A couple weeks back, I lay in a twin bed, unable to sleep. My mind raced with the things I’d learned that day at camp. Have I articulated what my main character wants? Is my prose bogged down with too many subject—verb—subject complement sentences? If I told my story backward would I figure out a way to approach the ending? I lay there, wanting to turn on the light and dig into my work, but I couldn’t wake my roommate. Besides, morning would bring another full day at the Baltimore Writer’s Studio, and as its Director, I’d better be awake. But before I fell asleep, I thought back to the first time I’d felt like this. I was seventeen, and I lay awake in strange dorm room, my mind alive from the first day of classes at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.
People repeatedly call me crazy for loading a bus with Baltimore teens and taking them out the woods of western Maryland for a week-long creative writing camp. But to me, an ‘03 and ‘04 alum of IYWS, it’s the most natural thing in the world. Of course there are kids who want to leave civilization and study with a community of writers. Of course they’ll still focus in hour six of workshops. Of course they’ll spend their free time working on their novel. As a teenager at IYWS, these were my people. Now, I’m lucky to spend my professional life bringing a similar experience to kids who might otherwise not have it readily available. I direct Writers in Baltimore Schools (WBS), a program that provides low-income school students with a vibrant environment for literary development through in-school and after-school writing workshops, and two years in, our sleepaway writing camp has become our flagship program. I think that’s because there’s nothing comparable to giving young writers time, space, and community, be it in the woods of Maryland or small town Iowa.
IYWS marked a turning point in my understanding of the study of writing. As an extrovert born into a big, loud family, sitting alone in a room is often torture. Unfortunately, to get writing done, this must happen. But IYWS introduced me to the concept of a community of writers: people who are in it together, all striving to hone their craft, yet giving each other the necessary space to get work done. Writing will always be a communal activity for me, and I have IYWS to thank for that. A favorite step of my writing process will always be handing over a draft to a trusted reader and then sitting down to discuss what needs to happen in the piece. For me, that’s truly when the story comes alive. There your friend is, sitting and talking about your character as if he/she’s a real person. It’s exhilarating. At IYWS, those conversations marked the landscape of Iowa City: in the cafeteria, at Prairie Lights, strolling through the city cemetery, and on the dorm roof (was that allowed?).
In creating the Baltimore Writer’s Studio, I sought to replicate this community of writers. WBS uses its in-school programs to identify young writers who could benefit from an intensive week of writing workshops. These kids often come from Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods; many attend schools where 96% of the students receive free and reduced meals. When I asked one kid how he’d learned to write such fantastic sentences, he told me it’s because he listens. He stands on his street corner and listens to the dealers and junkies tell stories. He’s twelve, understands why he doesn’t want to get involved, but will take what he can: their sense of storytelling. We hold our campers to the highest standards. At the end of five days, they will have produced a “core story,” another shorter, prompt-driven story, and a few pieces of poetry. The bulk of the Studio is organized around production of the “core story,” thanks to a curriculum developed by Teach for America alum Will Wheeler. Early in the week, students develop their main character and shortly thereafter, decide what their character will do or face—the basic stuff of story. As writers ourselves, who also struggle to finish work, we wanted to challenge students to write a complete short story in week. And that they did. In the last hours of camp, several students met me beaming: “Miss Patrice, that’s the first story I ever finished!” As someone with a Word graveyard of story beginnings, I congratulated them as if they’d solved a deep mystery of the universe. Because to me, they had.
Being on the grownup end of things, you often miss what happens outside the formal schedule of camp: the romances, the spats, the existential crises (and thank goodness). That’s where my memories of IYWS come in and help me understand that our Studio provides the kids with something beyond the classroom outputs. I recently turned to my teenage journal to see what the weeks in Iowa had meant back then, and while I cringe sharing this, it helps me remember how IYWS was an awakening.
A day, yet an eternity. We discussed the philosophy of architecture and its immortality while getting acquainted. We read sonnets raging with expletives that told you to turn to page 91 if you wanted to make love or 127 if you wanted to die. Page 127 wasn’t there. We walked through tunnels spray-painted with phrases like “The best social critics leave their marks in spray paint.” We giggled about a building shaped like Noah’s ark. A critique session turned into an afterlife discussion, and then our teacher told us that we’ll all have to hang out at her house. We decided to make tee-shirts that say “A lie to you, but fiction to me.” Permanent marker black on tee-shirt white. Our night out on the town was spent hopscotching around Locke quotations embedded within the sidewalk. Then off to a radio recording of an author’s short story reading at the bookshop downtown. The people are lovely. A lad with leopard print sneakers and night sky eyes. A girl who told me to come down to her room to cry about sonnets and discuss Beckett.
At IYWS, I began to see the world through a new lens, and as a community of writers, we explored Iowa City. We bought pies at the Amish market and invented legends about the Black Angel statue, and while most of this never made it into our stories, it taught us that fascination with the quotidian was okay, because after all, anything was game for stories. And when I talk to Baltimore kids about their work, that’s what I hope they come away understanding: writing can give a little extra oomph to life. You’re forced to see in a new way. Because you have to describe in a way you’ve never heard before. And it’d better sound good or else your community of writers will call you out.
Patrice Hutton directs Writers in Baltimore Schools. She’s currently a graduate student in writing at Johns Hopkins University. Her fiction appears in Mount Hope Magazine, Prime Number Magazine, and Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine. She attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio in 2003 and 2004.