August 04, 2020

Ocean retreat feeds young writers’ dreams> Haystack symposium provides atmosphere, audience for brilliant works to emerge from talented kids

Your voice sounds like the ocean, the bald-headed girl said to me. Her comment caught me off-guard — not because she was a bald teen-ager but because the ocean is nearly a religion for me and I was shocked that she nailed so much in one comment.

The truth is: Young writers talk that way. They use metaphors and similes and they have eyes that see far into a person, ears that hear differently from others. For three days earlier this month, I was surrounded by them at the annual Young Writers Symposium held at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle. As one of seven published writers in residence, I watched and listened as 70 high school kids wrote pieces that began with lines such as “I am guilty of practicing animism with computers” and “Melodies touch me like hues of pink” and “what indefinite chance does a nights cat obtain.”

Organized nearly a decade ago by three English teachers on the coast, the Haystack symposium gives young writers three days away from school in a setting where the air is clean, the food is nutritious, and the view just won’t quit. The purpose, of course, is to get the kids writing, to get them thinking and talking about writing, and to show them the power of a few good words.

“It was a brilliant experience,” wrote one Haystack kid. “I think my soul was hungry for more than the light and the rocks and the sea air. Here I got the sort of affirmation I needed for myself as a writer.”

So we know Haystack kids — even the ones who come reluctantly and leave eagerly — get something from this inundation in language and freedom from the bells, buzzers and closed spaces of their daily routine. But the discussions, sharing, arguments and silence that happen in the untraditional classrooms of the Haystack adventure are only one part of the reward.

As with a piece of good writing, what goes on between the lines and spontaneously at Haystack may well be the stuff that sticks. Conversations over pesto pizza and vegetable tofu soup can be as enlightening as the sunrise over the bay. One group of girls discussed “causes” — of which they said they had none and wished they did. One finally popped up: “My cause is to quit school and live at Haystack.” School, it turns out, is boring for many of these kids.

From a parent’s point of view — and my child is a Haystack veteran — there has always been some question about what actually goes on with teen-agers when they go away with other teen-agers. Haystack hosts — Marie Keevan from George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, Beth Lyons from Mount Desert Island High School and Maureen Giunta from Ellsworth High — have eyes as shrewd as any writer’s. Plus they are teachers and mothers, which means they are highly organized and ready for anything.

In addition to hiring writers and an in-residence nurse, reading all the submissions for acceptance into the program, and organizing the entire event right down to electric blankets in the oceanfront guest quarters, they are the fund-raising backbone of this extracurricular gift to Maine students. Student fees and donations account for most of the program’s funding, but these true-blue teachers have dipped into their own pockets for support, too. It’s always a struggle, they said, and they must accept a payoff that goes far beyond the bank.

Such as novelist Christina Baker Kline, a Bangor High graduate, reading from her forthcoming book “Desire Lines.”

Or songwriter Noel Stookey agreeing to sing “Puff the Magic Dragon” and then answering the question: “Why would anyone leave a magic dragon anyway?”

Or Sanford Phippen, a Down Easter to his bones, using a Southern accent to read from his novel “Kitchen Boy.”

Or poet Betsy Sholl talking about her daughter’s attempted suicide, or Michael Kimball, author of the thriller “Undone,” helping a girl find her way to a meeting, or Robert Chute, a parasitologist-turned-poet, describing the worms that live in us all.

And, of course, there is the payoff that brings it all back to something even more essential. One young songwriter stood in front of the group and looked shyly but glowingly at the audience. With Stookey’s custom-made guitar slung around his shoulder and back-up singers wrapped around him, he performed the song he had written with the help of an older, wiser songwriter. The boy reached deep into himself, and deep into every listener with the performance.

When the applause exploded at the end, he leaned forward and whispered something into the microphone. It could have been anything but it sounded as if he said, “Dreams really do come true.”

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