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Fair Winds & Following Seas – A Summer Workshop Reflection

oyan-blog-sw-reflections-pinterestBy Daniel Schwabauer

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.

This Post Has 12 Comments
  1. I have attended five of the OYAN workshops with my children and each one is better than the last.

    As a parent, I attend the workshop sessions so I can provide better feedback to my writer children. But there is always something that I hear that is intended just for me.

    Dan, one year I heard you pose these questions: If only one person is changed by what you write, is it worth it? What if that person is you?
    I’m sure you asked the same thing the year prior, but in 2014, I heard God saying that I needed to write, too.

    This year, I heard the same reminder from 3 different people: Jesus gave just two rules for his church – love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.
    I needed that reminder.

    What is my Favorite thing about the summer workshop? The glow on my children’s faces when they are spending time with their favorite people – learning, laughing, crying, dancing – sword-fighting, too. Best family vacation ever.

    1. So glad you not only come every year but actually enjoy it! I am honored and amazed that families come to the SW as a family vacation — though in truth it IS my favorite week of the year. 🙂 Thanks, Kristine!

  2. I think my favorite part is just what you said: feeling safe enough to take off my mask. To say what I really think, to be able to hear other people’s honesty. That’s priceless (okay, so it’s worth the $1100 I spent to get there this year).

    1. I suppose it feels priceless because it’s rare. And I’m really glad you could come, Garrett.

  3. YES. Masks are one of the things I’ve encountered in my own life, and I’ve thought a lot about them, why I wear them, when I should let them down. I don’t have the answers yet. I’m still working on that subplot.

    Living in New Zealand, I have a significant obstacle to going to the OYAN Summer Workshops—although every time I’ve heard about them I’ve wanted to go. One day, I hope.

  4. SW is amazing. I count several OYANers as best friends, even though we only see each other once a year. The whole idea about masks is so true. I feel I can be more myself at SW then I can other places, especially as an introvert.
    SW 216 seemed…different, in a good way. It seemed sweeter and the students seemed closer. It felt even more like a family this year. It was really hard to leave and come back to regular life.

  5. Masks, yes. SW was amazing. I really felt like I was accepted for who I was /behind/ the mask. And I felt safe enough to remove mine. It’s family.

  6. The moms. My fav. part of the SW, I mean. And I’m slowly removing the mask. This summer was a real retreat for me and I’m glad I made the investment with my daughter, Mary. I think this was her 4th workshop. Every year, including this, she says, “I’m going next year!” without hesitation. I’m feeling the same way. Great time!

  7. I now realize that no matter how much I am real and attempt to be myself, I still put on a mask whenever I deal with strangers, friends, and even family. Right now on the edge of Kentucky and far from home, even though I know those around me fairly well (given that I met them only 28 days ago) I still am not completely myself with them. And I’m reminded that the OYAN SW let me be myself more than almost anywhere else I’ve ever been. Thanks to all those who make the workshop what it is. I have been blessed by God to touch it.

  8. I thought beforehand that I wouldn’t cry at the end of the Summer Workshop, because I didn’t know anyone in person ahead of time, but I was wrong. It didn’t matter how short I’d known the people for, it only mattered that I knew them. At the end, while we were packing up, I cried. I just sat and cried. Everything was just so amazing. All the people, everything you were talking about, the ending with the lights. At the beginning, I didn’t know anyone and I clung to mom and dad. But they left the campus and basically left me to mingle and find my own way. It kind of startled me that they would leave me with strangers, but at the end I didn’t feel that way. Everyone felt like family. And it was because something you said about seeing past the mask, and feeling safe to take it off. When I did, I realized how reliving it was. And how many friends I could make. All in all, the Summer Workshop was AMAZING–I’m totally coming back next year!

  9. I’m so encouraged by everyone’s comments [and your article, of course, Mr. S]. I’ve never been to SW yet, but I hope to make it sometime. It sounds amazing!
    I’m trying to live without a mask, but it’s never easy. 🙂 Only God can make it possible.

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