Voices from a Shared World
By S. J. Chambers
28 March 2011
The following roundtable focuses upon a unique SF/F writing summer camp for teens, Shared Worlds. The brainchild of Jeremy L. C. Jones and Jeff VanderMeer, the camp has been hosted by Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina since 2008. Every summer since, the camp has offered teenagers ranging from eighth to twelfth grade opportunities to work with top science fiction/fantasy writers and editors like Ann VanderMeer, Will Hindmarch, Holly Black, Kathe Koja, Marly Youmans, and Michael Bishop, on world-building utilized in a fortnight of extensive drafting and writing, as well as group work that promotes team-building and problem solving. The first week, students team up to collaborate on world-building. The second week, they break off to focus solely on their writing. A week after the end of camp, students are rewarded with a high-quality keepsake book of their writing.
In addition to honing and learning about the writing craft, students also gain added benefit of making friends and finding a community in which they fit. This helps teens not only focus on their creative goals but develop skills needed for preparing and attending college. It has also gained a lot of attention and encouragement from the literary community. Abrams Image is publishing Jeff VanderMeer's coffee table book Shared Worlds/Single Vision, whose advance and royalties will go back into Shared Worlds as well as Clarion San Diego. The Wizards of the Coast has been longtime corporate sponsors, and Amazon.com just awarded Shared Worlds a $15,000 grant last November. The largest donation Shared Worlds has received yet, the grant will help the 2011 program fund guest writer invitations and student scholarships.
The Class of 2011, which will be comprised of approximately 50 students, will get to work with guest instructors Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer, Minister Faust, Ekaterina Sedia, Nnedi Okorafor, and Will Hindmarch. The 2011 camp session will be held July 18-July 31, and interested teen writers can apply here. It should be noted that Shared Worlds has had a boom in its applications, so interested persons should act fast.
It is something that I certainly wish I had around as a teen, and that is a common theme among all the adults in this roundtable. Armed with 20/20 hindsight, the directors and instructors of Shared Worlds want nothing more than to offer creative teens a few weeks to seriously focus upon and realize their creative goals. In fact, the passion for Shared Worlds is equally shared among all those involved—be they directors, instructors, parents and students—as is evidenced by the below discussions with:
Jeremy L. C. Jones is the camp co-creator and director, as well as a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine, interview editor for The Southern Nature Project, and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly and Booklifenow.com. In collaboration with the Alzheimer's Association-SC Chapter and the Department of Psychology at Wofford College, Jones co-created Living Words, a creative writing program for people diagnosed with dementia and their caregivers. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.
Jeff VanderMeer is the assistant director and widely regarded as one of the world's best fantasists. A two-time winner of the World Fantasy Award, VanderMeer has also been a finalist for the Hugo Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the International Horror Guild Award, the British Fantasy Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. VanderMeer's book-length fiction has been translated into 15 languages, while his short fiction has appeared in several "year's best" anthologies and short-listed for Best American Short Stories. His final novel in his Ambergris Cycle, Finch, has just been published in the the UK from Atlantic's Corvus imprint. His writer guide Booklife and associated Booklifenow website focus on sustainable creativity. Forthcoming books include The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities and The Steampunk Bible. He writes nonfiction for The Washington Post Book World, Omnivoracious, The New York Times Book Review, The Barnes & Noble Review, and many others.
Ann VanderMeer is a returning guest instructor. She is the editor-in-chief of Weird Tales, and is the second woman to hold that title in the magazine's history. Her work as Fiction Editor for Weird Tales won the magazine the Hugo Award in 2009, and it has also been nominated for a World Fantasy Award under her editorship. She has collaborated with husband Jeff on several critically acclaimed anthologies including The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, The New Weird, Steampunk, Steampunk II, and the forthcoming Dr. Lambshead's Cabinet of Curiosities.
Kathe Koja was a guest instructor in 2010. Her books include The Cipher, Skin, and Extremities; YA novels include Buddha Boy, Talk, Kissing the Bee, and Headlong. Her work has been honored by the ALA, the ASPCA, the Parents' Choice Award, and the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. Her books have been published in seven languages, and optioned for film. She's a Detroit native and lives in the area with her husband, artist Rick Lieder, and their cats. Under the Poppy is currently being adapted for the stage.
Megan Jackson began attending Shared Worlds as a rising sophomore, and has attended twice. Currently a junior, she hopes to attend this summer and next summer, which will be her last before graduating.
