Before the founding in 1982 of the Young Writers Workshop at the University of Virginia, residential programs for young creative writers didn’t exist.
Though summer programs for aspiring teen poets and novelists may now seem ubiquitous, their absence at the time was a void that founder and director Margo Figgins, herself a poet, rectified when she established the Young Writers Workshop. She earned her doctorate at UVa’s Curry School of Education in English Education with a concentration in creative writing, and where, for her dissertation, she designed an innovative English curriculum that put the poem at its center.
WATCH: Charlottesville Inside Out spotlights the Workshop
Margo’s previous 15 years as a high school English teacher, both overseas and in the U.S., led her to three critical observations: teens were most alive to themselves and to each other when they were being creative; their most powerful work occurred in collaboration with each other; and, they would spend endless after-school hours absorbed in artistic expression, whether that be creative writing, theater, dance, or music, when their work was being taken seriously. These observations gave rise to a creative writing program that involved not just classes in writing, but living as a writer in a community of writers—an experience that most teens rarely have in their high schools and which was (and often still is) hard to find available to anyone but adults.
To live as a writer means to have a balance between solitude and community, to produce work daily, and to share that work with others who can offer feedback and support. From its very first summer, the Workshop has created this experience for its students by adhering both to a rigorous daily schedule of workshops, labs, electives, staffs, readings, salons, and performances (see Summer Program) and a residential model that keeps all of its members, including teaching writers, strongly connected to each other. The success of this approach is not only evident in the Workshop’s longevity—over 30 years—but also in how it’s grown from one session of 40 young writers in its first year to nearly 300 participants in those years with three sessions. Its success is evident as well in the eventual additions of songwriting, playwriting, screenwriting workshops in an ongoing effort to expand young writers’ genre repertoire; in 2015 the program added a graphic fiction and nonfiction workshop to meet students’ increasing interest in this genre.
Until 2011, the Workshop was housed in various dormitories on the grounds of the University; in 2012, it made its leap to the Sweet Briar College campus to fulfill a long-held goal: an entirely residential program, with teaching writers in residence as well. But regardless of the space it inhabits, the Workshop always emphasizes the creation of a community that supports and sustains writers. The very nature of the program offers membership in a variety of communities: that of their genre workshop, their residence group, the Workshop community as a whole, the 6000+ growing number of Workshop alumni, and ultimately the world community of writers. It’s the closeness of these communities that regularly draw many alumni back to the Workshop, not only as students wanting to extend their experience and deepen their craft, but as residential staff, teachers, visiting writers, and administrators - those who continue to build the program.
In truth, our story gets rewritten every year, with each new accomplishment of our members, many recorded as a part of this site. And at each summer’s end, several hundred new young writers join the legion of alumni who mark YWW as a turning point in their lives, finding ways not only to live their lives more strongly, even bravely (see Featured Artists and Testimonials), but also to find ways to get involved, ensuring that the YWW story never ends.