Arts boom as UVa’s Young Writers take residence

| June 14, 2013

A 2012 Young Writers Workshop participant finds a quiet nook to work in.

Sweet Briar College will welcome back the University of Virginia’s renowned Young Writers Workshop for its second year in residence on campus this summer. Session I, for rising ninth- through 12th-graders, will be held June 23-July 5, with Session II following July 7-26. The longer session is open to rising 10th-graders through entering college freshmen.

Each will bring approximately 85 to 95 participants, representing more than 20 U.S. states and four countries, for intensive studio workshops in one of five genres: fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, songwriting, and scriptwriting for screen and stage.

Since its founding in1982 as a then-novel residential experience for teen writers, the YWW had called the UVa grounds home. That changed two years ago when widespread building renovations prompted founder and director Margo Figgins to evaluate her options.

In 2012, the program was held on Sweet Briar’s campus, joining a flourishing arts community that includes the College’s Blue Ridge Summer Institute for Young Artists (June 16-July 7), known as BLUR, Endstation Theatre Company’s Blue Ridge Summer Theatre Festival (May 31-July 21) and its Playwrights Initiative (July 8-31). Sweet Briar also neighbors the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a working retreat for visual artists, writers and composers who regularly interact with students and faculty both of the College and residential arts programs.

Songwriting is one of five genres workshop participants can choose from.

The Young Writers Workshop has always struck a balance between “solitude and community” so students have the opportunity to “live as a writer,” according to the website. Summer at Sweet Briar — 3,250 tranquil acres in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills teeming with artists of every stripe — proved a natural fit. And it adds another dimension that was missing, Figgins says.

“Sweet Briar has made it possible for our teaching writers and program administrators to be in residence as well,” she said, noting most previously stayed in their Charlottesville homes. “The ease of sharing expertise, information and programming creates a fluidity in the day-to-day workings of the program and contributes to a larger sense of community when everyone is present. It’s like the hum of a beehive — though this year’s metaphor will have to involve cicadas.”

As they were able to do last year, the YWW program directors are planning opportunities for the writers to interact with BLUR and Endstation as peer artists who can learn from one another and be “informed, appreciative audiences for each other’s work,” Figgins says.

“We are also looking forward to the same kind of animated exchanges with VCCA artists-in-residence that occurred last year — guest writer readings, small group workshops, etc. The VCCA is an invaluable resource for both the College and YWW.”

A typical day for the young writers will include morning labs that are follow-ups to the daily intensive studio workshop taught by a professional, published writer in the genre. Independent writing time is built in, along with group meetings and cultural or social events for all participants. They also take elective mini-classes that include arts, recreation, and experimental reading and writing options. The labs and electives invite genre-bending experimentation that lets them explore the limits of the primary craft they are studying, Figgins says.

Students arrive prepared to explore a theme — this year it is “(R)evolution” — over the course of the session. The first writing challenge comes on day one and, from there, they begin building a session portfolio, which will include both polished pieces and works in progress that they’ll continue to share with other alumni after they leave.

Each participant will also be part of a publishing staff that serves the workshop community, such as the literary magazine, an anthology of each session’s writings, or a video documentary of session highlights. The Writers Café is the culminating event, where everyone performs an original work for the whole community.

BLUR’s philosophy is distinct from YWW, catering to young visual and performing artists, as well as writers. Its founding principle is blurring the boundaries between forms of art to imagine new ways of making it. But it, too, is rooted in the idea that artists thrive in the company of each other. So when the veteran YWW joined BLUR on campus last summer — a nascent program then in its second year — BLUR director Dave Griffith said he and his colleagues in the creative writing department, Endstation, and the College’s administration welcomed it with open arms.

“That communal aspect is important. We’re trying to create a hothouse for the making of new work,” Griffith says, noting the workshop helps foster that environment. “We’re looking forward to growing alongside them and finding more ways that we can collaborate and support one another.”

The point is not lost on YWW organizers.

“It should not go without saying how valued Sweet Briar’s commitment to the arts is to programs such as ours,” Figgins says. “The potential for partnership growth in advancing a visionary community is remarkable.”

Jennifer McManamay

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Category: Creative Writing, English