In the age of email, Twitter, Google Docs and Slack, the humble pen and notebook might seem hopelessly obsolete. But for several weeks every summer, over 200 high school students from across the country and around the world converge in Gambier to rediscover the art of writing by hand.
At the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop, laptops are stowed away as rising high school juniors and seniors jot, scratch and scribble away with ink and paper, composing couplets in wood-paneled classrooms or drafting a short story under a shady tree. The budding authors and poets are free to write whatever, whenever, wherever they want — but, with rare exceptions, typing is verboten.
“There’s something about the slowness of composing longhand that makes you consider your words more carefully,” according to Andy Grace ’00, acting poetry editor at the Kenyon Review and one of the Review’s site directors. “You’re not cutting and pasting. If you’re going to move a paragraph, you have to rewrite it, and in the rewriting you’re automatically revising and making it better.”
“When you’re handwriting, there’s a different kind of connection between your brain and the content that’s coming out,” said Kirsten Ogden, a Young Writers instructor for the past 15 years. “It’s a tactile experience for the students, different from their electronics and social media and stuff like that. It slows down their thinking a little bit.”
Some Young Writers alumni go on to enroll at Kenyon after graduating high school, even coming back to help run the program. Noah Dversdall ’19, an English major from Beavercreek, Ohio, remained in Gambier after graduation to work as a Young Writers resident advisor. He’s always preferred to write poetry by hand.
“You don’t write your best poetry when you’re on your computer,” Dversdall said. “It just feels more analytical and colder — a lot less emotional or connected.”
By getting away from the endless revisions that a word processor facilitates and embracing the messy, freeform nature of an old-fashioned notebook, students also are able to focus more on the process of writing and less on the final result.
“The ethos of the program is that we focus on generating new work,” Grace said. Except for a couple of polished and typeset pieces selected for inclusion in an end-of-workshop printed anthology, students “don’t do a ton of revising.”
Getting half-formed ideas onto paper can benefit students even after they leave Gambier, Grace said. “They have something to go off of, as opposed to just the blinking cursor of the blank document.”
“We send the students home with a notebook full of starts,” said instructor and Kenyon Review book review editor Adam Clay. “If you had 30 Google Docs, you may never dive into those, but you can literally open it up in front of you and have the start.” To further explore the physical transference of words from brain to paper, Clay even has his students experiment with using their non-dominant hand to write — a frustratingly slow exercise. “You have all these thoughts you want to get down, but you have to really think about the act of writing,” he said.
Although the Young Writers are told about the handwriting policy before arriving in Gambier, a few are always surprised to find on their first day that the rule is actually enforced. Soon enough, however, “most people come around to it,” Dversdall said, since “getting away from screens and all the distractions is a really important part of the workshop.”
“Just being there in the workshop and having that atmosphere of everyone writing by hand, it’s part of the learning experience,” he continued. “You can hear the pens scribbling.”