Daric Jackson grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, California watching Star Trek and Robotech and dreaming of being an astronaut. He works as a software architect, and has been involved in numerous science fiction and animation conventions including Dragon*Con, Gen Con, and the upcoming Florida Anime Experience. Daric lives in Dunwoody, Georgia with his daughter Megan and his three sons, Sean, Eric and Corwin.
Of Expanding Universes and Forgotten Realms
S. J. Chambers: When/what made you realize there was a need for an SF writing camp for teens?
Jeremy L. C. Jones: Back in 2003, a couple of my high school students, Dwight and Morgan, explained the concept of shared universes to me and I was totally captivated. Dwight had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Star Wars Expanded Universe and Morgan had re-read R. A. Salvatore's Forgotten Realms novels a number of times. I knew that I could use the concept of shared worlds in the classroom, but that notion was very intuitive and I needed time to figure it all out. A couple years later the Dean at Wofford was looking for innovative summer programs in keeping with the college's mission. I mentioned my classroom experiments with world-building and presented the idea of Shared Worlds. I tried a few different approaches and enlisted Jeff VanderMeer's aid as assistant director. Something clicked. Jeff and I have different strengths and weaknesses and we managed to get the camp off the ground. Jeff is so good at seeing through the fog (of my thinking and others) and clarifying what needs to be done.
Jeff VanderMeer: By the time I came on board as assistant director, I had thought a lot about what I as a teen writer would have wanted from this kind of experience, and I realized that it would need to be different than creative writing for adults—that there were actually more possibilities and that some of them would be using writing as a springboard for other creative endeavors, which also would impact the way we put it together. We also benefited greatly from having the amazing Timothy Schmitz as the overall director of summer camps and the wonderful Cathy Connor as technical support and office manager, along with some Wofford faculty. It's the combination of creative thinking combined with structure that makes this all work. Not to mention having had great sponsors like Tor, Wizards of the Coast, and Amazon.com.
SJC: Why should a teen attend Shared Worlds?
JLCJ: We provide a safe place for teens to experiment with ideas and develop their imaginations, in ways that are fun and useful. Shared Worlds also offers students an opportunity to get together with other teens who love to read and write speculative fiction. Students at Shared Worlds are bright, creative, and enthusiastic young people who want to make stuff up, to tell stories, to dream big. These teens pride themselves on being readers and writers and artists. So, in one sense, a teen should attend Shared Worlds in order to spend time with other teens who share her interests, who value what she values. In terms of the approach, Shared Worlds students get together to build an imaginary world, to solve all the problems of a complex system and to negotiate the collaboration. Shared worlds is about creative problem-solving, about every decision having consequences and leading to more decisions, about every solution affecting every aspect of the world. Everything goes into the stew of an imaginary world. Students pull on what they've learned in school, draw on their unique talents and interests. It's all blended together. And they get to do all that under the guidance of Wofford professors and some of the finest speculative fiction writers in the world. Can you imagine? Being fifteen years old and studying writing with Holly Black! That would've blown my mind as a teenager.
JV: I can answer that by talking about process. On the creative writing side of things, rather than the world-building side, I wanted to implement what I'd seen done successfully elsewhere, and ditch the things I wasn't as fond of, as well as ditch things I didn't think would work as well for teens. I also wanted to work in something Ann and I believe in deeply: stimulation of the imagination through the kinds of writing exercises and contexts that provide structure but also allow teens to take a leap of faith off into the unknown with their creativity. Structure is so important because it's the structure that allows them to relax. And I also eventually wanted to institute the one-on-one sessions with students that I'd seen work effectively at Clarion. In a teen writing camp context, those one-on-one sessions are even more valuable, because sometimes it's the first time a teen writer has had a professional writer listen to them and take their writing goals, dreams, and aspirations seriously. Sometimes you can just see it in their eyes: the sudden realization that they are indeed a writer, they are allowed to be a creative person, that it can be a calling and that it is a good thing. For me, that, and just always being honest, are the most important things. We have an exceedingly low tolerance for pretension, ego, and selfishness. We choose our visiting writers very carefully. Everything needs to be for the students.
Ann VanderMeer: I've spent most of my life working with young people in a variety of venues. Shared Worlds gives students an opportunity to let their imaginations run wild without fear of judgment. We give them permission to fail, so to speak. And in a safe, accepting environment surrounded by other like-minded students and teachers.
