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Through the Wardrobe: Reflections on the Summer Workshop

By Daniel Schwabauer

We are getting ready to publish a “2015 Summer Workshop Journal”—a PDF collection of reflections by students and staff on their experience of the workshop. Thank you to all who submitted an entry!

But first: a reflection by Mr. S.:

Through-the-wardrobeEvery summer we host a writing conference for One Year Adventure Novel (OYAN) students. We call it the Summer Workshop, and it is my favorite week of the year. Teens sporting OYAN T-shirts travel from all over the U.S.—and the world—to the campus of MidAmerica Nazarene University to learn about storytelling and fiction. They come with Whovian costumes and LARP swords and hand-crafted notebooks and palettes of sharpies. They come with books and chocolate and nerd gadgets and pillows shaped like bacon. Sometimes they come with parents and younger siblings.

Always they come with expectations.

This last thing is truly beautiful, but it comes at a price.

I like to imagine, when I need a pick-me-up, that they want to hear me talk about character development and story arcs. Secretly, I know this is delusional. Yes, they want to learn more about writing, but that’s not the main reason they show up every summer.

No, they come because they believe something magical happens in Kansas for one week every June, and they want to partake of it. And they are right. Their confidence is born of experience. Magic has always happened there, so of course it will happen again. The OYAN workshop is where you go if you want to experience Narnia or Rivendell in the real world. It’s where the hobbits and elves and ents gather. It’s where Aslan sometimes moves.

But hey, no pressure, Mr. S. No pressure.

An Actual Wardrobe

Months before the conference, we decided to base the theme on C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. But the only inspiration I had originated with a quote from G.K. Chesterton. It is perhaps more important for this despairing and cynical generation of young writers than it was for Chesterton’s:

The fierce poet of the Middle Ages wrote, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” over the gates of the lower world. The emancipated poets of to-day have written it over the gates of this world. But if we are to understand the story which follows, we must erase that apocalyptic writing, if only for an hour. We must recreate the faith of our fathers, if only as an artistic atmosphere.

If, then, you are a pessimist, in reading this story, forego for a little the pleasures of pessimism. Dream for one mad moment that the grass is green. Unlearn that sinister learning that you think so clear; deny that deadly knowledge that you think you know. Surrender the very flower of your culture; give up the very jewel of your pride; abandon hopelessness, all ye who enter here.

But how to communicate this? I could read it, of course, but I felt it needed something else, some visual reminder or symbol, a metaphor for entering a place that is simultaneously joyful and dangerous.

Something like the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, maybe? A portal into another world. A commonplace thing that houses the most ancient of magic, something easily overlooked, something easily missed or misunderstood. Kind of like the average nerdy teen. Or the average nerdy writer or teacher or parent.

We are all portals to a place of beauty, after all. We have this treasure in jars of clay*, the treasure of boundless creativity and beauty and love, the source of creation, living inside of us. And yet most of our time is spent overlooking and missing and misunderstanding what we have because it looks like nothing more than a wooden cabinet—or the worn-out face of a middle-aged man.

Mr. S. and a student post in front of the wardrobe.

Visiting with a student after a session

So, put a wardrobe on stage. But it must be a Narnian wardrobe, with a carving of a lion on the door. It must be a symbol, not just a set-piece. Which meant physically building the sort of symbol I had in mind. Out of oak. Large enough to look good on stage. With a removable door in the back.

This would be difficult. Oak is expensive and hard to work with. I’d have to pre-drill every nail hole, make very precise cuts, and sand profusely. I’d have to order oak the right size since it isn’t carried at the local lumber yard. And carved lion heads?

That part would be easy. Some guy in Russia via the high-tech portal of eBay.

On Stage

Two months later it was complete. Flawed, of course, because I’m only an amateur carpenter and didn’t pay attention as a kid when my dad was trying to teach me the basic skills in our basement workshop. But it was finished, and the warts would surely not be visible even in the front row. And if they were, wasn’t that okay too? We have this treasure in jars of clay, not crystal chalices.

