The Horror! : On Encouraging Young Writers to Dig into Fear by Jacquelyn Stolos, Program Coordinator

Jacquelyn Stolos is a new staff member at Writopia Lab in Los Angeles

As a new staff member at Writopia, I was thrilled to spend two weeks at WriCampia teaching, thinking, and exploring alongside the world’s most literary campers last August–what a dream! And more, I had the opportunity to fully embrace the eerie atmosphere of our home-away-from-home in the misty Poconos and lead a new horror elective, creating a space where WriCampians could feel safe and supported as they explored their darker, more sinister story ideas.

Now, as Halloween approaches, I’m excited to dig back into horror with my young writers for Frightopia, Writopia’s Halloween inspired writing program!  

WriCampia is Writopia Lab’s annual writing retreat and sleepaway camp. Find out more information here.

So why create a space for darkness? Each day at WriCampia, as we drew the blinds in our workshop space and cued up our eerie music, we asked ourselves just this. What exactly is horror? What makes fear an important emotion for writers to explore? We began each horror writing session sitting in a tight circle on the floor discussing personal fears such as spiders or dark water. As a community of curious, respectful horror writers, we posed questions, found common ground, and drew conclusions about what our fears told us about our ourselves, our lives, and our world. 

Get your copy of the WriCampia Horror and Mystery Anthologies this October on Amazon.

In an interview with The Paris Review, the feminist horror writer Carmen Maria Machado explains: “when you enter into horror, you’re entering into your own mind, your own anxiety, your own fear, your own darkest spaces.” At WriCampia, our horror writers challenged themselves to do just that. They wrote towards what they feared, shining light on the unsettling, cobwebby corners of their imaginations. Their stories filled with murders, sinister doubles, unexplained disappearances, and strangers creeping in. They allowed their writing to become a window into their subconsciousness, using blood, gore, and nightmare logic to ask big questions and dig into big anxieties.  

And what fantastic, horrific writing they produced! In the horror stories composed at camp, knives grow into swords, lakes continue down into icy eternity, and camp counselors aren’t quite who they seem. The work challenges readers by questioning what comes after death–Is it a cafe? A shopping mall?–and chill readers through tales of friends and relatives swapped out for something more malicious. In these unsettling tales, these brave WriCampians asked: What is the world made of? Who are we? What and who can we trust? 

In WriCampia’s horror elective, we discovered that writing about fear was just another way to write about ourselves. We shone the light on the things that scared us and found community and support in the dark. During this month’s Frightopia programming, I hope to bring these discoveries and more to young writers all the way across the country in Los Angeles. Who knows what we’ll unearth this time around; when playing with horror, you can never predict what might be lurking around the next corner. 

Jacquelyn Stolos can barely contain her excitement about joining the Writopia team in Los Angeles this spring! Jacquelyn began her writing career as an elementary schooler filling up spiral-bound notebooks while perched on a mossy rock in the woods behind her childhood home. Her habits have barely changed since. She studied English and French literature at Georgetown University, where she completed an honors thesis of short stories and won the Annabelle Bonner Medal for short fiction. For her masters, Jacquelyn was awarded the Writers in the Public Schools fellowship to study fiction in New York University’s MFA program. She has also workshopped at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, and the New York Summer Writers Institute. Her short fiction has appeared in The Atticus Review, Conte Online, and The Oddville Press. Jacquelyn is an ardent believer in the power of story and is always looking for ways to spread the love through education. She previously worked as a teaching artist at Teachers and Writers Collaborative, leading creative writing workshops in elementary and middle school classrooms, as well as an adjunct professor at New York University. Jacquelyn’s first novel, Edendale, will be released by Creature Publishing, a feminist horror press, in the spring of 2020.

Reflections on the 2018-2019 Year at Writopia Lab

 This has been such an incredible school year at Writopia across the country! We served over 5,000 invigorated kids and teens in safe space, censorship-free writing workshops at our labs, in schools, in partnership with community-based organizations, and at our sleepaway camp.
    Every day, we witnessed the key to effective writing instruction: inspiring student investment. Dozens and dozens of parents asked us this year: What is your secret? Why does my child love spending hours beyond her school schedule writing? The answer is simple: we help our kids and teens clear their minds of all the noise and expectations around them, and slowly identify what they want to write, and how they want to write it. During this process, our writers take more and more risks, as they explore elements of story-building, form, structure, and dimensions of craft. In other words, we treat them as any writer would want to be treated, and lo and behold, they begin their transformation into writers. 
    As curricular constraints become more onerous in many schools, kids and teens at our labs often complain about their disconnectedness from their in-school writing. During this past year, we have been invited into dozens more classrooms than in the past, forging and deepening partnerships with schools and teachers, joining forces to reawaken children’s love of writing. Students literally cheer as our instructors enter their classrooms. When they’re with us, they know they can be themselves; they can write to meet their goals, rather than write to meet someone else’s expectations. 
    Often, the only way adults can get kids to write is with a set of extrinsic rewards and punishments. But inspiring children and teens to love writing—and to want to learn how to do it better—wins them more than the possibility of an A. It transforms them into lifetime writers and confident thinkers, full of possibilities. Thank you for giving us the pleasure of going on this fun, often surprising, and always fulfilling journey with your children and students!
Click here to take a look at our 2018-2019 impact.