Kathe Koja: Because s/he wants to work, write, think, compose, create, make up truly hair-raising private jokes, scream and laugh and meet people who will be close friends by the time s/he leaves. . . . All the good stuff. I know I would have loved to go to a workshop like Shared Worlds as a teen writer, and I bet all the other visiting writers have said the same.
SJC: What has been the most rewarding aspect of the camp's development you have seen to date?
JLCJ: There's nothing quite so thrilling for a teacher than to see a group of students working independently, exceeding expectations, taking ordinary objects and ideas and shaping them into something extraordinary, into something that wasn't there before. We get to see these students at their best, at full-tilt creativity, lighted up and utterly, totally on fire. And that is very, very rewarding.
JV: I didn't really realize the impact it would have, to be honest, on the students, the faculty, and on me, or that it would grow to become perhaps the most important part of my year. I'd never taught teens for such an extended period—one-day workshops only, before this—and it was really driven home when, last year, I had to leave after the first week to teach at Clarion San Diego. And it's because a real sense of community and respect has sprung up. The teens who come to these camps stay in touch with each other afterwards. They look forward to the next year. They use the camp as motivation to keep writing. They talk about camp even after they're going off to college and can't attend any more. They show us in a million ways that what we provide to them is of use. And that just motivates you to work harder for them. So we are constantly recalibrating, looking for ways to improve the experience. Everybody puts 100 percent into this, and I think the students recognize that.
AV: The best part is seeing those shy students come out of their shells and share with the others. I love to see young people spread their wings and realize that, yes, they have something worthwhile to contribute. I see this experience as something they will use when they leave Shared Worlds. That sense of accomplishment and being able to work within a group toward mutual goals. The growth and confidence in these students is phenomenal.
SJC: With the Amazon grant, and very notable guest instructors like Holly Black, Kathe Koja, and Nnedi Okorafor, it is obvious that Shared Worlds is growing. Can you speak about the camp's future, and where you all hope it will go?
JLCJ: Each year we sharpen our senses to what the students need. We tweak the curriculum. In more concrete terms, we are beginning to get an idea of what the ideal enrollment is, the perfect size. We have some plans for establishing other sites for Shared Worlds, and sharing lesson plans/curriculum with teachers generally—create a teaching packet that any high school student could use as an entry-point to talking about history, biology, etc., through the interest point of the fantastical.
JV: Expansion and codification are in our future, but we think we have one more year of learning before we feel comfortable doing that. I do know we have a larger and larger pool of guest writers to invite back, and we know exactly what they bring to the table because we've seen them in action. That helps us a lot.
SJC: Shared Worlds offers scholarships. What makes a student eligible?
JLCJ: They're based on need, mostly. Stability comes from sponsors like Amazon.com and Wizards of the Coast, LLC. I wish we could give more!
JV: We want to be flexible in addressing the need of each student who requests scholarship help so there are no real pre-set conditions.
Of Friends and Focus
SJC: How did you two learn about Shared Worlds, and why did you want your daughter to go?
Megan Jackson: Dad told me about it. I looked at the website and simply thought, "This looks amazing." I begged for the next four days to go, and I got my wish. Yes, I literally begged to go to this camp.
Daric Jackson: I read about it on BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow's (et al.) blog and forwarded the link to my wife. I think my comment was something like "Why didn't they have cool stuff like this when we were kids?" She agreed completely; we're both science fiction fans. I'm pretty sure we forwarded it to Megan too, at the time. I found her original registration confirmation in my email archive. Cory's article posted on April 15, 2009, and Megan was signed up on April 19!
Megan is as much a fan of science fiction as we are, and it just sounded amazing. We wanted her to go because we'd have wanted to go when we were kids!
SJC: Megan, I understand you have attended SW several times? Why do you keep returning? Is each experience different?
MJ: I keep returning because the people there are amazing, and I know I wouldn't meet people like this anywhere else. Some of my closest friends have come [from] it, and as I describe the camp to people, I call it "the best experience of my life." It really has affected me greatly.
DJ: She just loves the program and seeing her friends too much. To put this in perspective, she has an app on the home screen of her phone that counts down the number of days until the next Shared Worlds. She's also aware of the cost of attending Shared Worlds and often uses that to put the cost of other things into perspective. . . such as "that computer would cost two Shared Worlds." There's no doubt she'll be back again this year.
SJC: Has SW affected Megan's approach to writing and studies?
