Today, July 25, 2011, marked the first day of the Alice Hoffman Young Writers’ Retreat. Robert Linné and Ellen Hagan, the retreat’s main coordinators, met with graduate students at nine o’clock in the morning to discuss their hopes and expectations for the program. You can read about the goals of the program here. At ten o’clock, the nominated high school students arrived. Upon arrival, all participants received: Green Angel, one of Alice Hoffman’s bestselling novels, along with Suzanne Collins’ bestselling novel, The Hunger Games, and Images of America: the New York City Triangle Factory Fire. The group “broke the ice” with a short exercise. Index cards were passed out and students were told to write down a “great” question (e.g. “If your clothing defined you, what would you wear?” “What song accurately represents your life?” and “What is your fondest summer-memory?”). What ensued was what Ellen Hagan called “a cocktail party without the cocktails.” Retreat participants engaged one another, asking “great” questions and swapping cards. This went on for about fifteen minutes and was effective in dissolving group-tension and anxiety.
Alice Hoffman arrived before lunch with a gift: notepads for all retreat participants. She called the notepad an invaluable tool for writers, a way of recording thoughts and stories on the go. Alice Hoffman spoke a bit about herself and how, nearly dropping out of high school and entering college on a whim, she practically fell into the world of writing. Robert Linné noted that Ms. Hoffman was published at the age of twenty-one and that students needn’t put off their writing-careers any longer. The floor was opened to questions and students asked about Ms. Hoffman’s writing-process and the intimidating world of publishing. Notably, Alice Hoffman mentioned that she often outlines a story with a “basic plot” and then allows her characters to develop and act on their own. “At first, it feels like I’m moving around dead characters,” she said, “though they eventually develop minds of their own and act in unexpected ways.” Ms. Hoffman made a point of answering every question and then challenged the group with an exercise of her own.
Alice Hoffman’s writing exercise: list two truths and a lie. For example, one graduate student wrote: “My cousin claims to know the meaning of WTF—‘wow, that’s funny’—and tends to use it around the house.” “Yesterday, my little sister beat me at the knock-the-iron-bottles-off-of-the-table game.” and “Razzle-dazzle is my favorite word-combo.” Which of the three sentences was true mattered very little. For the most part, guessing at the truth provided amusement and a way for the audience to interact with the reader. More importantly, the students realized that most statements, so long as they are sufficiently detailed and intriguing, can play an important role in any story.
Before leaving, Alice Hoffman signed copies of Green Angel and briefly spoke with students. Her comments were encouraging and she urged all participants to continue writing.