This post was originally published on August 26, 2013. 

Frequently with this project I get downright envious of the children, young adults, and adults that get to participate in certain library programs. The project highlighted here is one of those. When Heather Dickerson, a staff member at the Lewis and Clark Library in Helena, Montana, wrote to us about her awesome sleepaway writing camp for teenage girls, I couldn’t wait to throw more questions her way and get some additional details. ~ Laura

Here’s the introduction to the program (submitted by Heather Dickerson):

Summertime at Lewis & Clark Library in Helena, Montana is jam packed with programs for folks of all ages. This year, we transformed one of our most popular teen programs, the Teen Writers Group, into a summer camp! Teen Writer’s Camp, a weeklong sleep away camp focused on creative writing, was the culmination of a fabulous partnership between Lewis & Clark Library and the YMCA of Helena. The Writer’s Camp experience combined the best parts of summer camp with a structured writing retreat. Teri Wright, Associate Director of the YMCA and Heather Dickerson, Teen Services Librarian, created a unique opportunity for teens to immerse themselves in the creative writing process in a way that the monthly Teen Writers Group could not.

Cabins at the YMCA's Camp Child in Elliston, Montana.

Cabins at the YMCA’s Camp Child in Elliston, Montana.

Participants in the library program spent a week living, playing, and collaborating with other teens interested in creative writing. Sixteen girls, ages 11 – 16, engaged in a wide variety of generative writing activities, shared and critiqued their work, honed their senses in a poetry workshop with local poet Carolyn Patterson, and dove into a breadth of camp activities like campfire, hiking, and swimming in the lake. Writer’s Camp gave girls a chance to spend the week among kindred spirits, build relationships, and explore their passion for writing in a safe and supportive environment free from distractions and technology. The camp spirit has infused the now weekly Teen Writers Group at the Lewis & Clark Library with new energy and new members!

Lodge at Camp Child.

Lodge at Camp Child.

Where did you host the Writing Camp? Who covered the costs of lodging/food/etc?

Writer’s Camp was held during the last week of June 2013 at YMCA Camp Child in Elliston, Montana.  Camp Child is about 25 miles west of Helena, just over the Continental Divide. It’s a beautiful area, nestled in the Helena National Forest near the Little Blackfoot River. To attend, campers paid a reasonable tuition to the YMCA (between $225 and $275), and many families received generous financial aid. It was really important to us at the library that any teen who wanted to attend Writer’s Camp could. One of the best parts of the partnership between Lewis & Clark Library and the YMCA was that they felt the same and offered great scholarships for the camp.

Camp tuition covered the costs of food, lodging, and camp counselors for six days. Parents were responsible for their child’s transportation to and from camp. Lewis & Clark Library generously gave my time to the program, so I got paid to work at camp for the week.  The library also provided books, paper, art supplies, and photocopied resources like prompt cards and NaNoWriMo manuals. Campers received age appropriate novels that were donated to the library from our local bookstore, and I purchased journals and accordion folders for each camper.  Teri Wright, associate director at the YMCA and person in charge of camp, knew poet Carolyn Patterson through a friend of a friend and was able to enlist her help with the poetry workshop for the cost of gas.

Sometimes partnerships are the product of being in the right place at the right time and having a random conversation about your life. That’s how this worked. Teri and I were introduced at a meeting about volunteer training and I mentioned that I had worked at an all girl summer camp for 8 years and BAM! We talked about the possibilities for a writer’s camp and made it happen!

Besides the poetry workshop, what kinds of writing exercises did the campers do? Did they have a final project or goal they were working toward? 

Campers came from a wide range of writing backgrounds. I love that camp mixed three season athletes who write in their spare time with hardcore fan fiction authors with boy obsessed Harry Potter fans. The diversity in both interest and ability among campers necessitated each activity offer multiple access points for writers at different levels. It was also imperative that activities be fun and enjoyable; one of the goals of Writer’s Camp was to encourage writing as a part of life rather than a school mandated performance task.

Some of the most popular writing activities were:

