Twelve high school students clutching their brand-new notebooks filed into the oak-paneled room in Ascension Hall three weeks ago for the first day of the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop.
Midway through the morning class, after various writing exercises, Liz Forman ’73, a longtime college administrator who has led Kenyon Review workshops for close to two decades, turned to “Readings for Writers,” a collection of poems and prose published in the Review — including works by such luminaries as W.H. Auden, Don DeLillo, and Flannery O’Connor.
“You are about to join,” Forman said, opening the book, “an amazing group of people who happened to land in this funny little place in Ohio.”
High school students from across the country — and more recently, the world — flock to the Hill each summer for the workshop, a two-week course aimed at honing the craft of reading and writing. The program has now grown tenfold, since its humble beginnings, to accompany two sessions, but classes remain intimate with 13 or fewer students.
Rebecca Simantov, a senior at Hunter College High School in New York City, is enamored of her first class day of the second session, which runs July 13-26. “It seemed like equal parts great opportunity, great community, and a beautiful place to be,” Simantov said about her decision to come to Young Writers. “From today, I feel like I could improve my writing by osmosis.”
That feeling, of the superiority of one’s peers, is nothing new.
“I think it’s sort of hard to outright say, ‘I’m a writer,’” said Anna Duke Reach, director of programs for the Kenyon Review, “but I feel like over those two weeks, they get more and more confidence in feeling that way about themselves, even saying it.”
Back in the summer of 1990, the program was little more than 20-some students, a couple of instructors, and David Lynn ’76 P’14, now the editor of the Review, camped out in first-year residence halls.
“Earwigs were everywhere,” Lynn recalled. “It was very hot, it was very uncomfortable, but the kids didn’t mind. They had a really great time because the thing that makes Young Writers so special is that writers by definition tend to be solitary,” he said. “So when they come to Kenyon, to the Young Writers program, suddenly they’re surrounded by all these people just like them who care so much about creativity and writing and expression and all of that. So it’s a love fest every summer.”
And this is a particularly auspicious summer for the Kenyon Review. This year marks the 75th anniversary of its founding by critic and poet John Crowe Ransom, who just so happens to be Forman’s grandfather.
“There is something nice about having family stories from the beginning and hearing stories about the early Review years, as sort of present memories for my mother,” Forman said. “And now to still be connected in this way to the Review is exciting, I have to say. It is kind of wonderful in a way.”
This historical tie to the Review is not the only kind of bond formed throughout the many years of the magazine’s operation. Many a Young Writer winds up enrolling at Kenyon, going on to volunteer at the Review, and even coming back to lead a workshop.
“It’s almost like a family,” Duke Reach said.