MJ: I'm definitely more responsible, because I want to get into a good college to continue studying what Shared Worlds began to teach me.
DJ: I think it has really focused her goals for college. She hasn't completely made up her mind yet, but majoring in creative writing seems to be her front runner in her college plans. All in all, she seems to know that a creative position (be it writing books, writing scripts, a production role or whatever) is where she wants to be, career-wise.
SJC: How has your writing improved since SW?
MJ: Infinitely. I wrote more as a hobby before Shared Worlds, but the camp really made me realize how much I loved it, so I put much more work and care into creating each story.
SJC: What aspects of your life, Megan, outside of writing have benefited from your experiences at SW? What have/are you learning at SW that you would never learn in regular school, or on your own about writing? Daric, what have you witnessed her learning and bringing back from the camp?
MJ: My social life. I met tons of interesting people and walked away with so many stories to tell. I learned about a lot of different things that I really wouldn't have thought about being interested in, like cartography or law.
DJ: I see Megan writing for fun, not just for school assignments. She's also found a wonderful circle of friends spread across the country that she stays in touch with.
To Be of Use and the Craft of the Classroom
SJC: Very often you hear instructors say that they "don't teach the students, they teach me." What has been the most surprising instance of this at Shared Worlds?
JLCJ: These students continually surprise us with how much work they do and with how extraordinary that work is. Give a roomful of teenagers the space and freedom to create, and they will always exceed your expectations! It also helps if you don't get set in how you view a student. For example, the student who comes in shy or tentative and seems not to be contributing can easily by the third or fourth day be the vocal and boisterous one. The students change over the two weeks, and you need to change with them, and that teaches you something as well.
JV: In general, I think the world-class imaginations they show while world-building surprises me the most, no matter how I try to get used to it. It speaks to the idea that we're also providing a space for the next generation of creative people, no matter what field they go into. I also love that I can read a student's writing and learn something because they have a unique view of the world. But you also learn a lot by really listening to the questions they ask and never making assumptions about them. And then I can remember one stunning moment where a student turned in a story she was convinced wasn't very good and I'm reading it and realizing I could be experiencing the work of a young Joyce Carol Oates. That particular story taught me something about character point of view I'd not realized before.
AV: When we did the one-on-one meetings with the students I was impressed and surprised by how thoughtful and mature they were. These students had really given a lot of thought about what they want to do with their lives and how they can get there. They weren't just spouting off wistful dreams, like "I want to be a famous writer and make a lot of money." This makes me very hopeful for the future.
KK: I'm sure I took away as much as I gave: the energy and dedication of these young writers really stuck with me. The worlds they created were each as singular as the groups who made them, and all were tough—yet not unhopeful, and thriving in spite of ongoing difficulties; no sweet li'l utopias, no wish-fulfillment heroic or grim dystopian fantasies. I remember listening to the students defend their worlds in a full group session, as each of the three world-building groups did a warts-and-all presentation—it was an intense and funny and memorable session (obviously!). They took their work seriously and they had a lot of fun, which is an excellent preparation for any young writer—being creative for a living is hard, and they worked hard.
SJC: What is it that you get from Shared Worlds as teachers, and what is it you hope you give to your students?
JLCJ: I get to spend two weeks with four dozen really interesting teenagers, and I get to see them at their best. As a teacher, I get the satisfaction of knowing that we are doing right by them. I also get to make something with Jeff and Tim Schmitz, Christine and Christopher Dinkins, Joseph Spivey, and the faculty and assistants. How cool is that? We give our students a problem and the freedom and resources to solve it creatively. We nudge and guide and redirect every now and then but for the most part we put them in a room and let them loose with their imaginations. For some of our students it is the first time that they have been taken seriously as writers, and being taken seriously is invaluable for writers of any age, but especially for new writers.
JV: During a one-on-one consult, a student dropped the bomb in a casual way that what I'd just read was the first story they had ever written. The very first. That was very humbling, and made me realize the value of the camp, and understand the responsibility. The best thing an experienced writer can do for a beginning writer is to be of use. To answer questions honestly and correctly in a self-effacing way. To let them see the reality of being a writer, in a transparent way. Even a reading at a bookstore during the camp is a way of being of use. How you conduct yourself provides an example for the students. Sometimes, too, you are providing an example they don't want for themselves, for whatever reason, and that's fine. They are learning to be themselves, and you want to make sure you let them do that.
SJC: How is teaching SF writing different than non-genre writing? What aspects are important to grasp early on and that you instill to your students?
