UVa writers find new muse at Sweet Briar

| July 30, 2012

Quamia Dennis works on the lyrics for a song during her morning writing lab.

It’s a Thursday morning in July, and the second session of UVa’s Young Writers Workshop is in full swing.

In a tiny classroom a handful of songwriting students have picked up their guitars, their fingers searching for notes that might inspire words. Handwritten signs taped to the wall with bright pink duct tape read “Contribute,” “Take risks” and “Revisions.”

In the kitchen lounge just outside the classroom, another student is listening to hip-hop beats on his computer, his head nodding as he scribbles down lyrics.

For 30 years, high school kids from across the country and abroad have been gathering during the summer to immerse themselves in their art. There are workshops in fiction, poetry, non-fiction, script- and songwriting. Some students have been coming for years; others became counselors and now teach some of the writing labs. The second session, which lasts three weeks, typically draws 50 percent of its applicants from workshop alumnae, according to assistant director Jeff Martin.

One thing is different in 2012: It’s the first time the workshop is taking place on the campus of Sweet Briar College, and not at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

“It’s been wonderful,” says Margo Figgins, founder and director of the program, which admits between 150 and 200 students each year.

After last year’s hiatus due to renovations at UVa, she’s glad to have found a new home for her young writers — at least for the moment. It’s too early to say whether Sweet Briar will become a permanent residence, but so far the campus seems like a natural fit for the program.

“The location here is much nicer,” says scriptwriting student Natcher Pruett, a 17-year-old from Minneapolis. It’s his second time participating in the workshop.

Students Libby Brennan (from left), Katherine Thompson, Helena Chung and Sarah Yung don’t mind writing in the company of other poets.

“It’s nice to wake up in the morning and see the mountains when you look out of the window.”

Chicago native Leah Barber, 16, agrees. “I really like Sweet Briar College as a location because it brings character to the program.”

Despite her urban background, the quietude of the campus doesn’t bother her. On the contrary, she says, it’s nice not having distractions.

“You can really focus on your writing,” she says. In her case, that’s poetry.

Some students call the landscape “inspiring” — a vibe Martin feels, too.

“One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed in shifting from Charlottesville to Sweet Briar is that, odd as this may sound, the land seems to have a calming effect on both the students and the parents,” says Martin, who’s been with the program since 2001.

“In Charlottesville there was construction around us every summer for more than a decade, and we were right on a major road, so it was a very busy space — both literally and to the eye — and never really quiet. Here, though, I’ve noticed from as early as registration — when the parents and their children first drive onto campus — that the land gets their attention: they talk not just about how pretty it is, but also about how quiet it is, and how peaceful.”

The campus environment emerged as a theme so often that it prompted Figgins to speculate on its impact.

“It’ll be interesting to see what role the landscape plays and how it enhances their experience,” she says.

Director Margo Figgins is also an associate professor at UVa’s Curry School of Education.

But there’s something else that students are benefitting from just as much as the landscape.

“The other major difference that helps immerse the students in the Young Writers experience is that here at Sweet Briar they’re surrounded by other arts programs, which wasn’t the case in Charlottesville,” Martin says.

“Between BLUR [Sweet Briar’s interdisciplinary arts camp] and [the College’s theater company-in-residence] Endstation, we’ve had opportunities for collaborations that we’ve never had before, and the effect of that is pretty powerful — after a while students simply accept that they’re surrounded by all kinds of different artists, and when art becomes the comfortable norm, the creation and sharing of it becomes much easier to do.”

Scriptwriting students assisted Endstation playwrights with some of their new scripts, and all workshop participants attended at least one Blue Ridge Summer Theatre Festival performance.

The Young Writers Workshop also collaborates with the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which is located just across U.S. 29. VCCA fellows come to campus to read from their works and to teach electives — classes that fall outside of the students’ disciplines, but are always tied to writing. They’ve explored “Queer Theory in Beatles Songs,” invented a sock puppet world based on a YouTube video of an old MTV show, and delved into the art of a concept album, which involved listening to “Ziggy Stardust.”

“The VCCA is such an amazing resource,” says poetry student Zoe Jeka, 17, from Maryland.

Pruett, Barber and Jeka’s eyes light up when they talk about their classes. One of their favorite experiences was the 24-hour play, a workshop tradition in which students write and rehearse an original play in just one day. Barber and Jeka also loved finding random science books in the library to use as inspiration for their poetry.

During the academic year, assistant director Jeff Martin teaches composition, literature and fiction writing courses at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.

On weekends, counselors organize field trips to local orchards and farmers’ markets; during writing labs, students occasionally visit coffee shops and antique stores in Lynchburg. Sometimes, activities are meant to inspire, other times they’re just for fun. But in the end, the one thing everyone wants to do — all the time — is write.

It’s not uncommon for program participants to spend lunch breaks talking entirely about what they’ve been working on, Barber says. Most of the time, she adds, students can’t wait to get back to work. “We’re always writing.”

With just days before this year’s workshop ends, all three students say time has gone by way too fast. They’re not ready to part from newly found friends and return to their high schools, where writing is just one of many subjects.

“I wish it was all summer,” Barber says with a sigh.

Martin knows from experience that there will be “lots of tears” come closing day. “Which is a little sad to watch, but it also means we did our job,” he adds.


— Janika Carey


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