Saturday, July 23, 2011

When Doors Fly and Horses Multiply: The First Three Summers of Richmond Young Writers

In the spring of 2009, a friend who also happened to be the chair of the James River Writers asked me numerous times if I knew of any creative writing camps in Richmond for kids. After assuring her repeatedly that I did not, it occurred to me that I could just go ahead and teach her son. One-on-one. In their attic. Which would have been great--- her son was an excellent writer--- but then I got to thinking. Were there other kids in Richmond who might enjoy doing some creative writing that summer? I called Chop Suey Books and asked if I could teach a class in their art gallery upstairs. They said yes. I invited other writers to come teach special genre specific workshops during the week. They said yes.

I wanted the kids to have a reading at the end of the week so I called the Byrd Theatre and asked if we could use their stage for half an hour on Friday afternoons. They said yes. Each door I knocked on flew open.

I set up a website and four week-long sessions. All four sessions made and were a smashing success. We invented worlds. We created characters and plots and poems. We played with language. We invented alter egos, explored our dreams and went people-watching at coffee shops. We were serious and silly and deep and ridiculous. Middle and high-schoolers who dreaded spelling tests, grammar drills, SOLs, SATs and the infamous five-paragraph essays wrote up a storm. Kids who had begged their parents not to sign them up, thanked them afterwards. Together, in that little art gallery upstairs, we made writing fun.

That I had a sense of the potential of a creative writing camp was no accident. My mother had sent me to the UVA Young Writer’s Workshop when I was 15 & 16 and those summers had changed my life. They’d solidified what I wanted to do, validated who I was and offered me a vision of what I could become At UVA, young writers were treated as “real writers.” We were not lectured or talked down to. We were encouraged to be ourselves, and to write about it. I returned as a counselor for two summers during college, reveling in the joy of giving back what had been given to me. In creating Richmond Young Writers in my own hometown, I followed this lead.

And, in a creative sense, I feel I’ve been right on target. But in a business sense, I’ve only had the vaguest intuitive notion of where we are and in which direction we should be heading.

Then, last summer, I had the great pleasure of meeting another UVA Young Writer’s Workshop alum, Bird Cox. In addition to being a freelance writer, the organizer of the Bizarre Market and numerous other laudable activities, Bird had taught creative writing to kids around town for years and wanted to take her teaching further. Based on my immediate sense of this vivacious, wildly creative and highly skilled woman, coupled with the segment I’d heard that morning on NPR about how two horses are able to carry more than twice the weight of one, I suggested that we partner. And so we did. And it has been one of the best “business decisions” I could have made for Richmond Young Writers. Even though Snopes.Com debunked the horse/weight baring load story I’ve found that two people working together are in fact able to accomplish more than one sitting at home scribbling in her notebook, wondering what in the world to do next.

This year we’ve been able to double our program, running eight sessions with students not only from Richmond, but from Henrico, Glen Allen, Chesterfield, Midlothian, Montpelier, Powhatan, Moseley, Mechanicsville, Afton, Rockville, Charlottesville and Gloucester, Virginia. The scope of our grass roots, relationship based “marketing campaign” has been further reaching than I could have imagined. We’ve even got an email from France and a family that plans to rearrange next year’s vacation from Louisiana to so their daughter can attend!

This year’s teachers, as always, were absolutely amazing, opening up heretofore unexplored worlds of surrealism, magical realism, character, plot, memoir, screenwriting, specificity, werewolves & wizards. I learned as much from their workshops as from any college class (and I loved my college classes! Hello Susan? Hello Melvin?)

Best of all, with the help of a whole bunch of generous people in our community we’ve instituted a scholarship program, awarding assistance to over a dozen kids in the area. A more-often-than-not scholarship kid myself, this has been one of the most incredibly rewarding parts of my year. Don’t be shocked to find me crying over a letter from a young person who wants to spend their summer writing but can’t afford it! That kid used to be me.

Bird and I are still not 100% sure what the future of Richmond Young Writers holds (other than our awesome fall intensives!) but after learning so much this summer, I’m beginning to realize that’s just part of the creative process. We are, after all, in the middle of writing our own adventure.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Who Do I Think I Am?

Being both a mother and a writer poses many interesting questions.

For example, is it totally selfish to wish I was with a girlfriend, a box of chocolates and a laptop in a cheap motel when I am instead taping together rocket ships out of paper towel rolls up to my elbows in animal crackers and soccer balls?

Is it in poor taste to turn down a full time job with excellent benefits in order to keep writing stories just because they are stories I feel like writing?

And, what happens when mommy wants to write about men who aren’t daddy or activities not condoned by the PTA?

As I have spent the last 35 years narrating my life in my head, these questions are not only footnotes, but chapter headings.

Sometimes, I even catch myself blaming my six-year-old for my record low word counts, sleep-deprived metaphors and rambling, directionless paragraphs heading nowhere fast. But my lack of verve is not exactly his fault. In fact, I was pregnant with him when I took the fiction class at the Virginia Museum that got me back into writing after a multi-year hiatus waitressing/hotel-roomcleaning/basketweaving, etc.

And I could barely hide him under my shirt when I wrote my first article that I later had laminated at Kinkos.

And, I just so happened to be offered the job of Book Editor the exact same week he was born.

In fact, I called him my Writing Baby. So it’s not exactly fair to blame him when I’m not writing. He does still need me about 20,000 times a day, but I am inherently the kind of writer who seeks distractions. If it wasn’t him calling my mind from the page, it would be something else. Like the clowns from the circus I’ve considered running off with, for example.

There are a million things that make being a fulltime artist/writer and a mother both so difficult and so rewarding that it would be impossible to choose one over the other without feeling the devastation of losing both. And so, everyday I try to balance the two. I’m in good company. Recently, local blogger, Alexandra Nelson Iwashyna published a thoughtful piece that really nailed it: "Writing As a Mother: The Price I Pay" on her hilarious and thought-provoking blog Late Enough.

Daphne Du Maurier, of “Rebecca” fame took a different approach (paraphrased from The Telegraph): "I am not one of those mothers who live for having their brats with them all the time," she wrote....leaving behind four-year-old Tessa and the three-month-old Flavia....child-free quiet was the only hope for Rebecca....In her daughters' absence she worked quickly...four months after she started work, Daphne delivered her manuscript.

Last week after reading “Rebecca” in a 3-day fever of romantic suspense, learning about the fever with which she written it made me laugh. And hug my son. And demand that he go to community college while living in his room at home. Because the reality is I want him and my writing both together in the big messy soup of haiku and kung fu that makes up our life. Even if I'm thinking about one while spending time with the other.

And so, this week, to mark the end of the first half of my thirties I plan to re-watch the brilliant documentary, “Who Does She Think She Is?” focusing on female artists of many disciplines. Artists who are also mothers. Mothers who struggle with questions of selfishness, time-management, how to get paid for their art, balance, family, passion, discipline, figuring out how to do and be it all, without selling either themselves or their children short.

On the days when I feel like a bad mother because I’m a writer, or vice versa, another movie comes to mind: Sophie’s Choice. And I am reminded how happy I am that, somehow, I have chosen not to choose.