Learning to Love the Writing Life

A diverse group of teenagers takes part in a camp devoted to words
Teenagers from around the world attended the Rena’s Promise creative writing camp last week organized by Heather Dune Macadam, center, at left, in a tranquil setting at Camp Quinipet on Shelter Island.

    Surrounded by other camp groups playing sports, swimming, and doing arts and crafts on a hot day at the Quinipet Camp and Retreat Center on Shelter Island last week, the teenagers attending the Rena’s Promise creative writing camp were folded into chairs on a shady porch, laptops and notebooks on their laps, talking about dialogue and sharing lines they had collected by eavesdropping on conversations. Journalism, Heather Dune Macadam, their teacher and the founder of the camp, told them, is really just “formal eavesdropping.”
    Inside, Simon Van Booy, the author of several books of short stories whose first novel, “Everything Beautiful Began After,” had been published two days before, was surrounded by girls on couches in a Victorian-style sitting room. “The purpose of a short story is to sort of encapsulate, in a few pages,” he told them.
    He talked to them about character — “You’re trying to understand your characters’ lives . . . and in so doing, you understand your own lives,” he said — and encouraged one writer to develop a scene by describing the details. “What are you hearing?” he asked.
    He suggested different writing strategies, engaged them in a discussion of linguistics — the implications of certain words — and explained how the workshop exercises would take the writers to their goals. “For every page of fiction you’re going to have 10 pages of scrap,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of mess.” But, he added, “What you produce from this is going to look like it just magically floated down from heaven.”
    A smile spread across one writer’s face as he read her work aloud and stopped to repeat a line he called great.
    The teenagers — 18 of them from diverse backgrounds — had been in residence at Camp Quinipet for the better part of a week and had settled in to a casual routine at the Rena’s Promise program, which is named after a memoir Ms. Macadam wrote with Rena Kornreich Gelissen, who spent three years in Auschwitz as a young woman.
    A former teacher at the Southampton campus originally of Long Island University and then of the State University at Stony Brook, Ms. Macadam had been involved in a summer writing camp for high schoolers there and decided to continue a similar program independently when the college discontinued its offering.
    She brought in Stephanie Wade, a poet with whom she had taught composition and creative writing classes at the college, and Simon Worrall, a nonfiction author and journalist who has covered stories around the world for publications such as National Geographic and Smithsonian, along with Mr. Van Booy. Four former students participated as counselors.
    “It’s been such a positive experience, both as a writer and a teacher,” Ms. Macadam said.
    The campers attended two sessions each day, choosing among classes on the short story and novel, memoir, poetry, and nonfiction writing and journalism.
In just a few short days, they formed a community of writers who fed off and learned from one another’s work. It was beneficial “being around other people who don’t write exactly like you do,” one student, Esther Mathieu of Queens, said. “It’s everybody helping everybody else,” said Alexi Block Gorman of Brooklyn.
    Besides their classes, the campers took a number of trips and heard from several guest speakers throughout the week. At the LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton, they did a writing exercise focused on art and nature. At the offices of Philip Spitzer, a literary agent, in Springs, they got free books.
    The speakers, a deliberately multicultural group, included Erica Doyle, a poet and drummer, two young assistant editors at Time magazine, and Persia Walker, a murder mystery writer and former journalist — all of whom, Ms. Macadam said, gave the students the same positive message: “Say yes to everything.” Dava Sobel, a science writer from Springs, had also volunteered this year but was called away on a family emergency.
    Speaking to the kids by Skype from Los Angeles, Jem, a Welsh singer-songwriter, talked about writing music and “believing in oneself,” Ms. Macadam said. That prompted a couple of campers to stay up late one night on the porch singing and playing guitar. There was some pure recreation, like kayaking, too.
    Although in Mr. Van Booy’s group last Thursday one young woman twirled a length of braided string and another called up a rain sound Web site online as he talked, and in Ms. Macadam’s group outside some giggled as they shared attempts to write in the voice of a boy their age, each writer’s focus on his or her work was clear.
    The one boy in the group, Jason Richartson, had come the longest way — 17 hours on his first plane ride from South Africa. After throwing off his first ambition — to be a lawyer — he had set his sights on becoming an investigative journalist.
    “You could say I’m a bit of a daredevil,” he said. “They could put me out in the war zones; I would find that exciting.” When he learned about the writing camp, which is endorsed by the PEN American Center Writing Institute for Teens, he began raising the money he needed to attend, through raffles, for example.
    “It would never have been possible without my mom,” Jason said during lunchtime at Camp Quinipet. When he remained short of money just a week before the July 2 start of camp, his mom got him an interview on the radio in Cape Town, where he lives. During the talk, the disc jockey told him he had the balance of the money to give him. “I was shell-shocked,” Jason said.
    Jason, who has cerebral palsy, had never been out of the country but took it all in stride. Mr. Worrall picked him up at the airport and took him under his wing. And, Jason said, being the only boy with all those girls at Camp Quinipet was “awesome.”
    At last Thursday’s session, he described the ride-along he’d had the night before with the Shelter Island police, about which he would write a story detailing a busy night of responding to several accidents, and more.
    “I wanted to bring cultures together, and different economic classes,” Ms. Macadam said by phone. “The kids are finding commonalities based on passion for writing.”
    Several had come from neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, others from Sag Harbor’s Azurest and from Mattituck, as well as California, Maryland, and New Jersey, while the youngest, a 13-year-old, lives on the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton.
    Georgie Davies, who came from Wales, sent Ms. Macadam her completed 600-page novel before she arrived. “The next J.K. Rowling, that’s what we call her,” Ms. Macadam said.
    Georgie, who had had a series of surgeries that impeded her ability to write, and was facing another, was disappointed last summer to find the college writing camp she planned to attend was canceled. “She was sort of the inspiration behind doing this crazy thing, and wanting it to be international,” Ms. Macadam said. In the future, she hopes to offer a session in Wales as well as on the East End.
    “These kids are really smart; they have something to say. There were a couple of kids I just watched unfold,” Ms. Macadam said after the close of camp, while recuperating this week.
    The campers’ week was capped with a reading at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor last Thursday afternoon. Their work, along with a page of Mr. Van Booy’s sayings collected by his students and submissions by the guest speakers, will be published in an anthology that will be for sale at Canio’s and at the Rena’s Promise Web site, renaspromise. com. Sales will help raise money for scholarships allowing young writers to attend future summer camps.