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Bound for Story

Maryland Voices Lets High School Students Tell Their Lived Experiences

Christopher Myers
LEARNING EXPERIENCE: Rus Vanwestervelt may have started Maryland Voices, but students like Carla Lake edit, publish, and promote it each year.

By Laura Laing | Posted 10/10/2007

"New Beginnings," Volume 5

It's not that Rus VanWestervelt has anything against stories about dying pets or making the winning soccer goal. But as the founder and responsible adult of Maryland Voices, a yearly anthology of creative nonfiction written by high-school students around the state, he's read many of them over the years.

An English teacher at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, VanWestervelt isn't complaining. He recognizes that students are following the No. 1 standard of creative nonfiction: Write what you know and what you feel strongly about.

"One of the reasons we have this publication is because these kids have something to say," he says. Do they ever. "New Beginnings," Volume 5, out this past summer, includes a dramatic tale of a tornado, a brief story of a sister facing her young brother's liver failure, and a memory of elementary school in Singapore.

"One of the reasons that we're so successful is that [the students] want to tell their story," VanWestervelt says. "It's a motivation for them."

But Maryland Voices isn't just about the writing. Completely student run, the publication is edited, produced, and distributed by Maryland teens. The majority of the work takes place at Centennial, but student editors and writers from around the state contribute, and the project is growing every year.

"Basically the only thing I did [for Volume 5] was send it electronically and give the technical specifications to the printer," VanWestervelt says. The editors are working on obtaining for the self-published book an ISBN (international standard book number), which allows for easier distribution. VanWestervelt and his students are also planning local readings at libraries and other venues.

The idea was born from tragedy--the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. "Right after the attacks, I realized that many people were writing about what happened," VanWestervelt says. "I'm not talking about writers who are publishing works every now and then. I'm talking about mothers, farmers, children, lawyers--everybody wanted to write down their reaction, their reflection, or their experience."

That's what creative nonfiction is, according to VanWestervelt--a dramatic record of an event from the writer's perspective. Having just begun a master's program in creative nonfiction at Goucher College, VanWestervelt was naturally drawn to this phenomenon and helped develop a group called the 9/11 Project, which accepted more than 500 writing submissions from around the state. The best were published in a book called September Eleven: Maryland Voices, which sold out immediately.

One year later, he brought his idea to Centennial. Now in its sixth volume, Maryland Voices receives nearly 300 submissions from local high-school students, including those in Howard, Baltimore, Montgomery, and Anne Arundel counties, as well as the Eastern Shore and Baltimore City. "Ideally, we'd like to have two pieces from each county in the state," VanWestervelt says. Student ambassadors from area high schools help promote the project in their own schools and contribute to the editing process.

For Kristen McManus at Centennial High School, the project is a teaching tool. "I was trying to find another outlet for writing," the 10th-grade English teacher says. "We do a lot of analytical objective writing, but I wanted them to have another outlet for creative writing. Maryland Voices provided a venue for that." For six to eight weeks each fall, McManus' students write, critique, and edit their stories before submitting them for publication.

"The students understand the writing process and they understand the revision process," she says. "They learn how to accept constructive criticism."

But the writing is only part of the story; students run the entire editorial and production processes as well. First a production manager logs the submissions into a tracking system, assigning a number to each and deleting all personal information. A "blind editing process" includes three readers, who go through the manuscripts and give feedback. Finally, the editors read all of the recommendations and determine which submissions are accepted, declined, or held for possible inclusion. The book contains only 50 stories, so the competition is tough.

Each submission is evaluated on truthfulness, timeliness, timelessness, and reflection. "That is really what makes a good story a great story," notes current Maryland Voices editor and past co-editor, Carla Lake, a senior at Centennial. "When we're editing the stories, after a while you just know if the story is real or not."

These students are committed to publishing the facts. "My students were so adamant that every single word was truthful," VanWestervelt says. "They weren't going to let anything through the gates that wasn't the truth." He's taught them that editors and writers have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of creative nonfiction by avoiding embarrassments like James Frey's pseudo-memoir A Million Little Pieces.

Students also create the layout and design, and this fall the teens are getting a very important lesson in distributing the books, which sell for $10 each. Since the book is self-published, there's no big company setting up promotional events or getting copies on bookstore shelves.

"That's what's so beautiful about this publication," VanWestervelt says. "It's from the beginning to the very end that [the students] see every part of the process." The students "change hats" every day, he says, taking on responsibilities of fundraising, marketing, editing, and distribution.

"I never really knew what went into making a book before I got involved with Maryland Voices," Lake says. "It actually is a bit easier than I thought."

Easy or not, the entire process takes a full school year. Submissions are accepted year-round, though the editors have not finalized this year's theme. Sometime in March, editors will stop accepting manuscripts for the upcoming volume and settle into the time-consuming process of selecting stories. Meanwhile, student designers will hammer out a design. By the beginning of the summer, the book will be ready to hit the local market.

Students who are published in Maryland Voices are not necessarily advanced or gifted, VanWestervelt notes. And not many of them even consider a career in writing or publishing as a result of their experience. Lake is thinking about studying veterinary medicine after she graduates in the spring. Last year's co-editor Richard Blissett is majoring in bioinformatics (a combination of computer science and biology) at UMBC.

"Creative nonfiction is really kind of liberating," Lake says. "I'd never really been excited about writing. I was just good at it."

Blissett started as a regional editor and then became co-editor. He joined the project soon after moving to Ellicott City and enrolling at Centennial; Maryland Voices gave him confidence and a sense of belonging. "As the regional editor, you're just mostly editing and researching," he says. "It's sort of like being a chocolate chip on the cookie. You know that you're an important part of making the cookie sweet. When I was co-editor with Carla [Lake] the next year, it was like being the baker of the chocolate-chip cookie."

For McManus, Maryland Voices is special because it's published. "It's nice when the students are writing for students rather than just for me," she says. "It gives them a little bit more ownership of the project."

VanWestervelt notes that publication parallels the students' natural progression from self-centered to other-centered. Selfishness motivates writing, he says. Publication motivates selflessness. "Once the writer decides to write for an audience, he has to give up some of the reason he's writing for himself," he says. "The reader has to be able to say, `It's worth my time to read this.' And I think you have to make this promise to the reader early on" in the story. That transition may be invisible to students like Lake and Blissett, but it's clear that their participation had impact."

"Being a part of Maryland Voices is one of the most important and significant experiences in my life so far," Blissett says. "It was just a really, really amazing experience."

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