CHESTERTOWN — Crazy, but fun.
That’s how James Hall, director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, described the fourth annual Cherry Tree Young Writers Conference. Run by the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College, the conference had a record number of students this year, in part due to several scholarship opportunities that allowed local students to attend.
Twenty-nine students attended this year’s conference, which was held July 17-20. The conference has been steadily growing since its first run in summer 2016; attendance has nearly doubled since then, according to Hall, who is also editor-in-chief of Cherry Tree, a national literary journal run by the Literary House Press.
”This year’s conference was really just bursting at the seams in all the ways I could imagine. It was our fullest and busiest one yet, but the talent and curiosity of our students was also at the highest level. I’m so proud of all they learned and how closely they bonded with each other over just four days,” said Lindsay Lusby, assistant director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and the managing editor for Cherry Tree.
Chestertown-based Dixon Valve and Coupling Co. fully funded the conference for four students, paying for room and board, meals and conference activities; the only thing not covered was transportation to and from the college campus. This is the second year the Dixon scholarships have been awarded.
Eligible students must be from high schools in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties. Applicants are chosen based on financial need and on the merit of the writing sample included with the application.
One of the Dixon scholarship recipients, Alex Raimond, is a Kent County High School graduate who is attending Washington College this fall.
“I had a fantastic time at Cherry Tree. The staff were lively and a lovely bunch to be around. The workshop instructors were insightful and inspiring as well. The other students were easy to get along with and just as inspiring at times,” Raimond said of their experience at the conference.
Another KCHS student, Dominick Gibson, attended the conference for the second year through the Dixon Valve scholarship.
“It made going there costless, and it felt cool being a part of the small group of people that were able to do just that,” Gibson said.
“I had so many opportunities to learn from the other people that were around me, get a feel of their style of writing, and see if I could get better in areas I was lacking. The classes were really fun too, and I’m normally not a person for learning, but with so little people it made being a part of the classroom a lot easier, I’d say. There wasn’t a day that went by that I wasn’t happy to share what I wrote, or learn according to what the professor had been saying. It’s like, the biggest thing to look forward to, for me, throughout the year,” Gibson said of the conference.
Two Next Generation Scholars students received scholarships to attend the conference through the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education. The goal of funding NGS opportunities is to prevent the “summer slide” students experience after being out of school for the summer months, said Aundra Anderson, NGS program coordinator for Kent County.
The conference itself has offered four general merit scholarships each year.
Most of the students who attended were from Maryland, although some came from the surrounding states of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, New Jersey and New York. “A bunch” of students hailed from Kent County specifically, Hall said.
The Cherry Tree Young Writers Conference stems from the Literary House’s literary journal of the same name. Launched in 2016 by then-director Jehanne Dubrow, the conference has “linked missions” with the journal.
CTYWC seeks to give budding writers a space to grow, “like a garden,” Hall said.
“The journal represents a community of voices and gives a space for the community to thrive,” Hall said. The conference was designed for “people who are interested in a mastery of craft.”
Each day of the conference began with writing time, followed by a literary discussion led by faculty in the English department or a craft panel. This year, professors Kimberly Andrews and Courtney Rydel led the literary discussions. The craft panels discussed aspects of the writing life and some of the issues young writers will face.
Students also participated in a letterpress printing demonstration in the print shop. They practiced printing a broadside of an excerpt from CTYWC faculty Julie Iromuanya’s novel “Mr. and Mrs. Doctor.”
The centerpiece of the conference activities are the daily workshops in poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Guest writers and professors are invited each year to lead them. This year’s faculty consisted of Matthew Olzmann, poetry; Julie Marie Wade, creative non-fiction; and Julie Iromuanya, fiction. Each are published authors and professors at MFA programs.
Hall said he loves the workshops and that the students get to learn from renowned authors that are dedicated to their craft.
This year, CTYWC invited 2018 Washington graduate Mallory Smith to help with the conference as a graduate fellow. Hall said she was an “invaluable” addition to the staff.
“The best idea we ever had was to invite her,” he said.
In the evenings, there were faculty readings where the workshop teachers and Lusby, managing editor of the Cherry Tree journal, read from their work. There were also open mic readings for the attendees to share what they had been working on during the conference.
“I remember being so in awe after every open mic session that I had to ask at least one person for the piece that they’d shared,” Raimond said.
Following the readings, each night there was a literary social activity, such as game night and literary trivia — one of the conference’s “hits,” according to Hall.
Hall said he is “pleased” with the way the conference has expanded over the past four years.
“We’ve worked hard to make it an inclusive space,” he said.
The conference was originally three days, but students gave feedback that another day would be beneficial. Hall said he wishes it could be longer, but “we’ve grown as much as we can right now.”
In the future, he said they hope to explore other avenues, such as introducing workshops in genre fiction and sailing on the Chester River on a writing excursion, although the most important thing is to keep the integrity of the conference’s mission.
“We still need to keep things literary; the emphasis is on craft and the power of language,” Hall said. “We’re opening up what it means to be a writer as a vocation.”
For Raimond, the conference proved to be beneficial.
“Before Cherry Tree I had been in a serious writing slump, unable to formulate ideas well or articulate my thoughts in a creative way, but now that camp has ended, I haven’t been able to put my pen down. The camp is rigorous and tiring, but every moment is totally worth it. I’d definitely recommend bringing your ‘A Game’ to anyone that wants to attend,” Raimond said.