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Photo by Chris Smith
Bird Cox and Valley Haggard
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Photo by Chris Smith
Haggard leads writing workshops for adults as well.
The duo behind Richmond Young Writers moves into a new space.
In the upstairs art gallery at Chop Suey Books one May evening, heads hover above paper while pencils scribble six-word memoirs. When the egg timer buzzes, the students of Richmond Young Writers’ Stranger Than Fiction after-school class go around the table unselfconsciously sharing their words. Some are personal, some are strange, and all are a glimpse into the teenage mind. “Human emotions are like brain flavors,” 15-year-old Will Lord says. “Don’t throw your ukulele through space,” 16-year-old Shea Sanders says. “Silence is the key to winning,” says 14-year-old Aidan Henkel.
Professional writer Valley Haggard, who runs the writing workshops, classes and summer camp for kids with fellow writer Bird Cox, responds to each student’s recitation. Her reactions are genuine and affirming. There is no right or wrong in their classes, and the idea is not to have the assignments fit a standard. They don’t do grades, spelling or grammar. Punctuation is out the window. The goal is simply to capture the joy of writing.
The organization had been holding meetings at Chop Suey since Haggard started it in 2009, but after five years, the growing pains began. “We had talked about getting our own space many times,” Haggard says. “[But] looking into renting or being our own landlord was so overwhelming.” Upkeep was cost-prohibitive, so they shelved the idea.
In January, the stars started to align anyway. Chop Suey’s owner, Ward Tefft, approached Cox and Haggard about his idea for expansion into a vacant apartment next door, and he suggested a permanent location for RYW in his plan. “We’ve had a great partnership with Ward for a long time,” Haggard says. “Since the kids have been coming to Carytown for years anyway, it’s just a really natural move.”
In June, the organization officially changed locations. “Being in Carytown is ideal,” Cox says, and so is being connected to a bookstore. The kids roam the stacks looking for inspiration, go on scavenger hunts in the neighborhood and host readings at the Byrd Theatre across the street.
To pay for the new space, Haggard and Cox did what most people do these days when funding a creative passion — they crowd-funded. The goal of the Kickstarter campaign was $6,500. They reached it in two days, and the money continued to pour in. A month later, they closed the campaign with more than $12,000.
While it’s not surprising that the community would rally around them, Cox and Haggard were shocked at how quickly they met their goal and wished they had set the bar higher once they realized the potential and need for what they were doing. “Once we did the Kickstarter and it went so fast and so well, I got greedy,” Haggard jokes. “I started saying, ‘I want our own building,’ ‘I want a huge space,’ ‘I want multiple classrooms.’ But this felt like the next natural extension that made sense.”
RYW started as an outgrowth of the adult creative writing classes that Haggard was teaching around town at the Visual Arts Center, Chop Suey Books and Stir Crazy Café. The original plan was informal: Get a bunch of kids together, and Haggard would teach in someone’s attic. But then she thought of Chop Suey’s upstairs room. As Style Weekly’s former books editor, Haggard already had a working relationship with Tefft. “Ward is an amazing sharer,” she says. “He enables things to happen that otherwise I don’t know how and where they would.”
In 2009, the RYW summer camp was born. Haggard invited author friends to do guest workshops and established a web presence for the organization. “It was basically email, Facebook and word-of-mouth,” she says. “I had a wonderful first summer.”
Cox, who occasionally contributes to Richmond magazine, came on board two years later. She, too, had been running a creative writing organization called Giant Squid Ink, and held after-school writing classes at Studio Two Three, a print shop in the Fan.
Unwittingly, the pair was essentially doing the same thing at the same time. When a mutual friend suggested they meet, it was love at first sight over coffee at Ellwood Thompson’s. “We cried,” Cox says. “It made perfect sense to do a summer camp and add the after-school piece in the school year. It was like we were already running one organization.”
Cox and Haggard speak of their partnership as a union steeped in similar values and a vision harking back to the University of Virginia Young Writers Workshop, which they attended separately years before — Haggard as a counselor and Cox as a camper. Their experience in Charlottesville became the template for how they teach their classes now.
The goal is to treat kids like real writers with serious ideas, not like kids with a hobby. “There’s tremendous talent in Richmond in the young writer world; we have kids writing books and screenplays,” Haggard says. “We have kids who write better than we do,” Cox adds.
A Look Ahead
The new RYW headquarters is cozy and sunny. Cox and Haggard rent the back half of the shared Chop Suey Books space. They have their own separate entrance, a classroom, a bathroom and a kitchen. Haggard’s husband, Stan, led the build-out, and Cox had the vision for the décor theme—pseudoscience. “I’m interested in the idea of science for people who don’t know anything about science or care about the factual backing,” she says of the 500-square-foot space.
Summer camp is now in full swing, with Haggard and Cox teaching their usual weeklong, half-day sessions in addition to a new two-week workshop for high school students. There will be more classes in the fall. “I think our fall round will be the biggest one ever,” Cox says. “We do fall and spring after-school classes, and Valley teaches adults. We are also adding on a little more tutoring as a leg of RYW.”
The campaign funds will also help them build their staff. There are currently two other instructors, Julie Geen and Suzanne Reamy. Cox and Haggard are considering hiring a social media strategist and subleasing to writing teachers.
As much as this new space seems to be a dream fulfilled both professionally and personally for Cox and Haggard, it never stops being about the kids. “It’s so important because something sad that’s happening in the schools is that a lot of the fun is beaten out of writing through the SOLs,” Haggard says. “I’ve worked in some schools [where] it’s just been heartbreaking seeing how some of the teachers respond to the kids’ writing.”
Cox and Haggard have built a compassionate and exciting environment to revitalize writing, and they see the value in engaging kids when they’re young and showing them that writing can be fun. “I realize a large part of what we’re doing is simply allowing the kids to reflect [on] their lives and the experiences they are growing from,” Cox says. “For me as a writer when I was young, it was about knowing the world better [and] understanding my perspective on it. That is one of the things we are able to facilitate.”
And now they have more room for it.