Even if I had gotten more than four hours of sleep last night, I still wouldn’t be able to do justice to the week I’ve just spent in Miami working with three inspiring writing colleagues, and 22 amazing 17- and 18-year-old writers.
When National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts asked me to return to their national writing panel last summer, I was excited. The organization exists to honor and nurture the nation’s best young artists in nine disciplines: visual arts, photography, cinematography, dance, music, jazz, vocal, theatre, and of course, writing. Kids approaching their senior year apply by submitting their work, and panelists see, hear, read, and evaluate thousands of applicants, inviting the top 150 to Miami each January for YoungARTS Week, where those budding artists work with panelists and master teachers to hone their work.
Each discipline showcases their work a professional-quality event every night of the week, and the whole ends with a star-studded performance and gala, with awards given to people who are longtime leaders in the arts. (Robert Redford was an awardee this year.)
I’m too exhausted this morning to muster the words that would do these young writers justice. Watch the video (the writers are the first few minutes, rehearsing for a bit of theater that opened their reading) and consider this: “our” writers came from as far away as Bath, England, and Hawai’i. Their work ranges from memoir and creative non-fiction essays to short stories and poetry. Their voices are fresh, honest, funny, sad, angry, bemused, reportorial, thoughtful.
They write about losing siblings after a mother goes to prison, surviving teenaged love, childhood innocence and dancing to Johnny and June, life in skid row, growing up rootless in Africa, rescued swallows set free, homes lost, homes found, surviving schitzophrenia… They tell stories in the voice of rape survivors, art critics, people reaching the end of their lives, people making homes in foreign cultures; those finding their voices and losing them.
Here are some first lines from their work:
“In the thirties, my grandmother was a girl and walked/to her Idaho twon limits where heaps of surplus potatoes/were beginning to decompose.” (Sarah Rhu, poetry)
“Ingrid Harris’ work first caught the public attention in August, 1991, when prominent local artist Aleksandr Stoya featured some of her paintings in his annual exhibition.” (Charles McCrory, short story)
“All that research I did—reading and rereading articles from different scientific journals, watching the same episode of Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman six times, Googling general relativeity and the Schwarzschild radius and primordial black holes and black hole thermodynamics—and for what?” (Da’Shawn Mosley, creative non-fiction)
“In summer, we spent days assembling paper airplanes, folding the white sheets until we could see light coming through the fragile creases.” (Kelly Clare, short story)
“You start off in Italy, on the third story of an apartment, located above Teatro Grego, a Greek-style theatre with beautiful dancers twirling each night.” (Danny Rothschild, creative non-fiction)
“He looks up from his laptop, toward a class that should be working quietly.” (Kamry Goodwin, short story)
“As a child, my mother and grandmother took me to buy/sweetgrass baskets propped on card tables near the corner/of streets people knew to meet on.” (Emily Nason, poetry)
“Thomas always felt like he was filled with the ocean.” (Emma Townley-Smith, short story)
Don’t those just make you want to read on? There’s no recording of their showcase reading up on the YoungARTS website yet, but it was a stunning performance. The audience laughed, cried, nodded in understanding, and gave them a standing ovation at the end.
And that’s just writing. Throughout the week, we saw and heard the magic of talented dancers, actors, photographers, visual artists, vocalists, jazz and classical musicians. My head is still spinning!
Thanks to my fellow writing panelists, poet Dave Lee, novelist Rob Van Wagoner, and poet Gailmarie Pahmeier, plus our discipline coordinator, sculptor Mary Lee Adler, for understanding why I couldn’t be with youin November to select the finalists, and for welcoming me so warmly this week.
And thanks to the writing finalists themselves, for bringing your words, and your bright spirits and minds to Miami Beach, for daring to stretch and grow and dream with us.
That’s you, in order of your appearance in the anthology: Maggie, Hannah, Sarah, Emily N, Nia, Kamry, Stephanie, Charles, Dalia, Alina, Niki, Kelly, Emily C, Emma, Chris, Christine, Da’Shawn, Kam, Sophia, Danny, Ryan, Lily.
Write more. Write well!
As for me, I’m in the Miami Airport on my long way home via Dallas and Denver, and then over the mountains. I can’t wait to see the Upper Arkansas Valley stretch out below me as I come down Trout Creek Pass tomorrow afternoon…