Senior Gabi Alvarado attended the second session, July 15-28, of the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop, a two-week residential program at Kenyon College in Ohio.
According to its website, students write a variety of stories, poetry, personal narratives, dialogues, reflective passages and experimental pieces in their classes.
Q: How did you hear about the program, and what was the application process like?
A: (Head librarian Joanne) Melinson has posters in her library for (the program’s) contest in fall, and (the program) chooses a person who wins it and gets a free scholarship to the program. I got a ton of emails from teachers saying, “You should apply.” I did submit a piece, and it didn’t win, but later I just decided to apply anyway.
I applied in April – I submitted an essay and got a letter of recommendation from Melinson and gave my (transcript).
I found out I got in after APs were done (near the end of March).
Q: Who can apply? How selective is it?
A: Incoming juniors and seniors can apply, but I (also) met an incoming sophomore and someone who had already graduated, so there are exceptions. There were 110 people in the first session (June 24-July 7) and 101 people in the second, which I was in.
The program is pretty selective, (but) I heard varying statistics.
(According to associate director of programs Tory Weber from The Kenyon Review, the acceptance rate was 30-35 percent.)
Q: What was your day-to-day schedule?
A: It was the same every day. Breakfast was at 8 a.m. or earlier; 8:30-10 was your first class, then you had a half-hour break. Your second class was from 10:30-12. Lunch was at 12, and 1:30-3:30 was another class. After that we had free time until dinner at 5:30, and after dinner was a meeting – plus more free time.
We had one main workshop that we went to the first four days; every class, we went with the same people to the same workshop.
Then we got to the genre sessions. I chose “Different Forms of Poetry.” There was this really awesome, pretty famous guy named Adam Clay who was teaching it, and I thought, “Oh, s–t, I really want to take that class.”
The genre sessions took up one class period for four days – Friday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – and the rest of the time, we went back to our regular classes.
Q: What was your main workshop like, and how were students divided into them?
A: I’m assuming it was random. There were eight different workshops with eight different teachers, and there were about 12 kids in every workshop.
We wrote a lot so that we would have material to work with (when we left). They’d give us prompts, and we had to write about them. Nothing was graded.
We had discussions and did a lot of readings for homework, but we did mostly writings.
Even though everyone had the same curriculum, had the same homework and answered the same prompts, every teacher was different. Certain teachers had students get in a circle and all share their work, but in my class we would just volunteer.
Q: What were the different genre sessions?
A: There were 12 or 13 genre sessions. One genre class was on comedy and using comedic elements in your writing. There was also a children’s stories one, one where you write about music, one where you write about sports, plus one about traveling and location-based stuff.
The eight regular workshop leaders also taught genre sessions, but they brought in other people too, (like Clay).
Q: Did you have a lot of work outside classes? What about free time?
A: Not a lot of work, and we had a lot of free time.
There was a common area between the boys and girls (who were divided), and we would usually hang out there and watch movies. We couldn’t go out in Kenyon College or leave the campus without a (resident assistant), though. I had to leave once to go to the doctor because I got a double ear infection, and a (resident assistant) went with me.
We would also have readings in the evenings.
Q: How did the readings work?
A: The readings happened right after the (post-dinner) meetings. We had three guest speakers come and speak the first week to read their works. One night was a fiction writer, then a non-fiction writer, then a poet.
The second week, the kids started doing readings of their own work they’d done while at Kenyon – 20 people a night. It was just once, but it was required.
I was last, actually, which was kind of rough. I read a piece I did about the Stephon Clark shooting; it was based on a “Crimson” prompt we had in class, (which) was about the beating of Rodney King.
Q: What was your favorite piece that you read?
A: “Where I’m Writing From” by Onnesha Roychoudhuri. They gave us a ton of books – anthologies that Kenyon makes – and that was where most of our homework came from.
“Where I’m Writing From” is an essay about (Roychoudhuri’s) identity as an Indian-American; she talks about names and the prejudice that she faces because of hers. I liked it it because I could relate a lot to it, and it was one of the first pieces I’ve read for a class that deals with race.
Q: What was the living situation like?
A: We stayed in a residential hall on campus. Everyone had roommates; most rooms were doubles, (like mine,) and some were triples. My roommate was Aliya, and we were like the only people with a fridge and freezer and microwave.
There’s people from all over the country – and a surprising number of students from New Jersey.
Q: So did you meet a lot of different students?
A: Yeah! Oh, my God, there was such a wide range of people there. There were a lot of African-American kids, a lot of white kids (and) a lot of Asian kids, but there were only three Latinos there, which was a bummer. But the readings we did were really diverse, so that was a breath of fresh air.
There were also people from different countries; there were people from Japan, China, India, the U.K. and the country Georgia.
One of my classmates was even a male model! There were so many different people – musically oriented ones, artistic ones – it was crazy.
But we were all writers.
Q: How has your writing improved as a result of attending?
A: I think it’s improved because I’m reading more. I can’t say exact ways that my writing has improved, but I think exposure to other writers and writings has given me a better vision of my writing.
The genre class that I took was incredibly helpful. I’ve been writing a lot of free-verse stuff, and I’m really looking to write more in form (now).
Q: What was the most valuable part of this program?
A: Seeing different people have so much in common. I believe that we all have something in common. But it’s different to see a straight-up jock – a lacrosse-playing person – be a writer.
If you think of a writer, there’s a lot of depth to them. It takes a lot of reflection to be able to write about our time and where we live and how we survive. And seeing a male model who writes … it’s unexpected but also eye-opening.
Q: How does the workshop supplement what you learn about writing at Country Day?
A: I’ve been craving a teacher who likes poetry and wants to teach it, so I’m ready for (English teacher Jason) Hinojosa’s class in a couple weeks. I didn’t know anything about forms – I didn’t know what a sestina (a poem with six stanzas of six lines and a final triplet) was – and all these kids (in my workshop) knew. I was just thinking, “OK, we’re really behind.”
We don’t do a lot of creative writing at Country Day, (either). Yeah, there’s the Glass Knife, and sometimes we write a poem for homework. But I’ve met students who actually have creative-writing classes at their schools, which we don’t even have an elective for.