by Catherine Randall
M.F.A. Instructor of English, Volunteer State Community College
What began as a simple creative writing enrichment program for middle- and high-school students is now an expanding artistic enterprise. A Novel Idea was the bright concept of founder Kristen House over seven years ago. Her sole intention was to counteract the fear that traditional writing assessments elicit and replace that trepidation with confidence. ANI conducts month-long summer camps that guide students, grades 5–12, in writing a novel. Yes, it is an ambitious task to complete, but most participants do finish that rough draft by month’s end.
“It is a revolutionary way to teach writing. It gives students permission to write in a non-comparative environment,” current director Tama McCoy says. Within this accepting and encouraging atmosphere these new authors “blossom and fly.”
It isn’t that they do not have any formal instruction at all. On the contrary, the writers are taught all the elements of storytelling, researching, and mechanics, and they practice the steps in the writing process from brainstorming to rewriting. The key to the pedagogy that builds confident, secure writers is that ANI also teaches them how to, as McCoy explains, “eject those inner critics in order to be able to create.”
Rachel Hinchey, a Harpeth Hall rising 8th grader, concurs. “Before I came to camp at A Novel Idea, I was very insecure about my writing and myself. But I found the teachers and atmosphere to be so warm and authentic that I pushed myself to complete an entire novel.”
The sessions foster a greater tolerance to sitting still and working in a “high touch,” not a high-tech, way. Sharing their work with fellow classmates builds a sense of empathy and community, which is the cornerstone of this unique approach. The staff understands writing is difficult, but the ANI process helps participants discover that it is also satisfying. “Life is full of starts without finishes,” says McCoy. ANI is all about meeting the goal. The writers have until October 1 to put the final touches on the rewrites and get them back to ANI for publishing and online purchase. Students even design their own cover art.
To celebrate their success, the authors attend a Conferring Ceremony at Parnassus Books in December each year. To date 412 novelists have completed the program. Middle schooler Utsav Talati has written three novels with ANI.
This innovative curriculum is gaining momentum. Workshops are now being offered in Chattanooga and Atlanta with plans to expand on the West Coast. For those who want to keep their skills honed during the school year, ANI offers Pen & Paper Clubs. Eighth grader Wednesday Link participated last summer in a workshop and now spends Saturday mornings writing at Harding Academy.
ANI does offer some scholarships. A Novel Idea has secured 501(c)(3) non-profit status, which means they can now apply for grants to expand their scholarship awards.
Above all, these camps teach the mantra of a true writer’s key to success: “The more you write—the better you write.”
For more information, visit www.anovelideanashville.com.