The OYAN Summer Workshop always changes me. And every year I struggle for the words to explain how and why. It’s a conference for young writers, after all. And I’m part of the team that runs it. You’d think that grinding the sausage would ruin my appetite. Instead, it only makes me hungrier.
Family and friends who have seen photos of the workshop on Facebook always ask me how it went afterwards, and I appreciate their interest. But I stopped trying to explain it a few years ago. There is always too much to say, and I know my lengthy answers won’t hit the mark. So I settle for “Great!” and “Really amazing!” and “It’s my favorite week of the year!” All of which are true.
But those answers are a reflection of the problem.
This year Carrol and I were asked to explain the Summer Workshop at a house church we were visiting. And I realized, looking at that room full of unfamiliar faces, that my difficulty describing the workshop has always stemmed from the same thing.
We wear masks. Public and private and professional: masks for work and for school and for church. Masks for family. Masks for marriage. Masks for the mirror.
Acting ourselves is risky. The world is often indifferent, and sometimes hostile, to real originality. A mask offers protection. We don’t care too much if the mask is rejected because it isn’t real. And because it isn’t real, it’s safe.
But if we are always wearing masks, what are we giving the world? And if we never dare to be, what are others really loving? Those who never take off their masks are never truly appreciated.
It was Carrol loving the real me, the man behind the mask, that made me understand the price we pay for not being ourselves. Perhaps this is why fame seems to produce such heartache, why movie deals and mansions do not guarantee personal fulfillment. Perhaps it’s why so many marriages fail.
This is what I tried to explain in that house church living room: we all know what it’s like to wear masks. But do we know what it’s like to feel safe enough to remove them?
For me, this is what makes the OYAN summer workshop unique. For one week 200 young people come from all over the country and the world to share in each other’s individuality.
The OYAN community isn’t perfect. If it were perfect it wouldn’t be real. And I’m sure that some students go home each summer without fully experiencing this. For some, the masks won’t come off for another summer or two. But everyone feels it—the invitation to be yourself. To be valued for what’s behind the mask.
Some expressions are obvious and even noisy: the weird and wonderful costumes of a hundred fandoms (and sometimes fandoms of one), the LARP battles and Quidditch games on the lawn, the impromptu drum sessions and spontaneous fiddle music in the foyer of the Bell Center. (Is there anything more haunting, mysterious and heart-stabbing than a violin played well?)
Other expressions are more subtle. I listened to a partial reading of Tarzan, and Bailey’s commentary on Edgar Rice Burroughs was brilliant and hilarious. I watched dry lightning crackling against the night sky with a group of old-timers who were just enjoying the silence of friendship. I saw acts of appreciation for those suffering loss, gifts of kindness given to alleviate boredom, clothespins of joy fastened to the unsuspecting like little wooden remoras*.
I saw human crutches and improvisational critique groups and food shared unconditionally with the hungry or chocolate-challenged. Hundreds of unique expressions—and each of them sharing a single basic message: you matter. Who you are—who you really are—is important to me, even if no one else cares.
I think that’s why so many OYANers come back again and again.
I think that’s why they—we—call it home.
* A kind of fish, often called a suckerfish, that attaches itself to larger fish.
If you have attended a Summer Workshop, what was your favorite thing about the experience?
Daniel Schwabauer, MA, is the creator of The One Year Adventure Novel and Cover Story Writing creative writing courses. His professional work includes stage plays, radio scripts, short stories, newspaper columns, comic books and scripting for the PBS animated series Auto-B-Good. His young adult novels, Runt the Brave and Runt the Hunted, have received numerous awards, including the 2005 Ben Franklin Award for Best New Voice in Children’s Literature and the 2008 Eric Hoffer Award. His third book, The Curse of the Seer, released in the summer of 2015.