Tuesday, June 23, arrived, and I pushed the wardrobe onstage before the doors to the auditorium unlocked. My opening session was called “Through the Wardrobe.” I talked about fairy tales and the price of lost magic, the cost of growing up too much, of surrendering too much of one’s childish wonder. I talked about magic lost and found, the idea that as some things are stripped away from us we either embrace the opportunities such losses afford or we acquiesce to despair. There’s no courage in the latter. It’s easy to see the flaws in a flawed world. Only the brave embrace its beauty.

Under the lights, I couldn’t tell whether anything I said was making sense. Was it leaving a mark, or merely lulling them to sleep? But I had wisely saved the best for last: Chesterton’s words.

Maybe what I say doesn’t really matter, I thought afterwards. Maybe the only thing that matters is the presence of God and their love for each other. Maybe I could read the U.S. tax code to them and they’d still find a way through it into Narnia.

Which meant what? That the wardrobe was a waste of time and money? All that work for a few days of visual symbolism. It doesn’t even fit in our house. We have to store it in our studio warehouse next to the pallets of books and shelves of cardboard boxes.

Back in the Real World

I don’t have the space to talk about the speakers, the sessions, the LARP battle in Land Gym (I was assassinated by agents sent by Mrs. S.), the late-night Secret Playground excursion, the numerous private conversations that can only be described as moments of grace. Perhaps it is sufficient to say that this workshop was like every other OYAN workshop and unlike any of them. It was a week of profound love and surprising creativity. And a week later our only daughter married an OYANer, which was a different sort of portal for me.

I had to wait a few days after the end of the workshop before I could pick up the wardrobe. Scheduling conflicts, getting a truck capable of hauling it, wedding preparations, simple fatigue. I dropped off the wardrobe, turned out the lights in the warehouse and returned the borrowed truck, then sat in my car and marveled at the audacity of time. It moves differently in Narnia, and the workshop is always longer and shorter than a real week.

But I needed something, some act of closure, so I turned to Facebook. It too is a kind of portal, a safe haven for introverts wanting to connect with absent friends through a glass screen.

And there it was. The wardrobe. A doorway—both literal and figurative—plastered across the feeds of OYANers returning home to the mundane, the frightening, the unmagical.

Chesterton’s quote, spreading from post to post like a benevolent virus, and I breathed a little sigh of wonder:

Abandon hopelessness all who enter here.


Learn more about the Summer Workshop »

* 2 Cor. 4:7

This Post Has 5 Comments
  1. This post flooded back beautiful memories of SW ’15. As I sat here on my couch reading, I leaned in as I do whenever Mr. S speaks (or writes as the case may be.)
    I can only speak for myself, but I think that we really would listen if you read tax code or a phonebook! 🙂
    Thank you for your heart, Mr. S. We love you. <3

    (I didn't realize that you BUILT the wardrobe! You just get more awesome all the time! 😉

  2. I found this on my feed during a break from writing this morning, and it not only opened the gates to those wonderful memories from this year, but gave me the push I needed to continue writing. Thank you so much for all the work and imagination and joy you put into this, Mr. S. Without you, some of us would be lost before Lantern Waste.

  3. Wow. Thank you so much for this post, Mr. S. It was such a powerful reminder of the things we learned at the workshop.

    I say learned, but honestly, I think it wasn’t so much a learning as a feeling. These things were felt on a deep and personal level. Infused into the minds of those hungry for truth.

    This workshop was one of my favorites yet, and I’ll always remember it as the wardrobe I stepped through into my own Perilous Realm. Thank you.

  4. Wow. This post was wonderful. <3
    The theme for this year's SW met me right where I was in life and as always it was so wonderful.
    Thank you.
    I love hearing/reading what you have to say.
    You sparked the fire that OYAN seems to spark inside me to share my story.
    You are a blessing and an inspiration to me.
    Thank you so much, Mr. S!

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