Duke University Alumni Magazine


Essay assets: a class on writing the college-entrance and other essays, taught by Catherine Bennington, right
Photo: Jim Wallace

t's just before nine a.m. and the second-floor classroom in the East Duke Building is filling up fast. Across the hall, a troupe of American Dance Festival dancers are stretched out on floor mats, warming up, doing breathing exercises. Their collective sigh drifts through the halls as latecomers fill the back of this room.

One of these latecomers is a thirty-two-year-old freelance writer. He's eating a candy bar, putting batteries in his tape recorder, checking to see if he has enough pens. This is me. My job is to spend a day at the Duke Young Writers' Camp, one of several summer programs offered by Duke's Office of Continuing Education. Now in its eighteenth year, the Young Writers' Camp offers students two weeks of classes in creative and expository writing. Despite the hallowed halls, the eerie whoosh of the breathing dancers, and the large school desks (many of the youngest campers' feet can't touch the floor), the air is unmistakably "summer camp."

It's a motley group of kids, more than a hundred in all, dressed in the uniforms of the young: baggy pants, baseball caps, T-shirts, and some obligatory camouflage. Some among them eat candy, while others wipe sleep from their eyes. They range in age from twelve to seventeen. Some students chatter with the peculiar mania of adolescence, while others pore over their notebooks, absently biting their fingernails or chewing on pens, putting finishing touches on the previous night's work. Some of them look as if they were up quite late.

I think to myself, "This is a bunch of writers, all right."

Chip Moore, the academic director for this second of three summer sessions, takes the lectern at nine o'clock sharp. It's the penultimate day of camp. He reminds campers to have their rooms empty at the appropriate time, and announces a found wallet. The campers listen attentively, except for a few still lost in their work. "Okay, when I'm done here, I need for the Regulator readers to stay behind. We need to go over a few things before tonight." A handful of campers are slated to read their work that night at The Regulator Bookshop, a Durham institution.

As the group disperses to their morning classes, I am introduced to my guide for the day, Beth Marlowe, seventeen, of Atlanta. She is a poised young woman, a five-year veteran of the camp. "This is my last year," she says somewhat wistfully. "I know all about this place."

Beth joins those students who are waiting to talk to Moore about that evening's reading. It's a big deal and Moore wants to make sure it goes off without a hitch. "You don't want me having to interrupt you to tell you to be louder. Use the microphone and speak in a clear, definite voice." The readers practice taking the lectern, stating their names and where they are from. Most, it seems, are from the South, although some come from as far away as New Jersey and California. He doesn't have them read their pieces. He just wants to get them used to the sound of their amplified voices.

On our way to her first class, Beth fills me in on Moore. "He kind of runs the camp, day to day, you know, picks the teachers, keeps things running. If you get in trouble, you have to answer to him." She quickly adds, as if she may have said something untoward, "Not that anybody gets in any trouble."

The day is divided in half: two classes, each two hours--one in the morning, and one after lunch. There are two free writing periods a day, at the beginning of each class. At the end of the day, the campers gather again in the East Duke Building classroom for an open reading session. This is the highlight of the day, for most--a chance for the "hams" to be in the spotlight, and for the bashful to conquer their fears.

Campers choose one of four concentrations: short fiction, poetry, journalism, and dramatic writing. Specific classes vary from session to session, depending on the expertise of the instructors. There are courses in experimental writing, dramatic poetry, characters in fiction, journal writing, research writing, a camp newspaper, and writing the college essay, which is Beth's class. "I figured this year, since my parents are paying for all this, I'd do something practical. It's turned out to be really fun," she says.

There are about a dozen kids arrayed around a conference table, some scribbling busily, others chatting with their teacher, Catherine Bennington. With a glance at the clock, Bennington begins. She writes "would of" on the chalk board, and next to it, "would have." I find myself taking notes. She answers a few questions and then offers a chance for her students to read what they have so far.

There are no takers at first, perhaps a little self-consciousness because I am there. Finally, one young woman pipes up. She reads an essay she has been working on for the entire session. She is unsure of it and, for her, the stakes seem very high. The subject is an important, life-changing memory. Her essay is clean, vivid, and tightly wound. She is a little girl on the back of her mother's bicycle, in Beijing. She's three, maybe four. The sights, sounds, and smells of her very distant hometown envelop the room. On that bike, on that summer evening, all those years ago, she remembers her mother turning a corner as hundreds of students run past, terrified, dropping placards and banners, running for their lives. She now realizes, all these years later, that they were fleeing the Tiananmen Square massacre. She finishes with the observation that she feels indeed fortunate to live in a country where she can at least write about the experience, even if she can't yet make sense of it.

