Young writers, burning bright

The Fire Writers conference helps Yamhill County teenagers tap into their potential while fighting the stigma associated with being a smart kid

A literary scene is a knotty thing to define and locate. Unlike live theater, music, or visual art, it has no brick-and-mortar base. It is everywhere and nowhere, from the “local author” shelf at a bookstore to events such as creative writing festivals to the occasional open mic night to the world that exists in the electronic ether: Instagram posts, tweets, Facebook, even text messaging.

Yamhill County has had for a while two tangible measures of the region’s literary life: the Terroir Creative Writing Festival, which was scheduled for its 11th annual renewal in April until COVID-19 shut it down, and the 27-year-old Paper Gardens literary journal. Published every spring by the Arts Alliance of Yamhill County, the journal features prose and verse by locals of all ages. Oregon authors including William Stafford, Kim Stafford, Primus St. John, Robin Cody, and many others have served as judges.

A third, writer-centric tent-pole event has sprung up. On a mild, overcast Monday morning last winter, more than 100 high school students from around Yamhill County sauntered into the ballroom at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg for the Fire Writers Conference. The brainchild of retired McMinnville educator Deborah Weiner, the 2-year-old gathering is as ambitious, polished, and well attended as the Terroir festival.  The goal of the daylong conference is to “ignite the fire” in teenagers who show an aptitude and interest in writing. Validating that interest, organizers say, makes students, who pay nothing to attend the event, feel they are part of a writers’ community and can instill confidence in kids who might feel marginalized for being academic achievers.

The opening session of Fire Writers organizer Lisa Ohlen Harris addresses the opening session of the Fire Writers Conference at the Chehalem Community Center in Newberg. “Writers are everywhere,” she told students, “doing things that on the surface may seem to have nothing to do with writing.” Photo by: David Bates
Fire Writers organizer Lisa Ohlen Harris addresses the opening session of the Fire Writers Conference in Newberg’s Chehalem Community Center in January, before masks and social distancing were the norm. “Writers are everywhere,” she told students, “doing things that on the surface may seem to have nothing to do with writing.” Photo by: David Bates

“There is still a stigma for being a smart kid, a kid who reads, who cares about grades,” said Julie Stubblefield, one of several language-arts teachers at Amity High School, which sent nearly 30 students to the January conference. Teaching writing to teens poses several additional challenges, she said.

“One thing is that this is not a reading culture right now,” she said. “The current culture in high school is dominated by smartphones, YouTube, social media, Netflix, and video games. The practice of imagination, self-reflection, and the slow work of resourcefulness is not a part of their everyday lives. So when it comes time to get quiet and listen for the inner voice, the creative voice, the imagination, it can take a lot of patient exercise and reorientation to wake it up and get in touch with it.”


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


This year’s conference drew 123 students from eight schools — five public, three private, and a couple of homeschooled students. Attendance is largely by invitation. Teachers have an eye for which kids have taken to writing, who might benefit from what ultimately amounts to an educational field trip. One other brand of stigmatization — or possibly something else — emerges in talking with organizers, who asked that two students not be photographed; their parents didn’t know they were attending.

Writer and organizer Lisa Ohlen Harris, who is also instrumental in organizing Terroir, opened the event with a casual attempt at perhaps removing some of the stigma and illusions students might connect with writing and writers.

“My actual full-time job has nothing to do with writing,” she said. “I work in a dentist’s office, which goes to show that writers are everywhere, doing things that on the surface may seem to have nothing to do with writing. Writers are all around: the barista at Starbucks, the attendant at the swimming pool, the manager of the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in McMinnville. Yes, these are real people in Yamhill County.”

The gathering featured a dozen workshop presenters — teachers, writers, poets, published authors, even a literary agent. Before students vanished into corners of the Chehalem center for the workshops, there were two moments that particularly resonated. Guadalupe Garcia McCall, an author of young adult novels who teaches at nearby George Fox University, eviscerated the notion of writing as an activity that begins only when the pen touches down on paper, or fingers begin tapping keys. Writers, she said, spend 85 percent of their time thinking, listening, talking, reading, and researching. Only 15 percent of the time is spent writing, and of that, 14 percent is spent revising and editing finished work. “No wonder it takes me three years to write a novel!” McCall said, to laughter.

Fire Writers presenter Alex Dang addresses the opening of the conference. Photo courtesy: Serengeti Savage
Fire Writers presenter Alex Dang addresses the opening of the conference. Photo courtesy: Serengeti Savage

Also, if there was anything like a literary rock star at Fire Writers this year, it was slam poet Alex Dang, who started work on poetry at age 17. He’s been on the Portland Poetry Slam nationals team four years in a row, 2013-16, and his videos have been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube. Dang asked the crowd how many were familiar with slam poetry, and about a third of the hands went up. He then began talking animatedly about himself and writing, and at some point — I couldn’t tell exactly when even when I went back and listened to a recording — he began to perform a piece that amounted to a passionate call to arms for young storytellers and poets. When he punched the ending, the room erupted in applause.

