Most of the evening readings at the Young Writers' Conference start with housekeeping details. Elizabeth Grammer, director of the program, speaks to the group over the occasional teenage chatter. The lulls in conversations are filled with the muffled sounds of bodies moving from one chair to another. The people in this room are a little nervous. And for good reason.
When this reading begins, it is not one of the prominent authors the conference recruits as a faculty member or guest lecturer who takes the podium. It is Jon Henrickson, a high school student from Covington, Louisiana. Henrickson begins to read his short story about a man trapped in a going-nowhere-fast job in a gym. His descriptions of emotion and setting show that he is clearly a talented writer, as are all of the high schoolers who spend two weeks each summer learning about writing from writers.
"There is a uniform high quality of the work they produce," says John Grammer, who directs the program with his wife, Elizabeth. "They work hard. They are in class all morning and have pretty heavy homework assignments to work on in the afternoon, and a reading every evening."
The readings alternate between showcases of their own work, and the impressive faculty members and guests who share their time and energy, lots of energy, with the group. This year, Alice McDermott, National Book Award winner for Charming Billy, read from her works and spent time with a group of students over lunch. Other authors, like poet Danny Anderson, author of January Rain, spend the entire two weeks with the students.
"One of the things that make us different from other conferences is that our instructors are all professional publishing writers," says Grammer-quite different than similar creative writing programs that use graduate students or other unpublished instructors.
The connections to the outstanding faculty members came through the program's association with the annual Sewanee Writers' Conference, headed by Wyatt Prunty. Prunty, encouraged by the success of his program, approached the Grammers to begin a similar program for high schoolers. Not only would it give great exposure to Sewanee, it would give students an exceptional chance to interact with modern writers.
"I've enjoyed meeting real people who write for a living," says Becky Freeman of Athens, Georgia. "It makes it a more tangible goal." Freeman says that focusing on the fundamentals and techniques of writing have helped her develop her style. "Instead of writing your emotions, you have to take a step back so you can have control and manipulate your language," she says.
Lucy Harrison, of Tallahassee, Florida, also reaped the benefits of befriending the authors. "It was nice to get to know them as human beings, as people, not just as writers. It makes sense of the schizophrenia of a writer's life," she says. "Alice (McDermott) told me to allow yourself to take as much time as you need to make it good."
Fortunately, these students have an abundance of time to work on their words. Most have already been writing for years and plan to continue to do so either as a career or serious hobby. The experiences they have at the conference encourage them to feel like a part of a larger community of writers in a way they never have before.
Most of the students have been in a situation where they were the only one doing creative writing," says John Grammer. "It's different from being a musician who is in the band or an athlete who is on the team. These people frequently have a hard time finding each other. This is the most important thing that happens when they are here: they meet so many other people who have the same interest."
J.D. Graffam, a poet from Farmerville, Lousiana, says the shared interests he found have given him a sense of home. "Being around the poets and the other kids makes me feel like this is somewhere I belong," he says, "somewhere I can show my feelings, my ideas." Graffam will also get experience as an editor this year as he heads the team that will publish Southern Voices, a collection of poetry from high school students in ten states. "I've done a lot of work on meter and rhyme, finding the poem through form," he says.
The discipline of poetry has also inspired Catie Green of Memphis, Tennessee. "Learning how to write in a form makes you do things you haven't thought of before," she says. Green also admits that writing in the atmosphere of Sewanee amidst all this talent has inspired her. "Being here and doing all this writing has thrown me into a spasm of creative hiccups," she says.
This year's class is the sixth group to have these rare experiences. Since the program's beginning in 1994, students from all over the country, not just the southeast, have come to Sewanee to work and get encouragement. Thirteen of those students have matriculated as freshmen. Four of those students have been awarded the prestigious Benedict Scholarship. "Most of these kids are in AP classes or gifted classes at their high schools," says Elizabeth Grammer. "All of them are academically serious in a way that sets them apart. They really vary widely in their other interests."
The diverse interests, like athletics, art, and nature, give an audience a profound appreciation for the students' talent during the regular readings of student works. The faculty are proud and the guests are impressed, but the rapt attention of otherwise active teenagers is the best testament to the gifts of these Young Writers.