It’s dangerously close to the end of July, meaning we’re dangerously close to the end of our summer 2016 mentorship program for high school students. But here’s the good news: we’re bringing you as much to learn and remember as possible, with this nifty new interview featuring Scott Stevens (of California), Charity Young (of Washington), and Jordan Harper (of Alabama). Scott has been studying poetry with Will Brewer, Charity has been studying fiction with Alex Higley, and Jordan has been studying fiction with Graham Todd. Let’s see what they have to say…
Introduce yourselves, if you would, in a rhyming couplet.
Scott Stevens, mentee: I’ve done many things you’d think a crime / but I’ve got in my pocket a pen – a real carbine.
Charity Young, mentee: My name is Chairs / I have some hairs.
Jordan Harper, mentee: In a small body of corn chips unrest / local four-year-old is trying his best
What led you to start writing? What made you stick with it? Tell us the abbreviated story.
SS: One night, detained in an RV with my family, I dreamed about a peripheral friend of a friend at school. I don’t remember the dream, but I remember banging my head against the overhead and yelling, “I MUST BE FRIENDS WITH HER!” I decided to write her an ode describing how cool she was — not really knowing what I was doing — she wrote back, and we became best friends over poetry.
I stuck with writing for two reasons. Writing helped me visualize the abstract problems in my head and generalize the worries and joys of my everyday life. At all my major life moments since that summer, I’ve had poetry, journaling, and, recently, fiction, to guide me through my emotions and thoughts. I also stick with it for the pleasure in mastery over language. I watched my friends train their limbs in dance, their voices in chorus, and I thought, Damn! I’m jealous. If I couldn’t sing, I’d write. I’ve been trying to make beauty ever since.
CY: I never had cable TV growing up, so for entertainment I spent weekends reading YA fantasy in the library and watching lions devour antelope on Discovery. As a child my life was full of organized activities, but with a book in my hand I could get through anything from tedious orchestra rehearsals to church to getting mowed down by aggressive soccer children/moms. Later my love of reading naturally spilled over to writing, which at first only took place in school—from grades 1-7 we had to read in front of the class, so I told stories about dragons, spies, and an evolved cunicular race enslaving humanity (though my dad is not a literary man, his apocalyptic theories subtly influenced me)—but today, instead of all those activities, I write about people because I want to tell the truth of who we are, and I would be hypocritical if my life didn’t tell the truth of who I am.
JH: As it turns out, people with higher IQs tend to be associated with wearing glasses because they are near-sighted and turn more toward activities like books and science rather than sports and entertainment. I don’t remember if I made that fact up or not or what my IQ even is, but that was my excuse when people tried to pressure me into playing whatever kind of sportball. I was just better at reading and writing. Now that I’m well into the groove of writing, I’ll just say I do it to tell the stories no one else will.
In seven words, describe your most recently penned piece of writing.
SS: Grandson/father exchange macho skills; trippy mirror play.
CY: Incestuous twins stab each other debating reincarnation.
JH: Man eats Lucky Charms; it’s magically realistic!
One interesting I’ve just realized is that one of you (Jordan) goes to an arts high school, one of you (Scott) just graduated from private school, and one of you (Charity) just graduated from public high school. I was wondering if each of you could talk a little bit about how you feel your experience in school has affected your journey into writing thus far—I imagine each of you have had different experiences, and that your respective schools have played varying roles in those experiences.
SS: The Silicon Valley mythos – that exultation of the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics, combined into one enterprising spearhead for the future – has attached itself to the neighborhoods and schools around me. I am thankful that, though my school is at the nucleus of this culture, it nurtures writing more than some other schools in the area. I won’t speak for other private schools, but I will say that my school engrained “Be your best” into most students’ heads. This is code for high expectations. This can be positive. For me, that meant being my best at the challenges I enjoy – for example, writing. If you have the opportunity to attend a good school – public or private – it’s up to you to do what you want with that education. Nobody told me to put extra time into writing poems. Unfortunately, sometimes the surrounding mythos of what is “the best” can make some young people confused. You see these fresh college graduates at Google and Facebook (earnest, hard-working people) – the perceived image of these people is that they can materially do anything they want. But, intellectually, that path may not be right for someone with a mind more inclined toward writing. So you have to swallow the fact that your material life, the “limitless possibilities of technology” may not be in your hands. That fact, combined with the sight of your high school classmates all going off to bright-seeming careers, while you are working a double life, your day job and your determination to write, together can seem daunting.
CY: This is an interesting question. In truth I found my elementary/middle school years much more formative in my love of writing (I went to a hybrid part-time school) than my high school years, with one exception: my freshman English teacher, Mr. Farland, found potential in my work and encouraged me to pursue it. If I hadn’t met him, I might not be a writer today.
JH: My school has given me an unbelievable support system. I doubt I’d be where I am now without it, and I sure wouldn’t be in this mentorship. Even outside the creative writing classroom (obviously my major) it’s good to be surrounded by people who believe in their artistry and are pursuing it daily, especially considering I heard a joke the other day that went like, “We are cutting this faster than a public arts school budget.” This world doesn’t want artists to win for some reason?
