The Sunday Gazette
By KATY MOELLER, Staff WriterWRITER'S CAMP
Teen-age wordsmiths learn novel skills at Silver Bay
SILVER BAY - Watch out, Stephen King. Ryan Merkley just might scare your pants off one day.
Merkley, 16, who started gobbling up King novels when he was in 5th grade, has been writing his own brand of horror since 6th grade.
"My writing is a cross between Herman Melville and Stephen King," said Merkley, one of 25 students who participated in the second annual New York State Summer Young Writers Institute at Silver Bay on Lake George last week. "I do short stories and dramatic fiction."
At writing camp, books are cool. And so are bookworms. While browsing the grounds at Silver Bay, Merkley, a resident of the northwestern Adirondack town of Lisbon, talked animatedly about his favorite books with another young writer, Liane Carlson, 15, who hails from the southern New York hamlet of Burlingham.
"I decided to read `War and Peace' just for the fun of it," said Carlson, tucking strands of her wavy, waist-length blondish hair behind her ears. "It was actually a lot better than `Les Miserables.' "
Carlson and her sister, Heather, 17, who attended the camp last year, are writing a novel together. They made an outline for their book - tentatively…titled "Hell's Angels" - and began working on chapters 14 and 22.
"We start with the people, then we think of a plot," said Carlson, explaining their writing process. "It's epic fantasy. Good vs. evil, set in a world that we made up."
Stack of books
When students check into writing camp, they're handed a room key, a packet of information about the Silver Bay Association's recreational offerings and last - but certainly not least - a stack of books.
Yes, it's true, a lot of reading goes on at writing camp.
But these teen campers don't wrinkle their noses or roll their eyes at the prospect of hefty reading assignments. With wide-eyed anticipation, members of this motley group scoop up stacks of books like birthday gifts from a favorite aunt.
"It's such a luxury to work with students who are well-read," said Michael Rutherford, director of Alternative Literary Programs Inc. (ALPS) and one of the creators of the state writing camp. "In order for kids to be good writers, they have to read. Students have to read on their own."
Rutherford said other states, including Pennsylvania, have had youth art and writing…camps for years. So why not New York state, he asked, which has long been a magnet for great writers from all over the country?
A family of words
The mission of the writing camp is to gather the top young writers in the state and provide them with an opportunity to learn from one another and work with published authors in workshops at the weeklong camp. For the kids whose families and friends don't understand their passion for writing, the camp is akin to nirvana, said William Patrick, a Troy author who works with ALPS.
"If you want to be a writer, most people don't jump up and down and say, `Great,' " Patrick said. "Our culture doesn't reward the arts until you're a big smash . . ."
Marina Severinovsky, 18, of Levittown, was a student at New York state's fledgling youth writers camp last year and was one of two volunteer peer counselors this year.
"There was an immense sense of bonding," said Severinovsky, who was valedictorian of her high school class and now aims to be the next Alan Greenspan. "It was amazing to see that I'm not the only one, that there are other people like me. . . . I'm from a reading family. We don't have cable. And the TV is in the basement and nobody really knows where it is."
New York's youth writing camp - officially dubbed the New York State Summer Young Writers Institute - was launched through the collaborative effort of ALPS, the New York State Writers Institute and the Writer's Voice of the Silver Bay Association.
Notice of the camp's inauguration was sent to English teachers around the state. About 250 students - from 9th to 11th grades - competed for 20 slots. Admission was free to all who were accepted to the camp. This year, the number of applicants dropped to about 80. Camp organizers attribute the decline in interest to the fact that participants were charged $400 - tuition that was needed to cover the $1,200-per-student cost of the program.
Though needs-based scholarships were available to eight of the 25 students admitted this year, Rutherford would like to see the program fully funded so that talented students with limited financial resources aren't discouraged from applying. He'd even like to see the $10 application fee abolished.
"What we want to do is encourage more applicants," Rutherford said. "I really think that tuition is going to limit the number of kids whose families don't have money. The more diverse and varied the students we have, the better the educational experience."
The writing camp experience is intense. Students spend five or six hours a day in class learning about writing technique and applying what they've learned.
The evenings are also filled up with literary activities, including readings of their own work and presentations by well-known authors. Last Monday evening, the group was bussed to Skidmore College, where they got writing tips from William Kennedy and Joyce Carol Oates.
So how does Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, get ideas for his books? one student asked.
"I just go to work in the morning . . . in my office," Kennedy said. "I have a lot of coffee. I hate going to work on deadline; I like to work on my own time. I have breakfast and four double espressos."
The students also come to the camp with their own ideas about what they want to accomplish. Take April French, 16, who will be a junior at Guilderland High School this fall.
Along with her stuffed frog, French filled her backpack with all kinds of books, including Machiavelli's "The Prince," Thomas More's "Utopia," Thomas Cahill's "How The Irish Saved Civilization," one of the Sherlock Holmes books and a couple fantasy novels.
She also brought along one of the novels she's writing and hopes to finish by the time she graduates from high school.
"One of the biggest points I'm trying to make in my writing is that evil is a point of view," said French, who wears a ring bearing the Latin inscription "May God grant sense to those who wish to write." "Everyone has a good reason for what they're doing, in their own mind."
When not reading, writing, or discussing literature in some form or fashion, the campers are off hiking, swimming or lounging near the lake. And, sometimes, they get a little mischievous. Last year, the group went for a late-night skinny dip and turned their bed sheets into togas for one meal, shocking the sensibilities of some of a large group of Lutherans who summer at Silver Bay in July.
Last year's campers still communicate with each other regularly via e-mail and phone. Several hoped to come back as counselors this year. "Everyone was pretty much on Cloud 9 all week," said Joseph Todaro, 17, who traveled three days by train from Las Cruces, N.M., to be one of the volunteer counselors at the camp this year. "No one wanted to come back down to earth."
For information about the New York State Summer Young Writers Institute, email Bill Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.