In the wake of Sandy Hook

Weiner has been an educator for more than three decades. For years she was the Talented and Gifted coordinator for what was then the Yamhill Education Service District, working with local schools on their programs. She was also a principal at Cook Elementary School and opened the newest McMinnville school, Sue Buel Elementary, where she worked 10 years.

A couple of factors inspired Weiner to start Fire Writers. She was a principal in 2012 when 26 people, most of them students, were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut. After the attack, she said, “I wanted to see if there was something we could do to help students develop resilience and manage despair.”  When she retired a few years later, Weiner started working on Paper Gardens and was struck by the angst in the stories and poems written by children.

“When you read that stuff, it kind of sits with you,” she said. “There were so many wonderful ways kids were expressing themselves. The sense of alienation really rocked me.” The topic of school shootings, in fact, is explicitly addressed in one Paper Gardens winner this year, written by Evan Zapata of Amity High School:

America
Guns strike fear.
Like the end of a spear.
Sharp, jagged and used in battle.
Hearing the sounds makes bones rattle.
 
Nikolas Cruz came to abuse.
To make a statement to his school.
The others there didn’t even get to choose.
Between staying alive and being in a blood pool.
 
He was just a teen.
Then he became mentally ill.
He didn’t care for math, but he took 17.
On the day Stoneman Douglas High School stood still.

Retired McMinnville educator Deborah Weiner was inspired to start the Fire Writers Conference in part by what she read working on the Paper Gardens journal. “There were so many wonderful ways kids were expressing themselves,” she says. “The sense of alienation really rocked me.” Photo by: David Bates
Retired McMinnville educator Deborah Weiner was inspired to start the Fire Writers Conference in part by what she read working on the Paper Gardens journal. “There were so many wonderful ways kids were expressing themselves,” she says. “The sense of alienation really rocked me.” Photo by: David Bates

Weiner teamed up with Harris and Kerrie Savage, a McMinnville High School language arts teacher who brought nearly 40 students to this year’s event, and Fire Writers was born. The only goal was to do a conference — one conference. They gathered sponsors, including the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, the Arts Alliance of Yamhill County, the Chehalem Cultural Center, the Oregon Cultural Trust, Linfield College, the Oregon Community Foundation, the Oregon Arts Commission, Visit McMinnville, and The Springs Living. Students and teachers attend free of charge; workshop leaders are paid honoraria.

“The team didn’t know each other,” Weiner said. “I didn’t know a lot of them, but we all loved writing, so we all worked together.” After the first conference in 2019, which drew more than 100 students, some students wrote comments on exit tickets. “One kid wrote, ‘I was going to give up on writing, but now I’m not.’ He was all of 17.”  

“I believe that writers are thinkers, and thinkers are writers. So what are the kids out there thinking?” she said. “What we really wanted to do was ignite the fire with these kids so that they see themselves as writers and as part of a larger writing community.”

Savage has experienced Fire Writers both years from three vantage points: as a behind-the-scenes organizer, a high school teacher, and a workshop leader. Last winter, she led a discussion of “Poetry and Visual Art.”

“It’s been rewarding in a way that I did not anticipate,” she said. “All the students who attend are curious about the conference. Personally, I approach students who tend to feel unsure of their own writing skill or feel marginalized at school, and I invite them. I’m a people-watcher by nature, and I see students from all over the county gathered together for this larger purpose of tapping into their own potential. They are dialed in for the whole day.”

“I love the fact that it happens in an old school,” Weiner added. The Chehalem Cultural Center is housed in a sprawling brick school building built in 1935 as a Depression-era WPA project. “And they let us do it on a Monday when they’re closed to the public, so it’s like Night at the Museum. They’ve just been fantastic.”

‘We are all different writers’

In organization, presentation, and even content, a Fire Writers conference is indistinguishable from a Terroir Creative Writing Festival, save perhaps for the absence of a bookseller’s table in the lobby. Everyone gathers for a morning session, then they’re dispatched to workshops until lunch – provided by the Grizzly Catering Team from McMinnville High School’s culinary arts program — followed by more workshops.

A sampling of this year’s opportunities: “Reflections of the Heart: Connecting Yoga and Writing,” led by Linfield College instructor Tayler Brisbin and McMinnville High teacher Angela Newport; “The Magic in the Mundane: Exploring Magical Realism,” led by novelist Keith Rosson; “Brevity: A Flash Workshop,” led by Portland novelist Jules Ohman. John Sibley Williams, editor of The Inflectionist Review and a multiple nominee for a Pushcart Prize, led “The Poet’s Toolbox: Line Breaks and Punctuation.” Dang led “Poetry Is Easy — Feelings Are Hard!” And Portland’s Kate Carroll de Gutes led “How to Turn Angst and Journal Entries Into Literature.”

