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Kirsten Miles saw what wasn’t there.
In a city dotted with art galleries, music venues and theaters, Miles — executive director of the Teen Writing Center for independent publisher Tupelo Press — noticed an absence of formal opportunities for young authors.
“There is a structure or teacher or coach for almost every type of art in most of our high schools, and there’s usually a performance component,” Miles said. “Those performances show the student that their art is valued in the community.”
“But we don’t really ask students to put their writing on display except for in English class,” Miles said.
To address this, Miles met with writing teachers and students from local public and private high schools to hear about their needs. During those conversations, Miles said she quickly realized that most fine arts courses focused on the visual or performing arts, and that schools aimed little to no resources at writing as an art form.
So Miles, along with the Teen Writing Center’s board, began hosting workshops and published an anthology of young writers’ work. Now in its second year, the Teen Writing Center has evolved into a community of partnerships with many of the area’s arts organizations providing meeting spaces for young writers.
For example, 52 area students spent one recent week penning poems and stories at Write On, a creative writing camp for third- through 12th-graders run by WriterHouse — a Charlottesville-based nonprofit.
Elizabeth Derby, who sits on the Teen Writing Center’s Board and directs the camp, said the environment for young authors has grown significantly in just two years.
“The opportunities are now clarified, so it’s much easier for students who are interested to have access,” Derby said. “And as WriterHouse has consistently held these camps, the Teen Writing Center has become a consistent presence in the community.”
In addition to WriterHouse, Tupelo has partnered with the Virginia Art of the Book Center, the Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, the McGuffey Art Center, Millie Joe Coffee House and the Piedmont Council for the Arts to provide meeting spaces for writers to gather.
“We wouldn’t have as rich a program without these partnerships,” Miles said.
A rising senior at Albemarle High School, Kamryn Crossman has been involved with Tupelo’s efforts since the start, and praised the community the Teen Writing Center has created.
“You learn different things because everyone comes in with new ideas,” Crossman said, noting tips for overcoming writing struggles, as well as exposure to new perspectives. “It’s all about you, your writing and the people who are there to support you.”
Charlotte Wood, who teaches creative writing at Albemarle High School and runs The Lantern, the school’s literary magazine, said that while the teens have always taken their writing seriously, seeing opportunities in the community encourages them to keep going.
“Now other people are listening and offering them those opportunities. There seems to be great momentum. So now, outside of the classroom, there’s a pride and a value in what they do, and it makes them value it more,” Wood said.
While most area high schools offer a creative writing course or club, only Albemarle High has a formal creative writing curriculum.
In addition to the summer camp, the Teen Writing Center offers writing workshops and retreats, mentorship opportunities and contests through the Virginia Festival of the Book.
Miles said the mentorship program has been a success.
“They’re very interested in writers who are a few steps ahead of them because those writers have a fresh perspective on what lies ahead of the kids,” Miles said. “It’s hard to provide that in the school setting.”
With respect to the future, Miles said she plans to continue partnering with other organizations, and to add programming that aligns with the school calendar for students who are unable to take creative writing classes at school, or who lack transportation.
At its heart, however, the Teen Writing Center’s efforts will remain focused on encouraging young people to write creatively.
“These are our future writers,” Miles said.