Young writers dive deep into their craft at Bread Loaf workshop
RIPTON — “We’ve had deaths — we’ve had really gruesome deaths, actually — and we’ve had accidents. We’ve had a lot of things … but the mouse in the oil — we’ll never forget it. Thank you for that,” says Monkton novelist Eugenie Doyle to New Hampshire teenager Susanna Barger, enumerating the vivid and expansive world of the imagination that Barger and her 10 compatriots in Doyle’s fiction writing workshop together summoned up, read aloud, described, praised, queried and critiqued over the previous three days.
It’s Saturday, May 21, day three of the 32nd annual New England Young Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus in Ripton. Here, atop the spine of the Green Mountains, close to 200 high school writers have come together with a cadre of professional poets, novelists, essayists, journalists, songwriters, playwrights, you name it for four days focused solely on writing.
Students from Addison County schools, like Lane Fisher from Mount Abraham Union High School, not only get to share their love of writing with a large group of peers, they also get the chance to look behind the scenes at a serious conference and even lend a hand.
“We’re so, so lucky to be here as host students,” Fisher said. “We get to help out and do some behind-the-scenes stuff, which is really, really cool.”
At the Young Writers’ Conference, all students critique each other’s pieces, get one-on-one feedback sessions with professional writers, explore new techniques and genres, attend readings, have fun together and get time to simply sit in the sun, stare up at the surrounding Breadloaf Wilderness and write.
YOUNG WRITERS’ CONFERENCE participants Hadley Evans Nash, left, and Greta Hardy-Mittell of Middlebury Union High School discuss a short story while also enjoying the idyllic Bread Loaf campus in Ripton last week. Independent photo/Gaen Murphree
“It’s the incredible history of this place for writers, the whole history of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference being here and this whole campus being donated towards the spirit of writing,” said conference administrator Karla Van Vliet. “Kids can stand at the same podium as Robert Frost, as all kinds of incredible writers.”
Not just Frost but also Richard Wright, Katherine Anne Porter, Willa Cather — for a writer, the names are just as awe-inspiring as the views.
Most students come from New England and New York, but the conference has been expanding to bring in students from as far away as North Carolina, Texas and California, Van Vliet said. One student this year came all the way from France; past years have seen young writers from Puerto Rico and Switzerland. Admission is competitive. A school can nominate five students with up to two admitted. This year around 400 students sought one of the conference’s 200 slots.
“It’s really inspiring to be with all these students who remind me of what I was like when I was that age,” said Middlebury journalist and essayist Susan Greenberg, now in her third year of teaching at NEYWC. “I think a lot of them think and feel very intensely, and it’s nice to be with other students who feel the same way and who care about writing.”
Local high school students and their sponsoring English teachers take on an even broader role and work behind the scenes as host schools. Middlebury Union High School, Vergennes Union High School, Otter Valley and Mount Abe all participate. Host schools help critique submissions and provide logistical and administrative support, especially at the conference itself. They also get the added bonus of getting to bring more students.
“The host schools provide a lot of support. They provide everything from photocopies to time to pizza,” said NEYWC Director Karin Gottshall.
“Coffee and snacks,” adds Van Vliet. “It’s incredible the support they give us.”
Host students might take on tasks like making signs, showing arriving students to their dorm rooms or helping fellow attendees sign up for classes.
The heart of the experience for most attendees is their assigned workshop, made up of 10-12 students and led by a professional writer. Students can choose to be in fiction, poetry or nonfiction workshop groups.
The group meets four times over the first three days and follows a format familiar to anyone who’s ever taken part in a writer’s workshop. Each young writer reads his or her work out loud. In response, listeners first describe what they got from the piece — for fiction, answering questions like, “Where are we?”, “What’s going on?”, “Who are these characters?” — and then offer critiques of what worked and what didn’t. Finally the author gets a brief chance to respond and answer questions.
“It’s so different from high school in the sense that everybody that you’re working with is so devoted to writing, and they’re so intent on expressing their opinions of writing,” said Otter Valley student Hannah Roberts. “It’s really helpful to get critiques from everybody and nobody’s really joking around. Everybody’s very serious about it. And it’s just great to be in an environment where writing is encouraged and where everybody is thriving and growing as a writer.”
This year’s cadre of professionals brings together Vermont writers like Greenberg, Doyle, Matthew Dickerson and Janice Obuchowski, together with wordsmiths from the wider Northeast and other parts of the country altogether. Songwriter Grade Pettis came from Lookout Mountain, Ala. Poets Angela Narciso Torres and Keith S. Wilson came from Chicago. Lucas Gonzalez, a high school English teacher and Bread Loaf alum, came from California. Nature writer Lisa Densmore Ballard came from Red Lodge, Mont.
The conference concludes with a final reading, at which each workshop is represented by one student reading his or her work. Vergennes student Saskia Kiely was selected by her workshop to read a poem.
Something of the spirit of both the conference and of this emerging generation was captured by the collaborative “Team Weems Q&A” presented by fiction writer Richard Weems’ workshop. Weems explained, “Each student wrote a question and an answer. The questions will not always precede the answers written for them.”
Questions posed included “What keeps life from being perfect?” “Why are we here?” “What is it that keeps us falling in and out of love?” and “Is there an alternate dimension where humans are extinct and dinosaurs are prospering?”
The group’s answers, in no particular order, were “The hippopotamus has a name way too similar to the hippocampus because that part of our brain evolved from hippos obviously,” “Because Obama said so,” and “Cinnamon Toast Crunch.” One question was repeated again and again — “Why are we here?”
What stood out most for MUHS student Alyssa Crogan about the conference?
“If you are concerned about shipping a couple hundred sensitive writers to the gnarly woods of Ripton, Vt., you shouldn’t be,” she wrote. “Despite my falling into the river and drenching my jeans (which turned out to be more of a bonding experience than an embarrassing one) we all survived relatively unscathed. I met so many amazingly talented and passionate people during my stay. And whether we were attending Ethan Bowen’s cathartic craft class (where we yelled back at masochistic literature) or having a sing-along around a fire, we were filled to the brim with inspiration and good memories.”
Veteran conference organizer Melanie Stultz-Backus, an English teacher at Mount Abe, reflected on the freedom to explore the imagination that the conference provides attendees.
“Kids get a really great sense of the freedom of the imagination and thought which they may have missed out on within the kind of more structured and restrained world of the high school,” said Stultz-Backus. “There’s a great deal of acceptance of your artistic individuality here, which I think is really another liberating thing for kids.”
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