How Summer Camps Have Shaped Me

Every time I’ve taken a summer course on writing, I have learned something beyond the scope of the course title. Take the “Crafting the Novel” course I applied to for this past summer. I went into it with the hopes of getting some pointers on how to approach writing a sequel—which I was and still am working on—and left with my inhibitions shattered, the openness of everyone there inspiring me to pour my heart into writing, even if it meant addressing subjects I was uncomfortable with. I also got publishing advice from my instructor, Rachel Carter, who is a published author. She explained the process of getting an agent and gave a realistic timeline for traditional publishing but maintained that it was wise for students to self-publish instead of going the traditional route. Traditional publishing forces you into a timeline, especially if you’re writing a series, and publishers could expect you to start working on a sequel before you’ve even finished publishing your first book. For a busy student, that’s nearly impossible.

Anyhow, summer camps aren’t all about inhaling knowledge, either. There’s something powerful about putting a group of people with shared interests in a supportive environment, even if it’s online. The “Crafting the Novel” course I talked about at length was virtual, and we became so close we made our own Discord server to stay in contact.  Of course, there are definitely perks to being at a summer camp in person. I’m not gonna lie; I’ve spent three weeks in a dorm with no air conditioning and windows that barely opened a crack in the middle of a hot Seattle summer—that part wasn’t fun—but the camp itself was still a breeding ground for creativity. Did you know I wanted to be a scientist when I was younger? It was these experiences that showed me the exciting side of writing, a reminder that being an author is what I actually want to do. They bring out a fervor in me, and the environment these camps cultivate makes it easy to write—for what else is free time for? I lived and breathed words in that camp, and by the end of it, I had actually finished my first novella. Right before ninth grade! Of course, it was terrible, but everyone else encouraged me nonetheless, and I remember that feeling of accomplishment even now.

Dorm room at a CTY summer camp
A Typical Dorm Room, Summer of 2018, Seattle WA

Summer camps have been where I formed some of my best memories. When I was writing Pantheon, there were many times where I felt uninspired and anxious about the book’s future, my future. I started writing it because I wanted to feel accomplished, and the way things were going made it seem like all those hours I put in would amount to nothing. I mean, high school didn’t care about anything but getting that GPA up, and my parents were pretty adamant about reminding me that being an author was no path to financial stability. Has any of that changed now that I’ve “proven” myself? Yes? No? Maybe so?

I don’t think it matters, anymore. Because even though I still write to get the grades and praise, I mainly write because I love to write. Somewhere in the mess of three years, somewhere among all those pitfalls and bottomless holes that seemed to drag sleep, energy, and my will to continue, there was always a ladder to grab if I persevered. And I learned that to keep writing, your motivation can’t be consumed by the goal of success at the bottom of those holes. You have to enjoy the process, the mastery you hold over your own little world and your craft. When I attended the Sewanee Young Writers Conference, a two week writing camp, I was desperate for advice about my novel. I felt lost and at the end of my creative journey. I resolved to hang on to the instructor’s every word and ask him for guidance during our one-on-one interview. However, since the interview was scheduled to happen during the second week, I had to experience the camp and its campus first. Nervous from the start, I was quickly taken in by how welcoming everyone was. It was impossible to feel stressed during my walks from building to building, the lazy breeze and occasional shade taking the edge off the sunlit sidewalks. There was also a café to spend afternoons typing in, and a five-story library that I spent more time exploring with two friends than reading. I gradually slipped into a calming routine, the air heavy but refreshing nonetheless—partly thanks to the air-con. I didn’t write a smidge of my novel during that week, preferring to work on my short story for the course and reading the words of others. By the time the interview came along, I was more interested in how I could improve my short story than my novel, though I still asked for tips since there was no reason not to. My instructor said that he couldn’t aid me without reading the thing, but he did give me some sci-fi stories to reference.

Sewanee Young Writers Conference
Sewanee Young Writers Conference, Summer of 2019, Sewanee TN

I don’t know how much they helped, honestly. What I do know is that the experience of being in a world where half of my time was my own—to explore its amazing facilities and people—taught me that writing is as much about the conditions and process in which I toil in as it is about pure willpower. And instead of becoming lazy, I learned to work with my limitations and push their bounds.

That summer, I finished the first draft of Pantheon.

Happy Writing,
Austin Wen

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