The Love of Words
“Writing takes me on journeys in my mind.” “I love telling stories that test the status quo.” “Because written words can make other people feel emotions.” “I can put down what I feel and sort it out on paper.”
Passion—for words, language, poetry, story—above all else is what enables students to thrive in the Young Writers Institute, a weeklong summer intensive hosted by the Bennington Writing Seminars.
“Passion and attitude is what we look for out of kids who apply to the program,” said Erika Nichols-Frazer MFA ’19, who formerly served as GIV’s development director. “We look for kids who want to spend a whole week, all day, every day, talking about writing. For many of them, they haven’t met other kids who also care about what they love to do.”
Launched in 2016, the Young Writers Institute draws rising high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors from all corners of Vermont, allowing students to form broader networks among their peers from across the state.
Since its establishment, the annual Young Writers Institute has grown to host 25 students each summer on the College’s campus. Megan Galbraith MFA ’15, associate director of the Seminars, served as the program’s director during its first two years. Keith Lesmeister MFA ’14, who previously worked alongside Galbraith as the Young Writers associate director, took over as director this year.
The relationship between Young Writers Institute and the Seminars is symbiotic. Young Writers staff and faculty, including Associate Director Denton Loving MFA ’14 and faculty members Joanne Proulx MFA ’14, Lily White MFA ’13, and Albert Abonado MFA ’10 are all graduates of the Seminars.
The Young Writers Institute also provides graduating MFA candidates the opportunity to serve as graduate fellows for the program, offering two-hour seminars on literary craft. The fellows gain teaching experience, and in turn, the students find mentors and role models who love reading and writing as much as they do.
“Students don’t often go to public school and have a conversation about a poem they just read or wrote, or if they do, it’s a secret conversation,” said Lesmeister. “But in the Young Writers program, students can talk about those things openly and be celebrated for and enthusiastic about their work.”
During the course of the Young Writers Institute, students select a genre—nonfiction, fiction, or poetry—in which to focus their studies. Additionally, all students attend craft seminars led by the graduate fellows and special sessions led by visiting writers.
“We also try to do an off-campus field trip,” said Lesmeister. “Last year we went to MASS MoCA for Nick Cave’s Until exhibition that had a social justice theme: examining, critiquing, and showcasing our relationship to guns in America.”
This year, students visited the Robert Frost Stone House Museum, newly reopened under the College’s stewardship. As the Young Writers Institute progresses, Lesmeister is interested in expanding to include additional genres and field trips.
“This area is so beautiful,” said Lesmeister. “I’d like to venture out from standard genres to include offerings like nature and travel writing. We could hike a section of the Appalachian Trail. We’ve also got ideas for field trips, perhaps taking the students to a bookstore to get an inside peek at how that business is run.”
Hosting the Young Writers Institute on Bennington’s campus encourages students to picture themselves at college. For some, the program might be the first time they’ve considered pursuing higher education.
“Not all kids are on a college path or see themselves on that path,” said Nichols-Frazer. “So Young Writers introduces them to the experience of being in a college class and studying something they love, as opposed to the high school curriculum they’re used to.”
“It’s not a zero-sum game,” said Lesmeister. “We’re interested in giving all of these kids exposure to college so they can go somewhere. We introduce them to Bennington’s campus, but getting them to college anywhere is a success on its own.”
To further connect high school students to a future in college, Bennington is offering an annual $10,000 merit scholarship to accepted students who have completed a GIV program, whether Young Writers or another.
The influence the Young Writers Institute has on its participants continues on beyond the weeklong experience. Through both classroom sessions and evening free time, the program provides opportunity to write and inspiration that students can apply to their work once back home.
“We want to help students build and develop habits for a writing life,” said Lesmeister. “You’re not a writer because you call yourself a writer; you're a writer because you write. We’re reorienting the kids to establish a daily routine that involves a relationship with language and words.”
By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer