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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Young writers in the mountains: the Bread Loaf conference for high schoolers

On a memorable long weekend in early May the past several years I’ve taught fiction writing at Bread Loaf, the mountain campus of Middlebury College that is rightly famous in the literary world. The occasion is the annual New England Young Writers Conference. On a Thursday each spring (this year, it happened last week), talented high school writers from all over the Northeast and even farther — I had a student this year from Paris — travel up the winding road to Ripton, Vermont to work with professional poets, novelists, playwrights, and journalists over three-plus days that tend, you hear this over and over at the conference, to change people’s lives.

Picture the setting, because Bread Loaf itself is a revelation.After twisting and climbing from the Champlain Valley up alongside a mountain stream and through the woods of the Green Mountain National Forest, you pass a dirt road on the left that leads, though this is not marked, to the cottage where Robert Frost lived and wrote. (He often read his new work at Bread Loaf, at the summertime adult writers’ conference that made this campus famous.) Then the paved road opens up and levels out, high in the forested mountains that are just turning green this time of year.

Bread Loaf is a spread of 19th century wood-frame buildings, most painted yellow with old-fashioned verandas, set around sloping lawns that are dotted with lots of white Adirondack chairs. The campus, largely unheated, has been shut tight through the long winter. Now in May, as maple-sugaring season ends and the trees leaf out on the mountain slopes all around, Bread Loaf opens for these bright, creative teenagers — and for us who drive up to meet them, to work with them, and to guide them through writing what we hope will be the best work they’ve done so far.

It’s an enormous privilege. It’s also a lot like summer camp. You sleep in simply furnished rooms, on old twin beds with wooden frames, and you eat all together in the big dining hall. We adult writers don’t have to cook or clean or do the shopping — or grade papers, meet deadlines or otherwise earn a living; so we can focus on sharing what we love. It’s a sort of immersion vacation. It’s a great deal of work, but it fills our spirits and reminds us why we do what we do.

For the young writers, the conference is a different kind of rare experience. Back in their schools, many are the off-beat or unusual kids, the ones with an aptitude and passion that their classmates may not grasp or share. Here, often for their first time in their lives, they’re in a community where everyone writes. They do dorm readings; they sit in those chairs and work deep into their notebooks; and each is assigned to join a workshop, on fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, that’s led by a working writer like me.

From Thursday evening to Saturday morning we have four sessions together, in groups of about a dozen. My writers brainstorm, draft, and revise a single whole story. I try to help them understand, in a real but open-ended way, what a story is. There’s no formula for this, but stories come up naturally from inside us; we tell them all the time. I challenge my writers to generate a story that centers on two characters, in which something happens.

I want them to open up to the process of doing this work, because that — not any concept or knowledge or set of rules — is the heart of writing well. Because their teachers have hammered on this in school, they often have a been-there, been-graded-on-that attitude toward the writing process — but I believe this is what it’s really about, and it’s really about flow. I want them to open up a flow in brainstorming, then open further to it in drafting, then refine and improve what they’ve produced. This is what they can build on. Everything else — voice, theme, whatever in hell “syntax” means — is about shaping and clarifying the product of this flow. That's how I approach this. Each adult writer takes our own approach, but we all push our groups hard. 

By our last session on Saturday morning, our young writers are energized but exhausted, and I’m nervous. Each one in my group will read his/her story, and we’ll all give some response. We’ve been learning to do these responses, “workshopping” pieces the writers submitted earlier. But will their new, fresh stories be good? By now, we’ve bonded — we’re supportive and encouraging — but still, this is self-exposure. Will their stories be good?

Their stories are incredible. In subject and tone and inventiveness, they are all over the place; but each one is really good. And each young writer comes away, I think and hope, with a new awareness of what they can do, what they can bring out from inside them when they know that this matters. Their stories, their ideas, their words — at Bread Loaf, these do matter. And on Sunday, we all encourage each other to carry the knowing of this out into the wider world.

But first we gather together one last time, in Bread Loaf’s historic Little Theater, where so many creators of American literature have shared their work. A chosen representative of each writing group comes to the old wooden lectern and reads a poem, a story, a piece that he or she has created here. The short pieces are sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking. Each, in its own way, captures us. We listen together. We applaud, we laugh. And then we say goodbye.

That’s the New England Young Writers Conference experience. If you’d like to learn more, just click here.
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