Late on a Tuesday morning, the second floor of Alumni Hall echoed with the voices of students in workshop. One voice asked about power dynamics in a scene, another commented on what worked well with the writer’s language. Turning the corner into the Ballroom, seven kids between the ages of 12 and 15 could be seen gathered around a table, poring over their latest work.
It was the second day of a weeklong youth writing program that traveled the grounds this past week — from workshops in Alumni Hall, to nature and poetry writing in the South End Ravine, to a peek into feature writing at the offices of The Chautauquan Daily. The small, enthusiastic group was the first to experience the program, a new all-day Special Studies course for kids, offered as an alternative to Boys’ and Girls’ Club.
“We’re trying to build more youth programs, because kids … are looking for some things to do intellectually rather than Club activities,” said Teresa Adams, assistant director of the Institution’s Department of Education and director of Special Studies. “We hold a Writers’ Festival for adults, and I thought, ‘Why couldn’t we do something like that for the youth?’ ”
The camp was billed as a stress-free, nonjudgmental zone, in which kids could feel free to be creative in an open, positive environment.
Camp days were broken off into special sessions with professional writers. Elysha O’Brien led a workshop on fantasy writing, Sue Weaver talked about nature and poetry writing and Chautauqua Theater Company playwright Colin McKenna taught a segment on playwriting called “The World is a Text.”
Kathleen Jones, a Master of Fine Arts candidate in poetry writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, traveled to Chautauqua for the first time this season; she worked as an intern for the program. Jones helped the kids from one writing activity to the next, and she also facilitated free time for the students to polish their writing and choose pieces for the week’s final product: a journal of the students’ work.
Jones will return to UNC Wilmington and design the journal in the university’s publishing lab, and the participants should have the final product in their hands within the next month.
Jones, who worked with kids before returning to school for her graduate degree, said she was not surprised by the quality of work they were producing.
“A lot of them can definitely write pretty quickly,” Jones said. “It’s only the middle of the second day, and a lot of them have been taking their ideas very seriously and fleshing them out.”
Twelve-year-old Katherine Schultze, who lives year-round in Chautauqua, relished the opportunity to attend the camp, lamenting the little time in school devoted to writing. Her favorite genre is fantasy.
“It intrigues me more, because you can make up anything,” Schultze said. “The one I’m writing now, it’s about a girl named Clara. … I haven’t finished it yet, but she has a bracelet, and they get trapped in this magical world, and so her bracelet will help her find her way out.”
Tessa Juliano is a 14-year-old from Pittsburgh who has been coming to the Institution since she was born. She has started writing four or five books, but she has not yet finished one. Her latest work finds the heroine escaping a terrible fire that has incinerated her entire town and is spreading throughout the country.
Twelve-year-old Vivian Hunt, from Buffalo, N.Y., also tends to prefer fantasy writing. This is Hunt’s first summer in Chautauqua, and while she took a cooking class a few weeks ago, she said the writing camp has been her favorite part of her summer thus far. After all, Hunt wants to be a novelist.
“In fantasy, you can really explore new things,” Hunt said. “We went to the [South End Ravine] and described what we felt when we were there, what we saw, what we heard. We pretended we’d never seen a baseball before, and we had to describe that.”
David Han, a 14 year old who is also from Pittsburgh, aspires to be a science writer. While the class waited to have photos taken to be put into the journal, Han followed what he surmised to be a jumping spider crawl under the panel of a doorframe.
“I like writing about the experiences of being outside, and what I can observe,” Han said. “I’ve always loved to write realistic fiction or nonfiction.”
Han learned from his mother, a cell biologist, about the rift between what is researched and discovered in the different fields of science and what is reported to the general public.
“There’s kind of a gap of knowledge,” Han said. “I think that there could be a lot more potential in citizen science … if the gap was closed. I think it’s important to have science writers that help the public, kind of like the National Geographic. And I like writing as a way to communicate to people.”