If you could marry a writer (from any time period), who would it be? Why?
SS: Voltaire, because he would be adventurous in life and in editing my work – satirical comments all over my margins – because he would energize me when I’m feeling down, because I’d get to speak French (duh), and because he cheated the lottery to amass a fortune! My kind of man.
If getting burned alive for sodomy is a concern, then Virginia Woolf for sure. I would want to hear the way she described everything around her.
CY: I am trying to think of financially and emotionally stable writers. It is very hard. I would marry F. Scott Fitzgerald so we can descend together in a turgid cavalcade of glamor and destruction.
JH: The anonymous author of Beowulf. I can’t be tied down.
Charity and Scott, you’re both heading off to college in the fall (Princeton and Stanford, respectively—casual!). How do you see the place writing has in your life evolving over this time period? And Jordan—what are your goals for writing in the next year leading up to your graduation?
SS: No lie, I have to be resolute in guarding my self-respect as a writer at Stanford. Coding is king there, and I’ve heard rumors that they call humanities kids “fuzzies” in contrast to “techies.” Despite the fact that there is nothing fuzzy about demands such as writing a dissertation on Finnegan’s Wake. Every day this summer I am struck with an almost crippling fear that everything I’ve built up will fall apart while I’m there. But I think that if I keep reading, keep writing, no matter whether I major in English or Neuroscience, I will be aiming to build a stored bank of writing that I’m proud of. I’ve only been writing for three years, so I still see myself as a neophyte, someone who will be trying to learn as much as I can from the professors and visiting Stegner Fellows there. This apprenticeship state tempers my currently (roiling) ambition to try and publish a book of my work. But I also hope to take more risks. Who knows what’s possible at the Coding Kingdom?
CY: Oh, I’m super excited to work with the English faculty! I hope to have a certificate (minor) in creative writing, so if I’m really lucky I can write a novel for my senior thesis under the mentorship of a faculty member. Regardless, I will sign up for lots of Creative Writing classes to take advantage of the resources available to me.
JH: I’ve hit a pretty brutal drought in terms of producing work and submitting to places which are personal virtues I’d like to kick back up in 2016/17, even amid college apps and AP classes. Mostly, I’m going to focus on completing my senior thesis (I grew a mildly handsome first draft of a story in this very program) and I’m really pumped to be an editor on our literary magazine.
As I was saying during the first Meet the Mentees chat of the week, it’s hard to believe this is the last week of writing for this year’s mentorship program. What’s been your favorite part of the mentorship, and what’s one memory or piece of advice that you’ll take with you?
SS: My favorite part of the mentorship has probably been the encouragement to connect our readings to our writing prompts. Sometimes it is easier for me to just head for the anthologies and read good ol’ Elizabeth Bishop, Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, so I have loved being pushed toward more contemporary writers, getting a better feel of what’s being written out there.
One memory: this past week, I had the privilege of peer-editing a mentee’s poem that shocked me with its beauty and sinister narrative arc. I remember thinking, I want to be able to write something in that style. I worry sometimes that everybody is going to turn into a computer and only write lines of Java, not poetry, but I get hopeful that the line of writers will continue when I read fantastic work from people the same age as me.
CY: We are at the dusk of our days, but my favorite part of this mentorship is the wonderful, scarily talented writer friends I have made. It’s extremely refreshing to connect with people around my age who share the same interest, and also the same (?? bad) sense of humor.
I have a very short animalistic memory, so I’m going with the most recent piece of advice from Jordan Villegas (fellow manatee): if you’re having a bad week/year/life, “Just wait for your next one. Maybe you’ll reincarnate as a wiener dog and you can just chill all the time.”
JH: Getting to know the grossly talented mentees has been so much fun. And as a young writer it becomes exciting once you begin to recognize all the names you’re among as winners of contests you’ve entered or programs you’ve applied for, that you’re a part of this community of stunning artists (which can be encouraging or demoralizing depending on what kind of person you are) who are all learning the same as you, you’re on the same playing field. As for advice, I think I’ll carry with me the work ethic of my peers and mentor, who are relentless demigods all of them. A mentee just called 15 pages “a day’s work” as I’m typing this.
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Scott Stevens is a poet and fiction writer from the San Francisco Bay Area, and has been published in literary magazines such as Textploit and Glass Kite Anthology. He is a recognized California Arts Scholar, has attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio at the University of Iowa, and has received distinction in the 2016 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Corey Van Landingham selected him as an Honorable Mention for the 2016 Adroit Prize for Poetry, and he will be a freshman at Stanford University in the fall.
Charity Young is a recent graduate of Union High School in Washington. Her fiction and illustrations have received national medals in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and she was included on the Editors List for the 2016 Adroit Prize for Prose. She likes to wear terrifying shoes, and will be a freshman at Princeton University in the fall.
Jordan Harper is a senior at the Alabama School of Fine Arts as well as an alum of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio and Interlochen Arts Camp where received a Fine Arts Award. His poetry and prose has been recognized by the Alabama Writers’ Forum and the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers. His work can be found in Best Teen Writing of 2015.