She finishes reading, and looks up, tentatively, as if to say, "Well, how was it?" I want to tell her she has nothing to worry about.

Photo: Jim Wallace
Noteworthy lessons: ranging from ages twelve to seventeen, campers take courses in experimental writing, dramatic poetry, characters in fiction, journal writing, research writing, and writing for the camp's newspaper
Photo: Jim Wallace

Bennington coaches her campers on the importance of direct, unambiguous, active language. There is an epistemological undertow to her lesson. "If your language is passive, you're really abdicating responsibility for what you are saying." I write that down, too.

Next, Beth reads an essay about her book bag--a colorful, distinctive book bag unlike any other in her school. It draws a few warm smiles and laughs from the others. "That was so Beth," says a girl with shiny, ruby-colored hair. "You're just like your book bag, you know, totally one of a kind."

During a break, I chat with Bennington, a schoolteacher in Hillsborough, North Carolina. "This class is really about helping them find their voices," she says. "We use the college essay as a way into that. We visit the admissions office, and I coach them on language and such, but what I really want is for them to know that the best essay is the one that reveals the most about them. We do role-playing and I have them interview each other. We critique other essays. But in the end, it's about expressing themselves. They're really quite nervous about the college essay, and I'd like to think I demystify the process for them."

Already, it's time for lunch. I close my notebook and join Beth and her friend Noelle Page in the dining hall. There is a litany of complaints about the food--the small portions, the mystery meat, and the grease. I listen and chew, enjoying my best meal in days. It's actually quite delicious, but I don't say so. I turn my nose up at it, too, so they will know I'm on their side. The dining room is full and loud. Meals are shared with campers from other programs. Beth points out the creative-writing campers, a more focused group, working on single projects, and the computer and science kids. She explains that there are cliques and rivalries, but that generally everyone gets along. "They think we're flakes and we think they're nerds." Noelle adds carefully, "It works out."

"Noelle and I met our first year at camp and we've been friends ever since," explains Beth. "We wrote letters for a while. We do a lot of e-mailing, but this is the only time we really get to hang out and see each other."

"Yeah. It's so sad this is almost over. I can't believe it." Noelle consoles herself with a bite of salad. "People get really close here. I mean, it isn't all writing. The best part is in the dorms at night, just hanging out. We drive the counselors crazy staying up talking all night."

I ask what they talk about, and the girls look at one another, wondering if I can be trusted. Beth whispers to me conspiratorially, "Anything and everything."

After lunch, she takes me to Chris Vitiello's experimental writing class. Vitiello has a beard and wears skateboard sneakers. He's also a published poet and works at the Duke University Press. I like him immediately. He begins the class by drawing an interrobang on the chalkboard, a long-forgotten piece of punctuation that looks like a question mark and an exclamation point wrestling with one another. He holds his fist up in the air. "Bring back the interrobang!" he declares, and explains his love for this strange punctuation mark. We all draw interrobangs in our notebooks.

Vitiello is a fast talker, and he paces as he teaches, occasionally stopping at the chalkboard to write something important. ("Please correct my spelling, if I am wrong....") His handwriting is unforgivably bad. But he commands his campers' attention. They obviously think he is the coolest. A few days earlier he had the class write dozens of one-line poems on his beloved index cards. They then placed the poems on the windshields around East Campus. He reads an e-mail message from a Continuing Education administrator. It seems that one of her colleagues had had a very bad day but it turned around when she found one of the poems on her car. "It made her day," he says, shrugging. "See, it can matter."

Next he has the class compose a list, a simple elemental structure on which to hang a poem. "I love lists because they have their own flow, and if you add a recurring word or phrase, something as simple as 'I am' or 'she is' in front of every item on your list, you'll come up with some very vivid associations." This leads to a discussion of simile versus metaphor and the strength of doing without "like" or "as" if you can. I write this down, too.

