Everyone can write — to some degree — but how do you learn to become a really outstanding creative writer, someone who can create, develop a strong narrative, build nuance, and keep your readers engaged? For 25 years, Denison University’s Jonathan Reynolds Young Writers Workshop has shown young writers how to find their voice and develop the expertise to become exceptional writers.
Each summer, junior and senior high school students who are passionate about creative writing, travel from across the country (and even from overseas) to the Reynolds Workshop. They take part in an intensive eight-day residential program on Denison’s campus where they learn the essentials from talented authors, put that knowledge into practice, mature through constructive critique and take concrete steps towards becoming a great writer.
Margot Singer, professor of English at Denison University, guides the Reynolds Workshop in her 10th year as director. Other core faculty members include Denison professors Peter Grandbois and Michael Croley and alumna Alison Stine. Singer is proud of the way the workshop brings the benefits of a professional creative writing conference to young writers. At its 25-year milestone, the Reynolds Workshop is one of the most venerable summer high school writing workshops around, with the success its alumni as proof of the enduring value of the program.
“Our alumni are going on to do great things,” says Singer, who stays in touch with students and sees the ongoing impact of the program. “They are award-winning authors and writers. Several alumni are among our incredibly talented faculty and teaching associate staff. They include two former Wallace Stegner Fellowship winners, published authors, and graduates of prestigious MFA programs. Our TAs are all practicing writers, experienced teachers, and incredible mentors. They come back year after year.”
And the word is out about the excellence of the program. “We have more applicants than ever,” Singer says. “We have recently expanded from 36 to 48 participants. And we have great financial aid packages for qualifying students.”
The Workshop is multi-genre, covering poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction writing. Students try new techniques and learn outside of their comfort zones, as they participate in two small-group workshops each day — and a whole lot of other activities that spark creativity.
A morning workshop focuses on the fundamentals of creative writing technique and craft. The afternoon session goes into greater depth, exploring genres of a student’s choosing. Students receive one-on-one mentoring from faculty and form a close-knit community with other writing students, faculty, and mentors from across the country. Acclaimed visiting writers conduct workshops and give readings. Staff members lead fun and interactive writing sessions. Free time is spent socializing, exploring Granville, swimming, playing games, and of course, writing. Some of Singer’s favorite moments are the Saturday nights when the students read their writing aloud at the eclectic Bandersnatch, a student hangout.
“There is great value in learning to persist, to do something unstructured, and to use language well,” she says. “At the Reynolds Workshop, there are no grades, just students exploring, being brave, and developing useful skills applicable to whatever direction they want to go.”
Zoe Smith ’22 enrolled at Denison after she attended the Reynolds Workshop two summers ago. Some of her favorite aspects of the workshop were the connections she made with fellow writers. Many of the friends she made keep in touch, even though they are scattered across the country. “It was different than a normal one-week camp,” Smith says. “We were bonding over something as personal as our own writing, so we became very close to each other.”
Smith believes the workshop helped prepare her for college writing and set her apart from her peers in high school. “It’s helped me a lot to know professors at Denison and form connections with them — I still keep in touch with them,” she says. Smith urges interested students to apply to the workshop, even if they are hesitant. “It’s worth it,” she says.
Author Alison Stine ’00 attended the first Reynolds Workshop, and she has been a faculty member of the workshop since 2002. Now a published writer of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, she attributes her success to the teachers and mentors she met at the workshop. Stine recalls her week as a student at the workshop fondly. “I remember meeting people my age who loved writing,” she says. “I had never met another teenager who wanted to write books.”
Stine always wanted to be a writer, and the workshop helped her see the different paths she could take. “Attending the Reynolds Workshop helped me see Denison is a great place to be a writer,” she says. Now, as a mentor herself, she is able to support students in the same ways that she was decades ago. “It’s more of a family than a job,” she says.
Another alum, Derek Mong ‘04, attended one of the first Reynolds Workshops in the summer of 1998. Now a professor of English at Wabash College, he says the Reynolds Workshop jump-started his career.
A published poet, Mong attributes his early interest in poetry to the Reynolds Workshop, and in particular, to Denison English Professor David Baker. Mong remembers Baker mentoring him and helping him critique his poetry. “The workshop taught me how to take literature and poetry seriously.”
Now an English professor himself, Mong is inspired to start something similar to the Reynolds Workshop on his campus. “We’re constantly figuring out ways to grow our major and increase interest in literature on our campus,” he says. “The Reynolds Workshop has given me a model of how to do that.”
Mong has one of the T-shirts he wore as a TA for the workshop hanging in his office, with a Marianne Moore quote inscribed on the back reading “There is a great amount of poetry in unconscious fastidiousness.”
“The workshop still matters to me a great deal,” he says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. It changed my life.”
Jonathan R. Reynolds ’65
The Reynolds Workshop was launched in the summer of 1994, thanks to the generosity of Jonathan R. Reynolds ’65, a successful playwright, author, and screenwriter. Through a $1.75 million endowment, Reynolds created a Distinguished Professorship and a Playwright-in-Residence position, in addition to the Young Writers Workshop. “I hope the workshop encourages students to express themselves to the world and to each other through writing,” he says.
“It’s wonderful that creative writing has expanded at Denison,” Reynolds says, pointing to the boost provided by the rise of new technologies. “You can open any technology to see people writing and expressing themselves,” he says. “Writing lasts longer than a conversation. It’s there forever.”
Reynolds’s plays include Girls in Trouble, Dinner with Demons, and Stonewall Jackson’s House, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He is the recipient of a Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundation grant, as well as the Dramatists Guild Flora Roberts Award for Sustained Achievement. He also wrote a bi-weekly food column for the New York Times. In 2010, his memoir, Wrestling with Gravy, was published by Random House.
Despite his achievements, Reynolds did not start his writing career until the age of 33. He urges students to find what they are passionate about and stick with it. “You have to have experiences, live in the world, and be observant no matter where you are,” he urges. “Write things down and make sense of them.”