The KWH Summer Workshop: A Reflection

Let’s be real: If the quarantine never happened, today wouldn’t be August.

It awes and scares me how fast time flies by. Remember when I was still stressing that it was May? Sometimes I just want to reach out my hand to stop the flow of time, but I’m beginning to learn that if time is like a moving train, that probably wouldn’t be the best idea.

Anyway, enough of this fear mongering—this is a bit of a long overdue post. I hate being cliche, but among these past thirty-odd days I’ve experienced some of the most amazing, life-changing days of my life. For ten days, I lived and breathed writing, struggled with it, danced with it, and learned to truly love it. And I did it all alongside 24 other incredibly talented and empathetic high school writers from across the country whom I grew to know as more than just an array of rectangles on my Zoom screen. Already, I feel like shreds of it are slipping away when I try to relive it. There’s no way to remember every witty comment said out loud or typed in the Zoom chat, or every line of writing that made me go, “Dang, if only I thought of that first.” A small part of me regrets not writing about this earlier, dog-earing a moment while it was still fresh in my mind, but I’ll do my best to give a run-down of my impression and thoughts on it. **Note: This will be quite a long post.

KWH Summer Workshop (July 5 – July 15)

Well, I loved this program. It was taught by a team from UPenn’s Kelly Writers House, led by director Jamie-Lee Josselyn and featuring three other Penn alumni and one current student. Everyday, we’d have a memoir workshop from 12PM – 3PM, a 1 hour break, then a craft session from 4PM – 7PM.

Memoir Workshop

As a creative nonfiction type of person, I was really psyched that this program focused exclusively on memoir writing. Every noon when we’d gather on Zoom, the first thing we’d do was a “vibe check” in which Jamie-Lee (or JLJ) would randomly pick pieces of paper with our names written on them from a mug and if you were picked you’d say something about how you were doing (For the first couple of days I actually really dreaded this because as you may know I’m pretty awkward and I was praying the whole time my voice wouldn’t crack or come out all raspy if I got picked, though I soon discovered just how kind everyone was and realized how unfounded my fears were). Then we’d move on to do some free writing and discussing whatever pieces we’d read for homework the previous night and any new literature. After that, it’d be around 2PM and we’d go into our workshop groups.

For me, the workshop groups were honestly the highlight of the program. My workshop group consisted of seven other students and it was led by two of the greatest instructors and humans I’ve met called David and Amanda. It was just one hour everyday, but I felt my writing grow exponentially in large part due to those workshops. How it’d work was that everyday there’d be two people whose pieces were to be critiqued that day. The previous night they’d share their pieces with the rest of us and we’d be responsible for writing comments and suggestions. Then at the workshop we’d go around in a circle and each person would share their commentary before allowing the writer to respond to the critique and perhaps defend certain points or ask questions at the end.

After every workshop I’d always be really struck by 1) How supportive and encouraging the atmosphere was – there was no sense of defensiveness or jealousy, everyone just genuinely loved each other’s writing and wanted to help each other grow which was so pleasantly different from the constant current of competition I felt in my English class at school 2) How sophisticated, eloquent, and generous everyone’s critique was – I mean, I shouldn’t have been surprised at all because everyone was already such talented writers, but time and time again someone would give a brilliant suggestion that would cause me to look at a piece in a new way that I’d never thought of before or articulate perfectly the exact hunch that I couldn’t put my finger on but wanted to say. And when it came time for my piece to be critiqued (I was the last one to go), I wasn’t nervous at all, rather I was just so touched by the level of care in every one of the comments I received.

Break

Well, break was break. It was very much needed though. I’d usually squeeze in a 20-minute nap (Zoom fatigue is real), finish prepping for the afternoon craft session, or just listen to music to relax my eye muscles.

