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Ohio State professor heads summer workshop for young writers

Sarah Twitty

It was not the usual summer camp routine. After breakfast in the dining hall, the 30 Columbus public high school students did not trudge out to the football field or meander through a campground. They found themselves in a classroom in Denney Hall poring over literature and poetry, some of it their own, honing the craft of creative writing.

Michelle Herman, an Ohio State professor of English who heads the summer Young Writers Workshop, said the project emerged from the creative vision of a donor who agreed to foot the bill if OSU’s creative writing program worked with public high school students.

Last summer’s workshop allowed the students to act as writers-in-residence for a week, all expenses paid.

“I really observed that we had a lot of students who weren’t really getting opportunities for creative writing in high school,” said Lee Martin, director of OSU’s creative writing program. In preparation for the application deadline, the organizers blanketed Columbus City high schools with fliers and Herman, a published author and former director of the creative writing program, visited English classrooms.

About 100 high school sophomores and juniors applied for a spot by submitting creative writing samples that were judged by a committee. The committee chose the top 30 applications. The students were placed in categories that fit their writing style: fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry.

Tuition for similar programs ranges from $1,100 at Denison University to $2,275 for Kenyon College’s two-week workshop.

“We wanted to attract students who were talented, who wanted to write, but might not have been in situations where that talent was nurtured,” Martin said.

The students arrived on a Sunday evening and stayed in a north campus residence hall. The classes began the next day.
Herman said the schedule consisted of morning classes taught by graduate students about “the nuts and bolts” of writing, downtime in a computer lab for independent work, and evening workshops taught by OSU faculty in which the students discussed and critiqued each others’ work. After class, students got a meal at the North Commons and could explore High Street before lights out at 10 p.m.

“They made us do homework and packets,” said Kelsey Seltzer, a participant in the poetry section and a junior at Columbus Alternative High School. “At first, I thought, ‘It’s summer I shouldn’t be doing all this crap.’ After reading all the packets and doing all the work, though, I appreciated it.”

The classes included student readings where the young writers shared their work.

At first, the idea of sharing a personal, even embarrassing, poem with others was daunting, but Seltzer said she grew from it.

“I learned it’s OK to share that side of you with other human beings, because they have probably felt that way too, and we can all connect on that level,” she said.

As the deadline to apply for next summer’s program draws nearer, Herman said she hopes students from last year returned to their schools “with a missionary zeal to spread the idea that writing creatively is a good thing to do.”

Even if only one or two of the students goes on to pursue creative writing, Herman said she still hopes that students learn how valuable it is.

“If nothing else,” Herman said, “it forces you to try to think about who you are and what your experiences mean, and then to struggle to find the words to express that.”

That message was not lost on Patrice Danyetta Bowman, a participant last summer and a junior at Columbus Alternative High School.

“Not writing is just a form of being passive,” she said in an e-mail. “If you don’t write, then you have no true voice.”

High school sophomores and juniors in Columbus public schools can download an application for the 2010 summer program at the OSU English department Web site. The deadline to apply is Feb. 26. For more information, contact Kelly Fickle at 614-292-2242. 

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