By Celeste Lipkes, Teaching Fellow, Kenyon Review Young Writers, Summer 2013
It’s 9AM on a Monday morning, and a dozen teenagers are wrapping up a debate that bounced effortlessly from the merits of Thomas Pynchon to the poetics of thermodynamics to the ethics of hosting house parties. For the third day in a row, I regret not drinking a second cup of coffee.
As a teaching fellow at the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop, I am amazed anew each day at the talent and unbridled enthusiasm of the 100 high school students who chose to spend two weeks of their precious summer vacation reading and writing. With over five hours of workshop a day and readings in the evenings, the program is truly a writing marathon. My pen can barely keep up; as the students share their work, I scribble furiously to take down the best snatches of language. My notebook’s margins are littered with beautiful, half-illegible nonsense: kerfuffle of calculators—white fields, the color of force-feeding—his blood cells said hello—the rocks have not heard the good news of air conditioning. While their backgrounds and voices are varied, my students could not be more united by their love of literature.
When teaching, I always find it helpful to put myself in my students’ positions: as a sixteen-year-old, what about this story would have enchanted, confused, or irritated me? Trying to approach my students the way I attempt to meet poems—on their own terms, with patience and understanding—is a worthwhile challenge. But having attended the Young Writers Workshop seven years ago, I feel lucky to have an inside track. While the curriculum has been adapted since I was a young writer, the spirit of the program remains the same: write and read as much as possible. This focus on production of new work also applies to the instructional staff. We respond to the readings, write the prompts, and share our work—unedited and often only minutes old—alongside our students.
Especially with an MFA under my belt, I find the community at Young Writers incredibly refreshing. All graduate school veterans can attest to the stifling nitpickiness that can plague even the most well-intentioned workshops. But for the past two weeks, we have encouraged our students to focus on process, to revel in messiness, and to try everything—lessons I could use a reminder in, as well.
As I head off to begin medical school (yes, you read that correctly) in a few short weeks, I’m grateful to have shared the last chunk of my summer with young people who have such a voracious appetite for literature. While some of my students will continue on to study creative writing in undergrad and graduate school, the real success of Young Writers is less quantifiable.
On the first day of workshop, we ask our students to list things they have brought with them and things they have left behind. From alarm clocks to confidence, their answers vary widely. But I am positive that if the prompt were reversed—what are you taking home with you?—that students and staff alike would say that they leave Young Writers with a vastly widened appreciation for what words can do. That, and a notebook brimming with scribbles.