Expect the Unexpected: The Wild and Wacky Challenges of Running TWC’s Summer Creative Writing Intensives

Expect the Unexpected: The Wild and Wacky Challenges of Running TWC’s Summer Creative Writing Intensives

by TWC Co-Director Michelle Cameron

We were understandably nervous as we planned our very first Summer Creative Writing Intensives. What if the teens were bored after the first hour? What if someone burst into tears at a critique? How would we manage those kids who dominate every conversation? And draw out those who don’t say a word?

But our worries were unfounded. The teens were jazzed about writing all day and loved meeting fellow passionate writers. Everyone was kind and supportive and having a blast. Just as we thought we could breathe a sigh of relief…

Working on the ant-free rug at MONDO


One of the teens screeched as she hitched her legs up, hugging her knees to make way for the tenacious little army crawling across the plush rugs where we were writing.

Ants. Hundreds of them. The kids scattered to the corners of the room. We ran to fetch MONDO’s landlady, Annette, who worked some magic with a dustbuster and a quick phone call to an exterminator to rid us of the pesky critters by the next day.

Expect the unexpected became a Summer Intensive mantra – because the problems that we planned for rarely occurred. Instead, during the decade of the Intensives, we found ourselves facing both minor hiccups and some nearly major catastrophes – and rose above them all thanks to the terrific, fast-thinking creativity of our staff, interns and teens.

Take our first couple of years at MONDO. In addition to the ants, our beautiful loft-like space wasn’t exactly ideal for multiple classes. A raucous poetry slam in one corner overlapped an intensive study of character creation in another. Laughter over comic scenes near the front of the space made it difficult to concentrate on the tragic scenes being shared at the other end of the room.

By Year Three, we’d outgrown MONDO, graduating to the campus at Drew University. In the academic quiet, as we spread out on rolling lawns dotted with shade-bearing trees, we thought we’d have room to relax just a bit.

Quiet, Please… We’re Writing!

We didn’t realize that summer was premium college tour season until one particularly LOUD tour guide startled us, class after class, as they walked through the halls of Brothers College and invited parents and prospective students to peer into our classrooms. They didn’t seem to understand that we needed just a little bit of quiet, no matter how we begged.

The Cellphone v. Mural Debacle

The cell phone swallowing mural

And then there was the day a student dropped a cell phone behind a 3D mural in the “Gathering Hall” where we meet through the weeks. It was a simple prank–one student teasing another by grabbing her phone–until he propped it high on the artwork and it slipped down behind the wall! We were terrified that we’d never get it out, or worse, that we might damage the mural in trying. But a Drew custodian came to the rescue with a pair of long-handled pincers.  Out came the phone, mural unharmed and crisis averted.

Is Everybody on the Ferry?

Naturally, we plan our field trips to make sure everyone is accounted for. We even came up with a writerly way to keep track: in their intern groups, each student contributes a word to a full sentence, so it is clear if a specific word/student is missing, repeating the sentences at every stage of the journey.

Our scariest adventure was to Ellis Island – taking attendance on the bus, off the bus; on the ferry, off the ferry–and don’t anyone even think about hopping off to see the Statue of Liberty! Despite our fears, everyone made it through a great literary day.  

Red Shirts

It was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where we had our closest call. We foolishly chose a very attractive deep red t-shirt for that summer. (Never again!) As Judy and I set out to find our various roaming groups, we realized that we couldn’t recognize our kids amid all the other patrons wearing that shade. But good communication and group texts kept everyone together until we were getting ready to leave and asked the intern groups to recite their sentences.  We don’t remember if it was a preposition or a verb, but there was a word missing.

Eventually the student wandered over nonchalantly from the ladies room. “Oh, were you worried about me?”

“Get on the bus, everyone, please!”

The Canva “map” that helped our online students navigate from class to class

COVID, Virtual Zoom-Rooms, and Hurricanes, Oh My!

But nothing could match the sheer madness of the pandemic. In March 2020, we’d moved all our weekly classes online, so by the summer, we were at least well-versed on Zoom. But creating a full online program that matched the personality of our in-person Intensives? How could we ever do that?

Leave it to the ingenuity of that summer’s interns – and especially to SCWI Coordinator, Rebecca Kilroy (who, by the way, proved herself early on by managing attendance at Ellis Island). Through some creative use of break-out rooms, online virtual tours, and comprehensive Canva “maps” to direct everyone to their classrooms, we thought we had pulled it off in spades. But just as we were patting ourselves on the backs, nature played us a cruel trick – Hurricane Isaias. My internet and power stayed on, but Judy’s and Rebecca’s failed. We had to shut down early that first day. And the next, while Judy powered up from her house using a generator, Rebecca became the true heroine of the hour, driving through downed wires and trees to reach my backyard where she set up at my picnic table, safely social-distanced, running the program seamlessly all day.

But Wait! There’s More!

Speaking of trees…. In 2021 we were back at Drew, running a hybrid program which created its own unique chaos. But we had things in hand until tree limbs started falling near where we were outside eating our socially distanced lunch. Drew’s maintenance crews had begun some unannounced pruning. When we ran for cover, we found access to our classrooms cordoned off.  We had to snake our way around the entire building until we reached safety.

The next day, our classrooms shook under the impact of jackhammers in the basement. Turns out that the building was due for renovation that would last for the duration of our time at Drew. Drew’s Events staff, headed by the indomitable Kristin Bruno, came to the rescue, moving us in just a couple of hours across campus to beautiful Seminary Hall.

What Adventures Will 2022 Bring?

Judy and I often point out that characters grow with every obstacle they face – and that’s certainly been true for us at the Intensives. And because we are creative writers, we turn every obstacle into an opportunity to create wild and wonderful characters and scenes on the page. 

While we’re not quite sure what 2022 will bring, we know to expect the unexpected. We also know that, with our fabulous instructors, interns and staff, that here at The Writers Circle, we can handle anything!

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