-Rebecca Wallace-Segall

The Safety of Stories in an Unsafe World by Madeline L. Taylor, Registration Coordinator

My bus ride to work, down Columbus Avenue in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is frequently crowded with parents and young children en route to school. I love when I end up on the same bus as one particular mom and her two elementary-school-aged daughters. As the bus bumps along in its morning daze, the mom reads aloud in a quiet voice to the girls, who sit on either side of her and lean in close to listen. The first time I saw this family, the mom was reading A Wrinkle In Time — my childhood favorite, one that has endured into my adulthood — her voice intoning L’Engle’s wise and fabulous words as her daughters listened with bright, albeit slightly sleepy, eyes. My own eyes glistened a little as I was touched with memories of my own encounters with the book. I felt bereft when they closed the book and jumped off the bus; it’s hard to return to the mundane realities of our world when the enticements of another world await.

This morning, the family was reading the third book in the series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet. They were a few pages in, and when I sat down next to them, I overheard a quiet conversation. One of the girls asked what would happen if the book’s antagonist, a cruel dictator, started a nuclear war as he threatened to do. The mom responded that a nuclear war would destroy the entire world; that if one country attacked, another would attack in turn, and we would all be completely ruined. But the mom was quick to reassure them: this wouldn’t happen to us today. There are good people who will stop nuclear wars from happening.

They returned to reading; they returned to a world where nuclear war was a construction of fiction and where peace has a fighting chance of prevailing. But of course, the mom knew — as I do, as every adult knows, as increasingly more children know — that nuclear destruction is altogether too real a possibility. L’Engle wrote the book in 1978, when Cold War anxieties abounded and seeped into the collective cultural consciousness. Its relevance, one would hope, would have decreased by now, forty years later. But the storyline has only warped and developed and shifted into new, horrendous realities. We’ve had many valiant peacemakers, but the antagonists still overwhelm us. Continue reading “The Safety of Stories in an Unsafe World by Madeline L. Taylor, Registration Coordinator”

Bridging Creative and Essay Writing for Literacy by Milana Meytes, Essay Writing Curriculum Developer

In the era of Trump’s disdain for the humanities and Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’s unnerving tenure, educators are forced to defend the efficacy of the humanities, while finding new spaces and educational models for the humanities to thrive. Literacy education in America has been compartmentalized into two categories: uniform writing composition instruction or the untethered and elite world of the creative writing workshop. But can creative writing, the workshop as space and pedagogy be integrated into writing composition classrooms en masse? The mythical dichotomies between composition and creative writing are not serving either teachers nor students or the future of literacy in America. The respective pedagogical approaches to teaching each genre and form must be re-examined.

In 2007, an energetic and brazen new teacher entered my 7th grade ELA classroom on the Upper West Side. The agenda was grammar and composition, subject matters that were closely intertwined with my shame for my mother’s accented English and my self-consciousness of possessing a second rate tongue. Despite receiving extra reading and vocabulary lessons provided to me by the privilege of attending a private school in Manhattan — Grammar and composition were familiar foes. And this ELA teacher was no different, as I proceeded to disrupt the whole composition class with audible yawns and comments interspersed between the rigidity of the rules of a language that I was trying on. However, this teacher was not having it. As a first generation immigrant from the Soviet Union with a lucky scholarship and a blunt attitude, this teacher saw a story waiting to be told and written not just a pupil or tongue waiting to be put into submission. Rebecca Wallace-Segall pulled me aside and encouraged me to write a memoir based on my family’s immigration journey. A year later I had won recognition for my writing from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and found a sense of self and empowerment through language. As for Rebecca, she had left the classroom to embark on a journey based on a wild notion: to offer literacy through creative writing and the creative writing workshop to kids all across America. Continue reading “Bridging Creative and Essay Writing for Literacy by Milana Meytes, Essay Writing Curriculum Developer”

Writing & Dance: A Leap of Faith by Léna Roy, Westchester Regional Manager

A student of mine spontaneously leapt up and started moving to a peer’s piece of poetry during a summer camp workshop this past summer. This inspired a whole session of interpretive dance to poetry. Right away I thought of my daughter’s dance company, the Isadora Duncan Youth Ensemble, directed by the innovative Carrie Tron. I visited Carrie that week at the studio and shared my excitement and delight. Her response? ”Let’s collaborate!”

