus, so even though I was three miles from my house, I didn't go home at all during camp. Basically, we were fully immersed in the world of teenage writers, which was both wonderful and terrifying - the pendulum swung back and forth mostly without warning. 

Ready for a morning fiction lecture.

There were only three full days of camp which, looking back, seems impossible - so much happened that I was sure we were there for a month, at least. And while there was some drama - teenagers, I quickly discovered, are magnets for it - the days followed more or less the same schedule. Wake up at 7:30AM. Walk to breakfast at 8:30, followed by morning writing exercises, led by an MFA student, followed by lectures from UNCW faculty and alumni (which were great, and I got so many good ideas for my own lesson plans). Then it was time for lunch, then another lecture, then workshop, then dinner. A full day, but the kids greeted everything we threw at them with boundless energy and enthusiasm. 

Quiet writing time in the courtyard.

The two best things about camp, in my opinion, were the workshops and the time they spent in the Publishing Laboratory. Every year, each camper gets to design a page of a book in InDesign, using their own writing and copyright free images they find out the Internet. Then the amazing Pub Lab TAs compile their pages and put them into a book, which is published, bound, and handed out on the last day, to serve as a kind of memento/yearbook. It's an awesome experience, and probably the first time most of the kids have seen their words in print. 

Learning InDesign in the Pub Lab.

The other best thing was workshop. Each camper has to submit a manuscript of ten pages or less prior to their arrival, and then each counselor gets a small group of six to seven kids. We met with our groups every afternoon for about an hour and a half to workshop their stories. Which meant in addition to lectures and writing exercises, the kids also had homework each night - which, I might add, they were (mostly) thrilled to do. Only one of my kids had ever been in a workshop before, so this was yet another first experience. I had a group of six 15 year olds, and I have to say they did an amazing job. The quality of their writing was impressive, their comments and critiques were spot on, and they were more talkative and enthusiastic than the majority of my undergrad students. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised. 

Field trip to the beach.

Erasure poetry night. 

Camp wasn't all homework and lectures, though. We also took a trolley to the beach one night, which was fun for both the campers and the counselors (yoga on the beach! soccer in the sand!). The best activity we did, though, was erasure poetry. A full explanation can be found here, but basically erasures involve taking pre-existing text (usually the page of a book), and blacking out all the words you don't want, in order to reveal the poems hidden in the text. The kids LOVED this activity - we sat for almost two hours in a large room, quietly erasing words with black markers, and every few minutes someone would spontaneously read what they had discovered, to much clapping and exclamations of, "OMG, that is SOOOO beautiful!" (Teenagers, man.) While I've taught erasures before, this was the first time I really focused on writing one myself. I took a page from a beekeeping book (naturally) and camp up with the following erasure, of which I'm quite fond. 

My erasure. 

So far I've mostly told you what we did and how we spent our days. What I haven't shared is the big, heavy stuff - the way so many kids bared their hearts at the reading on the final night, revealing parts of themselves they usually keep hidden. Or the way there was no social structure at camp - everyone treated one another as equals, as if, for those five days, we lived in a utopia where our differences were celebrated. Or how, as their parents picked them up, so many of the campers clung to one another, crying and promising to keep in touch. I watched them, wiped away my own tears, marveled at the way we can form such strong bonds in such a short space of time. There were moments when I missed myself at 15, the intensity of every moment, the overwhelming emotions, the way life stretched out in front of me, and I had no idea what the future would hold. Then, as I looked at my own small group of six, I realized that I was exactly twice as old as they were, and I was grateful for all the years in between us. I wanted to tell them that no matter what was going on in their lives right then, the future would be better. Bigger. Brighter. That so much of this moment wouldn't matter, even as it mattered so much. But I know what I would have said to that sort of advice when I was fifteen, and so I bit my tongue and silently sent them all the love and strength I could spare. 

After the last camper was picked up on Saturday afternoon, the counselors went out for a few beers, and I realized that for the last five days, I hadn't done a damn thing for myself - I didn't drink, I didn't watch TV, I didn't write or blog, I didn't read, I didn't workout, I didn't see my family or my animals. I was fully present, giving those 46 teenagers every ounce of my energy and attention. I thought this was remarkable, and then I thought, "Oh, I guess this is what it's like to be a parent." And then I ordered a second beer. 

What I'm trying to say is, Young Writers Workshop was maybe the highlight of my MFA experience thus far. It taught me things about myself, it inspired me in ways I didn't expect, and it gave me hope for the future. Teenagers, man. Who would have guessed?