Vitiello dismisses us for a half-hour, putting on the music of Carl Stalling (the composer of most of the Warner Brothers' more evocative and chaotic cartoon music) for those who need it. The rest of us find quiet spots on the porch of the Bishop's House, Continuing Education's base. I write the best poem I've written in years, a list of the attributes of a woman I am more than fond of. I can't wait to show it to her. I finish up and look around at the campers arrayed on the porch, gangly and slouched, all lost deep in their own words. Their expressions are beatific, and calm, and occasionally a delighted yet careful grin crosses a face as the words lock together.

In class, Beth reads her poem. It is about the swirling contradictions embodied in her mother. It is very loving, and extremely personal. A young man shares his own love poem, and I am humbled, sinking down in my chair. Another kid vents on a friend who let him down, and I see in him a future songwriter.

Vitiello closes his eyes as he listens to each poem. He seizes on the strange, most evocative lines, and some of them clearly thrill him. "That's great! Yes, yes, yes!" he says when one rubs him the right way.

After class, I walk with him back to the East Duke Building for the afternoon readings. He's pleased with his students and his summer job. Life is good. "I like teaching experimental writing because it's a chance for me to show them how powerful language is, how it defies the laws of thermodynamics. It is the underpinning of logic, sure, but at the same time, words can completely upend things. I try to get them to think outside of the rules, and I am always surprised. I hope they are, too."

Daily, after their last class, the campers gather to read their work. For some, this is routine, something they look forward to, a time to display their blossoming talent. For others, it is daunting and scary, serious business. No one is forced to read, but you can spot the ones whose teachers have been gently coaxing them. They're the ones whose hands shake.

The writing is as varied as the campers themselves. A small boy in glasses and a Microsoft T-shirt reads a lurid, gory epic poem that puts Beowulf to shame. Another, from Oxford, Mississippi, reads a selection from a creepy Gothic short story, told in the same mellifluous tones that Faulkner might have used at fourteen. The more reluctant or shy the reader, the more difficult or important the subject matter, the more polite and attentive the listeners become. It's not what you expect from teenagers.

A young woman reads a confessional poem about her battles with an eating disorder, tentatively revealing an epiphany she had while writing. A worshipful hush falls over the room as she reads in a quiet, troubled voice. She gets the heartiest applause and returns to her seat, where her friends hug her and rub her hair. A young man leans forward and pats her on the back vigorously, as if she had just won a basketball game. After the readings, campers are on their own. It's free time.

As Beth and Noelle walk me back to her dorm, Beth explains the respectfulness of the campers. "It's hard to read in front of all those people, but it's a pretty supportive audience. They can relate, you know. The teachers encourage us to be really honest. They really push free expression, so you feel safe saying almost anything."

Anything? "Well, they do tell us, 'Hey, there are twelve-year-olds here, so don't go nuts,'" adds Noelle.

Outside the dorm, Beth uses her keycard to open the security door. I ask if it's all right that I come inside. "Sure, during the daytime. At night, boys aren't allowed." The campers are divided into living groups of six or eight. Each group has a cluster of dorm rooms and a counselor. Beth's room is decorated with pictures torn from magazines--singers, hunks, and women soccer players. Her roommate is a proud Texan, flying the flag of the Republic on her side. "We don't really have time to decorate too much. Just about the time you get it the way you want it, you have to go."

Beth looks out the window and Noelle falls silent, pondering her shoes. The looming end of camp hangs over them, unspoken this time. "You're coming to the reading tonight, aren't you? That should be awesome!"

The Regulator Bookshop is Durham's best, a bona fide cultural institution. Celebrated authors on book tours routinely stop there to read. Every year, several campers are chosen to read there, and friends and family join campers for a crowded, lively night. Tonight feels a little more charged than usual. I stand in the back, marveling at each reader, at times gritting my teeth in outright jealousy. They are poised and self-assured, earnest and completely original. Some must stand on their tiptoes to reach the microphone, while others grasp it with all the confidence of a rock star. If anyone is nervous, it's the parents and teachers in the audience.

I watch Beth as she listens to the other readers, grinning warmly up at her fellow writers, her young colleagues. She's in her element, the Grand Dame of the writers' camp. She is usually the first to clap. I see her whispering to Noelle between readers. Noelle nods her head, listening, smiling--best friends.

The final reader is a young woman, about sixteen, from western North Carolina. She's a hipped-out girl from the mountains. She clears her throat and regards us with mischievous, proud eyes. "This is a poem about my best friend," she says. "She doesn't know I'm about to read this."

Noelle and Beth look up at the reader and listen very closely.

Dodd is a freelance writer living in Carrboro, North Carolina

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