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Creativity in Its Most Pure Form

Creativity in Its Most Pure Form

Annual workshop aims to convert writing from a solo endeavor to a communal experience.

By Patricia Valdata

The stereotype of the poet or novelist working in unappreciated solitude got a workout recently at the Carbondale campus of Southern Illinois University. The 9th annual Young Writers Workshop brought 30 high-school students onto the campus for four intense days of poetry and fiction writing, critiques, panels and readings.

The workshop, held this summer, is one of many ways associate professor and poet Allison Joseph tries to convert writing from a solo endeavor to a communal experience.

“The focus is not just on how to become a writer; most of the kids we see are very much writers in their own minds,” she says. “[The question is] how do you feed that fire? How do you stay enthusiastic about what you do?” Judging by the number of students who return to the workshop year after year, Joseph’s approach is working. Some of the students come from schools with well-developed creative writing programs, while others attend rural schools with little funding for arts programs. Joseph, who holds the Judge Williams Holmes Cook Endowed Professorship in English at SIU, sends information to English teachers at every high school in Illinois, as well as to many in surrounding states. She says such a wide net helps bring in students from a variety of ethnicities and economic backgrounds.

Tuition for the workshop is $250, which includes lodging, meals and all materials. But that amount can be out of reach for many high school students, prompting Joseph to seek scholarship donations to keep down costs. All of the scholarships are based on the quality of the writing samples students submit with their workshop applications.

“Our scholarships are not based on financial need. I don’t want to look at any tax returns; that seems really intrusive,” she says. “We had such generous donors this year that we had five full scholarships.”

Danielle Patrick was one of the scholarship recipients, earning a $250 prize and full tuition as the winner of the Younkin-Rivera Prize for poetry. This was the first writer’s workshop for Patrick, who will enroll at SIU this fall.

“I have never written that much in a four-day span,” says Patrick. “Even in the creative writing class I took in the second semester of my senior year, I didn’t write as much as I did in four days. I was able to write a poem about my dad, something I’ve been trying to get out, but I hadn’t found the words. I haven’t been able to turn off the inspiration since then.”

Patrick calls the workshop a “life-altering” experience. She had originally planned to major in fashion design and merchandising, but she says she now plans to pursue a degree in English education as a result of the workshop.

The workshop also featured mini-classes, where Patrick was able to try her hand at fiction writing for the first time. Andy McFayden-Ketchum, the assistant director of the workshop and a master of fine arts student, says the classes were interesting because of what the participants did and didn’t do.

“I got to do a lot more teaching than I was anticipating,” he says. “What’s particularly neat is when you design an exercise to do one thing, and a student just completely ignores what you wanted and does something else. They get their idea from the exercise — that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do — but they always go, ‘I didn’t do at all what you said to do.’ You just laugh and say, ‘Good!’ because that’s creativity in its most pure form.”

Joseph says she added the mini-classes on the suggestion of past participants, who have also requested expanding the program to a full week. She says that’s something she intends to do for next year.

Joseph, who has authored five books of poetry, is a regular
contributor to poetry listserv. She edits the literary magazine, Crab
Orchard Review, and manages the Creative Writing Opportunities e-mail newsletter. Several times each week, she trolls the Internet to gather and send information about writing contests and calls for submissions to 1,700 subscribers. In doing so, she says she tries to focus on low-budget “but legitimate” organizations rather than well-known national competitions.

“Where my heart lies is in people who are serving their community,” Joseph says, “so to give them a little exposure on my listing seems like a small thing I can do to make things better.”

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