“When we were kids, people laughed at us when we said we wanted to be writers.”
Lynn Purtle understands the peculiar pain young writers often endure. For kids who are passionate about the craft of writing, growing up with a talent requiring solitary reflection and observation can be a heavy burden.
“Writers tend to be introverted,” she explained. “They’re not all shy, necessarily. Some of them are really outgoing, but they’re different. Creative people are different.”
Young writers often ache for a space in which their words can be heard and honed, and from July 9 to the 13, Western Connecticut State University’s Midtown Campus in Danbury was transformed into that space. At the fourth annual WestConn Young Writers Conference, eager, up-and-coming writers had a chance to refine their craft through collaboration, workshopping, and guidance from published, professional writers.
Purtle, who has taught writing and composition at WCSU for over thirty years, coordinates the event each year. Since WCSU’s first Young Writers Conference in 2008, Purtle has acted as the event’s woman in charge, directing the program and overseeing all staff involved.
“I’m the committee, I’m the director, I’m everything,” Purtle said with a laugh during a phone interview.
Daunting as the job sounds, a program of this type is familiar territory for Purtle, who has an accomplished record of fostering academic excellence in students before they reach college age. Before taking the helm of the Young Writer’s Conference, she was involved in the Connecticut State University System’s Building a Bridge to Improve Student Success program, which seeks to improve core subject readiness for high school students in the Danbury and Bethel school systems.
The resounding success of the Building a Bridge program helped to inspire the creation of the Young Writer’s Conference, which Purtle developed while serving on a committee looking to encourage and support young writers. After doing some research on similar youth-oriented programs at WestConn and other universities, the Young Writers Conference began to take form.
To keep her conference engaging year after year, Purtle is sure to get feedback from attendees on what they thought about the year’s programs, as well as what they would like to see offered the following year. This year offered workshops in subjects ranging from online publications and sports journalism to video game and sci-fi writing, and still Purtle constantly looks for fresher, newer territory.
She is also looking for new strategies for reaching out to prospective attendees. Though her advertising budget is meager, she hopes to maximize it by utilizing social media and other digital sources to generate publicity.
WestConn’s campus was bustling with activity this year, but Purtle still hopes to reach more kids and achieve a higher attendance at next year’s conference. There is no requisite skill level a child must meet in order to attend the conference; all they need is a passion for writing.
With all that adolescent passion in one space, however, one might picture managing the participants to be more like herding cats than directing an academic conference. Not true, says Purtle. Though she has a staff in place to ensure the children are looked after and in the correct place at all times, the people doing the best job keeping the children focused are the children themselves.
“They’re a peer group. They get each other. They understand,” Purtle said.
And for young writers, having a peer group that shares their interests is especially crucial. From these seeds of solidarity friendships commonly blossom over the course of the conference, and many are maintained long after the kids part ways. For these young people, this conference is more than a meeting of the minds.
“In the second year of the program, one of the kids came up to me and said, ‘Mrs. Purtle, this is the first time in my life that I’ve been with people who are just like me,” Purtle recalled.
And when like-minded artists gather, magic happens. One final reading is held on the last day of the conference – an opportunity for kids to demonstrate their progress to friends, family, and one another, one final time. Every writer is also given the chance to have a work published in a journal.
While the workload can be nearly overwhelming at times, Purtle says that seeing children’s lives enriched through her hundreds of hours of labor makes it all worthwhile.
“Every year on the day before it starts, I say to everyone who will listen, ‘I’m never doing this again,’ because it’s so much work,” Purtle said, laughing. “But then I start going to the workshops, watching the kids. These kids come up with the most amazing short stories and plays and screenplays and poems. They’re very young, but they’re so talented.
“And then I remember why I’m doing it,” she said. “I say, ‘Okay, one more year.’”