Craft Session

The craft sessions were like mini explorations in an area or style of writing and everyday we were given 2-3 different options to choose from. Among the ones that stood out to me were Karen Rile’s Narrative Collage session where we each wrote a series of sentences/paragraphs beginning with “I remember…” then came together to combine them into a collective poem and craft an image inspired by the poem (also I learned that there’s this guy who wrote an entire book of one-lined “I remember” statements which is kind of crazy); Kaitlin Moore’s “They Should Have Sent a Poet”: the Creative Experiment session where we talked about the intersection of astrophysics and poetry (it was really deep to the point I was totally lost with what was going on and at one point Kaitlin mentioned every physicist is a poet (?) or something like that but it was still highly interesting); and of course Al Filreis’ session called Close Reading, Close Listening: The Language of Us.

Al’s session was about collaborating on forming the poems’ meanings. Going into it, I was pretty intimidated as I wasn’t at all confident in my poetry skills and all I could think about was how on earth people could talk about poetry for so long. But you know, that’s exactly what we did. We literally spent three hours purely talking about three different poems: Emily Dickinson’s “The Brain, within its Groove,” Amiri Baraka’s “Incident,” and Jaap Blonk’s “What the President Will Say and Do.” The way we did it was that Al would assign a word or cluster of words from each poem to a student and then have that student say what they thought about the word or words assigned to them and then he’d respond by challenging and questioning them. He’d also call on other students to share their thoughts, each time expertly guiding us and encouraging us before beautifully weaving all our ideas into a cohesive analysis and interpretation of the poem. It was so mind-blowing (albeit a bit nerve-wracking at times) and I truly gained a new appreciation for poetry and a better understanding of how to approach poetry, to not be so adamant about nailing down a poem’s meaning which is what I’ve always understood reading poetry to be.

Closing Thoughts

Leaving the program was the hardest part. By the end of the program I had written three 800-1000 word essays (actually more like 2.5 because I didn’t finish one – #slowwriterproblems): a “Safe Kids Story” in which I wrote about drifting apart from a childhood friend, a Direct Address in which I wrote a letter to an old friend, and an Object Essay in which I wrote about my bittersweet relationship with a pair of basketball shoes (shh I’m secretly a bit of a sneaker head). The three pieces were meant to examine three different points of view, namely first person, second person, and third person.

Of the three, I’d say the Object Essay was definitely my strongest (I had the chance to read it aloud at the group reading on the final night, an incredible experience that marked the first time I had read anything I’d written to so many people, besides my testimony at church). And the thing that surprised me the most was how fast I wrote it. I don’t want to *flex*, but I literally wrote my first draft under six hours and editing only took around three more hours. Now, I’m not exactly sure how fast other people write (so maybe this isn’t really a flex), but for me this was THE fastest I’ve ever written a personal essay—and a personal essay that I liked—considering I usually take weeks to write one. Perhaps it was because I was under pressure and knew I couldn’t let myself mull over every detail, perhaps it was because I’d been meaning to write about the subject for a long time and all I had to do was rearrange my thoughts coherently, or maybe it was because I was half delirious writing at 2AM. Whatever it was, I’ve learned that I can write a lot faster than I think I can and I think that’s something really worth thinking about.

The KWH Summer Workshop has pushed me in so many ways, from writing the hardest I’ve ever written, to stepping out of my comfort zone to discuss literature and writing with other teen writers. The only thing I wish that could’ve been different was for it to be held in-person (argh you darn COVID-19 virus). I think I would’ve been able to bond more deeply with my fellow writers (you can only know a person so much virtually) and also I was really crushed I didn’t get to eat a Philly cheesesteak. Still, I am so thankful that I was able to meet all these wonderful instructors and students and ultimately emerge with a much better grasp on my identity as a writer, that for the first time I can finally call myself a writer.

I may have not won as many awards or been published in as many literary journals as other teen writers and writing is still a very difficult process for me, but I still write and I realize I do love it after all and I guess that’s enough. And for that I say thank you to the KWH Summer Workshop.

– J

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