Jeff VanderMeer on Teaching the Next Generation of SF/F Greats: “Shared Worlds”


SharedWorldsGroup1478For the past few summers I’ve been proud to help promote Shared Worlds, a unique summer camp for teenage writers and other creatives with an interest in science fiction and fantasy. Based at Wofford College in South Carolina, Shared Worlds brings students together with professional writers, artists and game designers for two weeks of learning, collaboration and fun. I first became involved with Shared Worlds via my friend, author and editor Jeff VanderMeer, who serves as the camp’s assistant director. I asked Jeff to tell us about this summer’s Shared Worlds experience.

Jeff VanderMeer:

Shared Worlds, which operates out of Wofford College in South Carolina, just finished its third year this summer. Director Jeremy Jones came up with the idea and then brought me in as assistant director to help make the dream a reality. What is Shared Worlds? It’s a unique teen writing camp for students interested in SF/Fantasy. Why is it unique? In that the first week the students split off into groups of ten and build their own SF or fantasy world with the help of Wofford faculty. This includes lectures on biology, politics, and other relevant subjects. Mind-blowing creations from this year’s camp included living islands, epic magical wastelands and space whales. In the second week, they write short stories in their worlds, which are then constructively critiqued by professional writers. This year’s guest writers included Michael Bishop, Holly Black, Nathan Ballingrud, Kathe Koja, Will Hindmarch, and Marly Youmans.

Koja said of participating in Shared Worlds, “My first and most lasting response was and is gratitude: if these are the people that are in charge of the future, as artists and as citizens, things are in much, much better shape than I had believed. The creativity and enthusiasm the students displayed was energizing and joyful to encounter, and I was just damn glad to be there; gratitude again.”

Because the students work in groups and individually, they learn many skills that are peripheral to writing but useful in any profession, and they get to work with their full and undivided attention on something they love. To give you an idea of how committed they are, out of 39 attendees 15 were returning for a second year, while some of them were now in their third year. (One student’s parents even helped another, new student with plane travel to the camp—that’s how strongly they felt about it.)

Among other emails from parents after the camp was one from Mary Hyndman who wrote that “Shared Worlds was truly an answer to prayer and both gave [our daughter] a taste of what it is to be accepted. It also gave her a void and hunger for what has been missing in her life and hopefully as healthy motivation for finding more of it …. at her high school.”

Much as we love the writing component of the camp, and feel it’s of use in helping encourage and create future SF/F writers, the fact that many of the students feel like they finally belong is often the most rewarding part of the experience for the instructors. And, of course, there’s that satisfaction from seeing the light dawn: Oh, I am a writer. I can be a writer.

These writers are also readers—voracious readers, and they’re not just devouring the books you might think. Some students were reading Frankenstein, others Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. These students were sophisticated in their tastes, and one of the best parts of the time I spent at Shared Worlds this year was reading with Kathe Koja in a bookstore and then seeing the kids all bonding over books. Not only bonding, but bringing great armfuls back to the dorms with them.

There’s also the support from the genre community, which has been great. Sponsors have included, with Wizards of the Coast coming up big this year to help us provide scholarship money to disadvantaged students. SF Signal has consistently run MindMelds related to the students’ work, as a research/advice aid. Free books and magazines were sent in this year from, among others, Tor, Firebird, First Second, Del Rey, Weird Tales, Wizards of the Coast, and Pyr. (And Bantam generously donated this blog space.)

Shared Worlds has grown exponentially and become so popular because we believe so strongly in the students, and they, in turn, reward us with the products of their amazing imaginations. To date, the camp has been spotlighted by the Guardian, the Washington Post book blog, and many others. Writers like Ursula K. LeGuin and China Mieville have contributed their talents to various promotions to benefit the camp. It’s definitely been a team effort.

Next year, the camp will be even bigger and need even more support—we’re absolutely committed to providing scholarships—and guests will include Minister Faust, Nnedi Okorafor, Ekaterina Sedia, Ann VanderMeer, and Will Hindmarch.

Next year, too, I will tell the students on day one that if they finish their stories by the deadline, I’ll dye my hair purple. I’m willing to bet all the stories are turned in on time.