Someone Like Us

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I ran a Young Writers Camp for thirteen summers at place called, appropriately enough, Story, Wyoming. A writer friend of mine, Dainis, and I started it, and over the years it expanded and we added staff, and changed staff, and kids came and went. But one of the things Dainis and I used to say to each other was that we did it because when we were kids we didn’t know anyone like us, meaning we didn’t know any writers.  We were voracious readers, but the process of how the words got from a writer’s mind to the hard cover books we toted around, or to the paperbacks that we read to tatters was, we realized, a mysterious one,  As we became adults who became writers, we found ourselves looking around and realizing that we had come to be writers without models, and really were, in those early days, kind of flying blind.

I have recently been using Sebastian Junger’s book War as a textbook for two of my English Composition classes. My students have responded enthusiastically to this book which recounts Junger’s time in Afghanistan as a journalist with troops in the Korengal Valley.  It is a thoughtful and serious, meditative book, but it is also full of action and deeply engaging descriptions of life at a remote outpost.

As one of the last assignments of the semester, I have asked my students to write  letters to Junger, commenting on the book, on the parts that were most moving, and also asking Junger questions that they might have about the book, the experience or the writing process.  Students have been sending me rough drafts before they turn in their final copies that I will e-mail to Junger.   What I am seeing is some of the best writing that I have seen all semester. These letters are open and honest. The sentences are clear. They are not trying to sound academic or awkwardly smart by using big words that aren’t quite right for the sentence.  These letters appreciate Junger’s work, and really engage in a conversation with him about the book.

As a writer, I  love learning about what people think about my poetry, and I think I am no different from most writers. We send our work out into the world and don’t always know, especially if we are writing poetry, how it is received. It is a gift for a writer to get thoughtful reactions to a book, but it is also a gift for readers, especially relatively inexperienced readers to have a chance to write to an author, even if they do not hear back.

 Correspondence is an  intimate form of communication. When students write to an author, they are engaging in the same process that the author has engaged in; that is, they are writing and using writing to explore questions that they have. When students have the chance to articulate what a book means to them in a personal way, it’s in many ways a richer process than the standard Comp I essay.

When my daughter was a young reader, she carried on a correspondence with one of her favorite authors. She exchanged a number of letters with Lloyd Alexander  that ranged from her questions about his work to comments about the writing she was doing.  It meant a great deal to her that someone whose work she loved so much would take the time to answer her.

I think about to Dainis, and how we spent those summer weeks engaged with our campers in writing, immersing ourselves in the work as much as the kids were, and I think about the kids who are now grown-up and working as writers and writing teachers.  They did know “someone like us.” They knew practicing writers and, thus, for them, writing was not a remote skill that only someone with “talent” could do, but it was a process that we all engaged in.  I would like to encourage all young readers, and not so young readers, to write to the authors whose work moves them. The writer might not answer, but I can pretty much guarantee that the act will be as important to the reader who writes the letter as it will be to the writer who receives it. Writing to someone is one of the easiest ways of joining the ranks of  people who use words to think, to invent and to understand the world. It is a way of becoming “someone like us.”

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Someone Like Us

  1. I love reading about formative years of Camp, Jane…and obviously, your more recent endeavors are exciting, as well! I’ve been thinking a lot about camp lately. Last night I wrote a rather extensive prologue to a mix CD I’m making for a friend, and two songs were chosen specifically with Writer’s Camp in mind…I’m going to be self-indulgent in sharing the song descriptions here, because it seems semi-relevant to your (and I have a feeling other campers might read it, as well):

    Summer 2002, “My Name is Jonas” — Weezer

    A year on from my dad’s death and I was still coming to grips with post-adolescent reality. One thing I was starting to figure out was how different I was from other kids, even my closest ubernerd buddies (see summer 1999). Thank god for Youth Writer’s Camp, or I might’ve labored under the delusion that ‘tortured artist’ was a good career plan. This weeklong writer’s retreat in the woods of Story*, WY introduced me to new friends, likeminded weirdos, and role models that I’d try to emulate for the rest of my life. Our final bonding session of this week in Shangri-La was a dance party in the main cabin, which introduced me to this seminal alt rock band. I don’t think I’d ever heard this colorful eponymous album before, but that didn’t stop me from singing—and windmilling—along to the arena rock hooks with the cooler kids.

    *the ironing is delicious!

    Summer 2003, “Take a Chance on Me” — ABBA

    Finally out of high school and I had one last stop before the exciting-slash-terrifying world of College: a long-awaited return trip to Story and my writer’s camp friends. Of the innumerable gifts I’d taken home with me the previous August, one of the best was a budding appreciation for expanding musical horizons. These pop divas had always eluded my near-sighted metal sensibilities, but with some help from a pop culture guru and camp counselor Jason the summer before, I’d finally come around. At my second (and final) summer camp, I took a chance and gaily danced, jived and swooned my ass off to all 19 songs on ABBA Gold at our closing night’s dance circle. I’d finally come to accept as fact the advice Jason had given me a year prior: “Man, ABBA’s the shit!”. Truer words were never spoken.

  2. I dunno if I’m exactly interested in being someone like you, Jane. I like being able to think and listen at the same time!

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