We decided that the Isadora Duncan Youth Ensemble would be a part of Writopia’s December Reading at the Katonah Library, and that I would pick three poems from three different Writopians to share with her, so that her students would have a chance to do their own original choreography. The IDYE is comprised of both kids and teens, thirteen girls ranging in age from 7-18. The dancing is about clearing away inhibitions and internal conflict so that the dancers can authentically respond to the music and to each other. It is about being true to yourself. Interpretive or improvisational dance is much like what we do in Writopia Lab to excavate the rich, interesting and varied thoughts of our students. Continue reading “Writing & Dance: A Leap of Faith by Léna Roy, Westchester Regional Manager”

Notes From an Anxious Camper by Bianca Turetsky, Brooklyn Regional Coordinator

Camps are already filling up their early spots for the summer. And the yearly debate between parents hoping their kids will open up to new adventures and kids nervous to leave home has come hot on its heels. I was one of the nervous kids. In fact I had my first panic attack when I was in the 7th grade. I didn’t know what it was at the time, I just assumed I was dying. It wasn’t until I was in college at Tufts and saw my first therapist that I realized these symptoms had a diagnosis and a name, anxiety disorder.

By that point I was already an English major; writing stories in my notebooks during class was the only way I could get through some lectures without feeling like I needed to escape the room. I never shared these stories with anyone at the time–I didn’t have a safe place to do that. Instead I had closets stacked with these secret notebooks, my history, written in tight blue ballpoint pen. Some of these notebooks ultimately turned into my three Time-Traveling Fashionista books, fantasy books, about a girl from CT who wants to escape her life, not so unlike myself. (Unfortunately I never got to time travel my way out of Fairfield Woods Middle School!) Continue reading “Notes From an Anxious Camper by Bianca Turetsky, Brooklyn Regional Coordinator”

Madeleine L’Engle’s Granddaughter Lena Roy on Listening as a Creative Act

“Because we fail to listen to people’s stories, we are becoming a fragmented human race.”
— Madeleine L’Engle, Sold into Egypt: Journeys Into Being Human

Listening is a creative act: it takes great imagination to be able to step into someone else’s world, into their truth. We not only need stories to survive, we need witnesses. Listening to someone else’s story is a form of intimacy, of generosity, of connecting, of piecing our own fragments back together.

November brings not only Thanksgiving, but Gran’s birthday. She would have been 99 this November 29th,  so at this time of the year I look to her words and her legacy for inspiration. Continue reading “Madeleine L’Engle’s Granddaughter Lena Roy on Listening as a Creative Act”

Personal Reflections on a Safe Space to Heal and to Write by Lyndsay Hall

The Sojourn Domestic Abuse Shelter’s second-home, where mothers and their children flee and hide from violent households, sits on a cul-de-sac without signage. When I’d started leading Writopia workshops here, nobody gave me an address. A woman on the phone directed me through stop signs and traffic lights. I’ve taught workshops here for a few months now, and still I don’t know the address, only how to get here. I buzz in and unhook the front gate’s latch. Some days, kids chase each other on tricycles across the lawn. Today’s quiet, and I sign in at the office, seeing only the receptionist. The rest of the home looks like a home: a kitchen; a living room, at which a baby often sits in his high chair, watching television; bedrooms and bathrooms. You wouldn’t know this home was different from the others in the neighborhood but for this office. Continue reading “Personal Reflections on a Safe Space to Heal and to Write by Lyndsay Hall”

On Being a Present Black Writer

by Janelle Williams, In-School and Outreach Lead Instructor

In the first year, first semester of my MFA in creative writing program, we discussed a short story by African American writer Dana Johnson, “Melvin in the Sixth Grade.” One of my favorite professors, a white man who lives on the Upper West Side, largely praised the story with one small aside- Johnson’s lyrical reference to Peabo Bryson, a Rhythm and Blues artist now in his late sixties.

“Raise your hand if you know who Peabo Bryson is,” my professor said in an effort to prove his point. I scanned the third floor room of the college’s epicenter, and decidedly raised my hand. I looked for *Matthew, who was older than me but younger than my dad, shades lighter than both of us, a high yellow that resembled chewy caramels, sitting at the far end of the long rectangular table. Matthew managed to reference Smokey Robinson and Snoop Dogg in his work, and we found each other quickly, smiling. Along with one other black writer, we were three hands raised, three out of twelve, the minority in our majority white common space. Continue reading “On Being a Present Black Writer”

In Response to The NYTimes

By Rebecca Wallace-Segall, Danielle Sheeler, and Yael Schick

As literacy curriculum developers, we enjoyed the New York Times article “Why Kids Can’t Write.” But we were surprised by the limited view it provided into the cultural landscape of literacy education. While the writer acknowledged the importance of the synthesis of personal voice and direct grammar lessons, she profiled only educators who either resist teaching direct grammar lessons altogether or, on the other extreme, who flat out reject student-centered learning that promotes joy and the development of personal vision and voice. Continue reading “In Response to The NYTimes”