JLCJ: Most of the teaching I do at Shared Worlds is non-genre specific. I give presentations on collaboration, metaphor, character, plot, revision, stuff like that. I've taught writing in a lot of different venues—schools, colleges, churches, assisted living facilities, senior centers. And Shared Worlds is the only place where speculative fiction is the standard instead of mainstream or non-fiction. Our students love speculative fiction and we validate that, which isn't always the case in their schools. Ultimately, writing is writing, stories are stories. Tell the story you want to tell, but you must also take into consideration your audience's expectations and the genre's conventions. It's our job to guide our students toward balancing those often conflicting needs.
JV: Well, just as with a historical novelist, there are issues related to world-building and setting that are different. A lot of it isn't, except that a writer who views the world in surrealist or absurdist terms rather than trying to be realistic, whether writing contemporary fiction or fantasy, is coming at craft from a different perspective. The point at the camp is to provide each student with what they need for their writing, and we encourage them to be as fantastical or realistic as they like, and we will make sure to be of use for whatever their approach is, while providing feedback that allows them to improve. I do think that making them think about society, government, religion, and other aspects during the world-building phase points out that fantasy and SF should be just as complex as what you find in the real world, to at least some extent. That certain questions have to be asked.
AV: I don't really think there is that much difference. Good writing is good writing. You still need strong characters, an interesting setting and a good plot. The only difference may be that the worlds you create have to make some kind of sense. The reader will take that leap of faith with you but at a certain point you have to provide something concrete to hold onto. If you go too far, you will lose your audience. Your characters don't have to be human, but they still need to be compelling and creatures that the reader wants to know more about.
KK: I don't believe it is different. Writing is about creating a world on the page, whether that world is based in contemporary reality or the past or a far future or a time that cannot actually exist. (Hello, Wonderland!) And in that world are characters with whom the reader wants to spend time—if we as writers have done our work well. Whether those characters are human, non- or extra-human, animals, aliens, spirits, whatever—doesn't matter when you're working to make them real.
SJC: What makes teaching at Shared Worlds unique from, say, your average creative writing course, or workshop?
JLCJ: I spent the first decade and a half of my teaching career banging my head against a wall, frustrated that traditional education wasn't what I thought it should be. Shared Worlds gave me a chance to co-build a program that explored how teaching should be—interdisciplinary, creative, inquiry-based, student-centered, rigorous, fun. The students explore; the teachers guide. During the school year I teach in a college classroom and in a middle school Montessori classroom. In the former I have to give grades, in the latter I have to be at least aware of state standards. At Shared Worlds I can step back and watch as the students build something they care very, very deeply about. They answer to each other and to their shared vision.
JV: Basically, the world-building to begin with serves to build cohesive teams out of students who are often loners, as a side benefit, while also engaging their imagination in a brainstorming way that energizes them and allows them to play within certain constraints. To indulge their creativity in a certain way. Then they write their stories set in that world, and we find that it creates a sense of relaxation in many of them. Teens often feel self-conscious about writing and have trouble working their way into rough drafts, or completing rough drafts, but writing in a world they helped create but is not quite as personal as worlds solely from their own imaginations frees them up to write. It can still be personal, but because it's shared, they're not alone. So, we keep giving them constraint and freedom, freedom and constraint, in ways that allow them to hopefully be their most creative. I don't believe there's anything like it anywhere else.
AV: One of the main differences between Shared Worlds and other workshops and courses is that the students must work together to create their worlds. It is this cooperation that is the key to their success, not just for now but also in the future. As Jeff said, the loners are expected to contribute and in doing so, the group and the individual gains so much. In other workshops, although the writers may have a camaraderie and closeness to each other based on the mutual experience, there's nothing like building something special together.
KK: I'd compare it to the Clarion Workshop in some ways (especially as a Clarion alum myself), for the sense of shared community and camaraderie, both intensified by the inherently group-based effort of creating the worlds. Having those collaborators to rely on and to play with, in the best sense of flow, of creative play, is what's different about Shared Worlds.
 When VanderMeer announced this book deal on February 28, 2011, he wrote on his blog, Ecstatic Days, that "$1,000 of the advance will go to Clarion San Diego. In addition I will underwrite the Shared Worlds teen SF/F writing camp student antho[logy] for three years. And a percentage of all royalties from sales will be split equally between Clarion San Diego and Shared Worlds."