  • Six Word Memoirs and Tiny Stories – We wrote these all week long!
  • You, the Writer! – I mixed the game “two truths and a lie” with a simple autobiography exercise. It turned into a fun introductory game!
  • EAT CAT YOU POO – Group writing exercise, a derivative of exquisite corpse or similar game. Each person begins and writes for 30 seconds, then folds the paper to cover all but the last line of what they wrote. Papers are passed, and the next person continues writing the story from where it left off. Continue until each person has written on each paper, and then read the stories aloud! It’s guaranteed to be creative and hilarious.
  • Fan Fiction Bracket and Flash Fiction – This exercise was all about character. Campers chose a character from a book, movie, video game, or television show and described the attributes that made him/her/it worthy of world domination in a few short sentences. Then, I plugged characters into a bracket. During the first round, each camper had the opportunity to describe her character, and the group voted on which one of the two they felt worthy of world domination. During the semi final round campers were assigned one of the characters and wrote a piece of flash fiction in which their character defeated their adversary. For this mini exercise, the setting (and resulting conflict) had to take place at Camp Child. We talked a lot about what makes good fan fiction.
  • Portmanteaux and Chuggets – Word play combined with an adaptation of the “Chicken Nugget Sky” exercise in Spilling Ink.
  • Fabulous First Lines – Girls brainstormed first lines to hook readers. I paired this with a Blind Book Date, in which each girl had to choose a book based on its first line. They took a book to keep at the end of the activity.
  • Improv Games – “Yes, and…” and “Freeze Frame.”
  • Writing Workshops – We broke into two groups for workshops. I started the girls with a prompt, like “Catching Whispers” from Rip the Page. Each girl then had the opportunity to share a piece of writing orally and get feedback. We met for workshops every day, usually after dinner.
  • Real Writers Read – Each camper made a list of two or three books that others should read and why. The list became the back page of the anthology.
Fan fiction bracket.

Fan fiction bracket.

Our final group activity was a campfire performance. Each girl had the chance to perform a piece of her writing. They were really excited to share the final versions of stories and poems in front of friends, a fire, and a gorgeous sunset. I also sent campers home with an anthology of their work from the week. It was important to Teri and I that campers have a tangible reminder of what they accomplished to share with their friends and family!

Do you have any recommendations for good writing exercise resources (books, websites) that other libraries could use in a teen writing program?

Absolutely! Putting together the resources and programs I presented during camp was tons of fun and really rewarding – I learned so much! I did a lot of research for program ideas prior to camp because I wanted to provide a survey of different styles and approaches.

Resources I used for prep:

  • Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook by Ellen Potter and Anne Mazer. Geared more toward elementary and early middle school students, this book was really helpful for me as quick read to think about parts and pieces of creative writing.
  • You Can Write a Graphic Novel, by Barbara Slate. There’s a great teacher’s guide available online with different worksheets you can use to introduce different elements of graphic novels.
  • Local Literary Magazines. I wanted to get a sense of what kinds of things were being published by young writers in Western Montana. Plus, I was able to share different local publishing options and contests.
  • Wreck this Journal by Keri Smith. I used this for inspiration and new ways to look at the world. I also adapted some of her prompts for our writing journals. Find them here: http://www.kerismith.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/100ideas.pdf

Books I used with campers:

  • Rip the Page! and Leap Write In! by Karen Benke. Full of fabulous prompts and activities. I use these books with my Teen Writers Group at the library.
  • Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, by Joseph Gordon Levitt
  • I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets: Six Word Memoirs from Teens Famous and Obscure, edited by Rachel Fershleiser and Larry Smith.
  • Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun by Elizabeth Foy Larsen and Joshua Glenn (There’s a great article about writing fan fiction, among other things).
  • Young writers program and manuals provided by NaNoWriMo. Find them here: Ywp.nanowrimo.org

(A virtual program they offer is Camp NaNoWriMo: “an idyllic writers retreat, smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life.” Their online program might be something that could extend into the library space! Visit at: Campnanowrimo.org)

Websites I use:

  • writingprompts.tumblr.com
  • Yareview.net (YARN)
  • Figment.com
  • Cicada magazine (in print and online)
  • Teenink.com

A sleep away camp is an AMAZING opportunity, one that many libraries probably cannot offer. As you reflect on the experience, do you think there are ways that the experience could be replicated back in the library during the rest of the year? 

I am so fortunate that my director and supervisor supported this unique opportunity!  Sleep away camp can’t happen in every community, but the elements that made the camp experience so successful can be applied to (or are already a part of) what the library offers.  If camp was a recipe, the things that made it work were:

  • Relationships (Chemistry between campers, rapport with facilitator)
  • Time & Space (Without distractions, where campers could be themselves)
  • Experiences (New ways to approach writing and the unbridled randomness of dance parties and learning how to jump style, plus free time for goofing around)
  • Taking the library outside the library
  • Passion (In this case, it was my passion for summer camp)

The first three attributes are elements of many teen library programs. At camp, relationships and experiences were amplified because we were away from our normal routine and had a lot of time in a new space. Writer’s Camp was also different because it attracted a mix of teens from our area. Offering a program at Camp Child offered an experience to young people who might not go to the library for a program, but were interested in something library related. Looking for unique partnerships within your community for space and synergy will give whatever unconventional program you’d like to design extra oomph and offer something really unique to your community. Let your passion guide you!

The permutations of this experience are endless. I think the keys are passion, partnership, and a willingness to experiment. Maybe it’s taking the library outside the library, or maybe it’s using the library space in new ways. Library after-hours write-in, anyone?

Campers embarking on a nature hike.

Campers embarking on a nature hike.

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