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.