Judging from the reactions I got from students both during, and then in emails afterwards, a day at Fire Writers is followed by the heady buzz of a post-conference high. Said Savage: “When the students come back from Fire Writers, they are energized and feel like real writers.”

“I went into the event with the assumption that there was this one ‘recipe’ to being a writer, and that you had to fit that mold to be a good one,” said Abby Meador, who finished her junior year at McMinnville High this year. “What I actually walked away with was the realization that we are all different writers, and that’s what truly makes writing good. My whole perspective has changed and I truly grew so much in my writing because of this conference.” Another McMinnville High junior expanded on the metaphor of the conference name: “It was a great place to find some really good kindling!” said Niah Andrus.

For 27 years, the Arts Alliance of Yamhill County has been publishing the Paper Gardens literary journal, which includes the work of several Fire Writers participants.
For 27 years, the Arts Alliance of Yamhill County has been publishing the Paper Gardens literary journal, which includes the work of several Fire Writers participants.

Fire Writers’ origins may be found in seeds that sprouted from Paper Gardens, and the cross-pollination continues. Last year, 16 students were among more than 450 who submitted pieces to Paper Gardens, and about half a dozen were published. “Not only are we getting more, but we’re getting higher quality,” Weiner said. Kim Stafford served as this year’s poetry judge, and Joe Wilkins (a Linfield College professor on sabbatical in New York) handled the prose. Local artist Kathleen Buck provided the cover art.

The collection shows that young people are thinking about serious issues: school shootings, racism, cellphone addiction. One, by a McMinnville elementary school student, talks matter-of-factly about Living in a Car. The piece appears in the fiction category, but the ending makes you wonder: “My life got twisted and turned upside down, and there is no way I can fix it. I took out a notebook and started writing. I was hoping it would be easier to talk about what had happened in some way. I titled it: Living in a Car.”

Nick Parr, 16, was among more than a dozen Amity High School students published in Paper Gardens this year, and he also attended Fire Writers. Here’s his poem:

The Boys
We were all once single.
But one decided to mingle.
We are all happy for him.
But without our friend, it’s kind of grim.
Friendship between dudes is a sacred thing,
But the bond can be broken by a weekend fling.
We have known each other for many years,
And we have seen each other cry many tears.
Growing up is bittersweet,
We once all sat in the backseat.
We thought we would be friends forever.
We wish each other luck with our separate endeavors.

“My poem started out as kind of a joke,” Parr said. “I got the idea because one of my best friends got into a relationship. So it started out about that but led me to think about other things, deeper things. As I wrote it and changed things, I realized that it could be serious and actually mean something.”

“Having a piece be published feels extremely cool,” added Parr, who counts himself a member of a community of student writers at Amity who share work and encourage each other. “Finding out that people actually connected with my poem felt very validating and made me want to write even more.”

Sixteen-year-old Malena Nice, also from Amity, has been published in Paper Gardens several times. This year her piece, A Day on Earth, was selected in the youth category for “Poetry of Place.”

A Day on Earth
The dirt smells of earthy pine,
like the needles ooze fragrant sap.
I march along the familiar trail,
and hear the birds singing their song.
My breath escapes my mouth,
and I see it vaporize in the scene.
I stop for a moment, and gaze up.
All around are never-ending tree-tops,
that make me faint with awe.
I take in the marvelous world around,
that I call home.

Nice’s literary fire was ignited in middle school, where she got involved in a poetry club. “I remember my club teacher buying us little notebooks that had encouraging messages on the front. I carried that little pocket-sized book with me everywhere. Every time I had an idea I’d quickly write it down in my favorite purple gel pen.”

McMinnville High School junior Jaiden Stoller focuses on a writing prompt during Fire Writers. Photo courtesy: Serengeti Savage
McMinnville High School junior Jaiden Stoller focuses on a writing prompt during Fire Writers. Photo courtesy: Serengeti Savage

Stubblefield does her part to make sure that poetry is a thing at Amity High. During April, which is National Poetry Month, she introduces students to a wide variety of work and styles: Mary Oliver, Langston Hughes, ee cummings, Naomi Shihab Nye, among others. “The month of poetry opens our hearts in a way that nothing else does,” she said. “Even though a majority of the kids groan about poetry in the beginning, by the end of the month, I think they know something magical has happened even if they can’t put words to it.”

By April, of course, school buildings were shut down across Oregon. Teachers carried on through email, Zoom, and other social media, and in writing classes, attention turned to the circumstances of pandemic and quarantine — and students started writing about it. Here’s Amity High student Ellie McMullen:

So much has changed because of the little virus that found its way across the Pacific Ocean to America. Some changes have been beneficial and others have proved detrimental. Life as we know it has been changed, all the way from world economies to the pajamas that we’ve been wearing all week, but the very best change will most certainly be how we rise. The way we rise is completely up to us and I have faith that we will rise higher than ever before.

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This story is supported in part by grants from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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