Recently, I stumbled across this video of Young Writers at Kenyon, a writing workshop I attended when I was 17. Look at you, marvelous little writing nerds! I was once one of you!
YWAK is exactly what it sounds like: young writers (mostly kids between their junior and senior years) at Kenyon college, an absolutely beautiful campus in the middle of Ohio. I have no idea how I heard about this program–certainly not through my high school, a school that hated English so much they cancelled my junior year AP class. This mean that for an entire year we didn’t read a single book except for Follow the River, which is not exactly a great work of literature. I also don’t know what motivated me to go. I mean, yeah, I knew I wanted to write, in some vague sense. But I was also don’t recall having clear goals or even an idea of what it meant to be a writer.
Regardless, I showed up at Kenyon, ready to live in the dorms for 2 weeks, eat in the dining hall (“What are these things called chickpeas?” I wondered to myself at the salad bar, a thought that seems ridiculous now), and spend my days in workshop. While everyone else was off attending church camp or soccer camp or whatever sort of camp “normal” kids attend, I went to writing camp.
But the instructors didn’t like it when we called it camp. It was workshop. As I later found out, when I majored in Creative Writing, they really did set things up remarkably like a real college writing workshop. The critiques, the lessons, the desks all in a circle. It’s something that seems so normal to me now, but it was completely new to me then.
It might sound silly, but up until that point I had no idea that the world existed outside of my tiny school. I heard it did, and I hoped it did, but I hadn’t seen any of it. At Kenyon, I learned that not all high schools were like mine. I learned that other kids studied Latin. I learned that other schools had fencing teams. I learned that other schools had literary magazines. I learned that, for a lot of these kids, it was normal to read the New Yorker, to reference Greek mythology, to write poetry and then read that poetry out loud to other people.
And these kids were like no one I’d ever met before. At all. They wore different clothes. They read different books. They pronounced “aunt” like “ahhhnt,” which I unsuccessfully tried to do for awhile. They were applying to Harvard and Yale, with Brown as their “safety,” while my completely incompetent guidance counselor would never in a million years encourage any of us to apply to those schools (he once told me my ACT score meant I could get into “any college I wanted!” My score was merely on the average side of good, and even at 17 I knew he was only referring to the local community colleges. It just never occurred to him that anyone might dream a little bigger). I felt hopelessly inadequate, like a total idiot from the country next to these people I thought were sophisticated writerly types. I realize now that where I’m from is unique and special in its own way, but at the time I had no idea what “voice” was. All I knew was that here, being smart was the same thing as being cool, and I’d never been any place like that before.
I kept an embarrassingly detailed and pretentious journal while I was there. After I watched this video for the first time, I dug it out of my closet, where it was hidden deep inside my box of journals I kept sporadically from third grade up until now. I alternated between writing things like, “This is the best experience of my life!” and writing things like, “I’m the stupidest person in the world and I hate myself!” I also wrote down a list of books the other kids were reading so that I could find out about them when I got back home. Now, I’m shocked these kids were cognizant enough of themselves as writers that they would read Bird by Bird. I didn’t even know who Anne Lamott was until college.
I’m so thankful that Young Writers at Kenyon exists and that I had the opportunity to attend. It was one of the defining moments of my life, which might seem strange. I mean, it was basically a summer camp that happened almost ten years ago. It was significant, though, because it was when I started to realize I could write. Up until that point, I didn’t know anyone like me. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by people who enjoyed this thing that I’d always done in solitude. This was, I found out, a valid thing to enjoy. I wasn’t some weirdo…or maybe I was, but that was a good thing. At Kenyon, they held up a mirror that let me see not just who I was but who I could be; I wasn’t just a 17 year old girl who obsessively journaled. I was a writer.
I wouldn’t say I was discouraged from writing when I was a kid, because I always received positive reinforcement from my parents and my favorite teachers, but I never really saw writing as a career or a way of life. That isn’t how most people think where I’m from. At Kenyon, I saw people for the first time who were devoting themselves to this. They were living it. What’s more, the instructors encouraged us to take it seriously. They didn’t treat us like children; they treated us like writers, like equals. That isn’t something you get much of in most high schools.
My workshop instructor told me in our final one-on-one meeting that “it might be ten years before we see a book from you.” But she had this confidence, this unwavering belief, that I would write a book. That’s something I’ve kept with me. If she didn’t doubt me, why should I doubt myself?
That’s my summer camp experience. It was life-changing, and I haven’t even mentioned that I met one of my best friends there. I also fell deep into L-U-V with the Kenyon campus and even tried to go there (I got in, but I wasn’t anywhere close to being able to afford it). It was certainly for the best that I didn’t go there, since I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t always have the same comforting-yet-challenging feel of that summer, but I still feel nothing but happy when I think back on it. In a lot of ways, I feel more connected to those two weeks at Kenyon than I do to the entire four years I spent at Miami. It may sound silly, but watching this video literally gave me the chills. I’m writing a blog post about my time at a writing workshop, but I’m still having trouble finding the words for my experience ten years ago at Young Writers at Kenyon. It was a special time, and I’m glad I had it.