November 26, 2018
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Andy Grace ’01 vividly remembers a breakthrough moment from a young writer he met last summer in Gambier.
"Her mother had passed away recently, and she was trying to find strategies to talk about it. And she wasn’t satisfied with it, and she was getting really frustrated about being able to write about her mother in a way that she thought was adequate,” said Grace, a visiting assistant professor of English.
“That was one of the things that really stuck with me — how writing in the wake of a huge loss was frustrating in the moment but was allowing her to have an outlet to express her thoughts.”
Helping high school students channel their energy and enthusiasm for storytelling is why Grace looks forward to returning each summer as an instructor for the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop, one of the country’s most prestigious high school writing programs. The workshop, started in 1990 by Kenyon Review editor David Lynn ’76 P’14, welcomes about 200 rising high school juniors and seniors to Gambier for two sessions, each two weeks long, that aim to sharpen writing, reading and editing skills.
The intimate nature of the classes — courses are capped at 14 students — fosters an environment where students are comfortable sharing personal and at times painful stories through poetry and prose.
“There’s something about coming to Gambier and being among other students who love language that I think sets them free to say things that they would probably never say on the first day of their English class in their high school at home,” Grace said. “Here, it’s a blank slate, and you know that you’re among other people who rely on language and writing and reading to deal with pain and grief and stress.”
Competitiveness is discouraged at the workshop. Whether students have dabbled in creative writing or already have published a novel doesn’t matter— upon arriving in Gambier, all writing baggage is checked at the door, and students start with fresh notebooks. Classes focus not on grades or critiques, but on exercising writing muscles and dipping into new genres and writing styles.
“It’s a completely generative workshop, which I think helps level the playing field,” said Tory Weber ’02, associate director of programs and fellowships for the Review, noting that students’ access to high school writing classes can vary drastically. “By having them just come here and start writing and only talking about the writing that they are doing here, they are all on the same page regardless of the experience they bring into it. It’s raw talent that matters, which is great.”
Ten resident advisors, including many who previously participated in the workshop, provide additional assurance to students who are jittery about the quality of their writing skills.
“I remember feeling that same way and being intimidated” by fellow participants, said Clara Altfeld ’19, a Young Writer from two years ago who returned this year as a resident advisor. “When [students] come to me, it allows me to remind them that the community is one where it’s OK to come with whatever talent they have.”
Many a Young Writer falls in love with Kenyon during their summer in Gambier, wandering the paths once walked by literary legends such as Robert Lowell ’40, E.L. Doctorow ’52 H’76, Laura Hillenbrand ’89 H’03 and John Green ’00 H’16. Weber estimates around 20 Young Writers each year end up enrolling at Kenyon, and many of those students join the Kenyon Review as student associates.
“It’s really neat every summer to see these new people come in and know that at least a handful of them I will see them again, and they will become part of this community in an even more long-term way,” Weber said.