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In Search of Help for Young Writers : 'Shakespeare' Has Words for Whittier City Council

February 18, 1988|MARY LOU FULTON | Times Staff Writer

WHITTIER — William Shakespeare strolled into the Whittier City Council chambers, smoothing his powder blue brocade tunic over navy blue polyester pants. He hurriedly secured a slightly off-center mustache and goatee, adjusted his black pancake hat and took a seat on the stage next to Mayor Gene Chandler.

Shakespeare, played by Whittier Union High School District Supt. Lee Eastwood, picked up his script and read a few lines from the Bard's works in response to questions from Chandler.

"For 400 years, students have looked to your writing as an example," Chandler said. "What advice would you give for their writing?"

"Be not too tame, but let your own discretion be your tutor," Eastwood replied, fumbling a few words as he delivered some Shakespearean advice for writers. "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action."

The purpose of the minute-long publicity stunt was to appeal for money for the district's Jessamyn West Young Writer's Conference. About 300 high school and junior high students from Whittier and Santa Fe Springs are to attend the March 19 workshop at Whittier College, and the district wants people to "adopt a young Shakespeare" by paying $20 to sponsor a writer.

This will be the fourth year of the conference named for West, a Whittier College graduate best known for her 1955 novel "The Friendly Persuasion." The workshop had been funded in the past by donations from public service groups and the family of West, who died in 1984 at the age of 82, said conference chairman Thelma Montgomery, principal of Santa Fe High School.

But this year, the public service groups had committed most of their money to earthquake relief efforts and the West family contributed $3,000 instead of $5,000 toward the $8,000 cost of the conference.

So the district, which cannot afford to pay for the conference, decided to seek help from individuals. In addition to financing the conference, Montgomery hopes the sponsorships will get more people interested in education.

"We send our (tax) money off and we're not connected," Montgomery said. "When someone puts their check out there for a kid, they become connected to education . . . and become a role model for the kids."

To attend the conference, each student in November submitted a writing sample in one of four categories: short story, poetry, personal essay or expository essay. A panel of Whittier College professors judge the entries, and winners have their works published in a book given to everyone who attends the conference. The students also receive a T-shirt and a book bag.

Before the winners are announced at an awards luncheon, the students attend morning workshops on science fiction, script writing, sports writing, novels and poetry. Among the 12 authors scheduled to participate are television script writer Richard Manning, who has written for "Fame" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and spy novelist Alex Albien.

Susan Volmer, 21, won two poetry writing awards at the conference when she was a senior at Pioneer High School in 1985. Volmer said recognition encouraged her to keep writing. She is now a junior majoring in English at Whittier College.

"It's especially helpful for people who don't think their writing is good but they do a lot of writing anyway," Volmer said. "It really boosts a person's confidence."

And for those whose work is not published in the book, Volmer said the professional writers who conduct the workshops offer valuable advice about developing writing styles and how to be published.

Anne Kiley, a Whittier College professor of English and organizer of the conference, said the gathering is a rare chance to recognize the academic accomplishments of young writers.

"They're used to a great deal of fuss being made about people in non-intellectual areas, particularly athletics," Kiley said. "But writing, for anybody who is going to college, is the most important single skill to have. It is not one that is glorified in conventional ways in the high school."

To sponsor a student, send a $20 check payable to Young Writers Conference to Santa Fe High School, 10400 Orr & Day Road, Santa Fe Springs, Calif. 90670.

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