It’s Saturday morning and four high school students are gathered around a table talking about literature.
They aren’t serving detention or earning extra credit.
Each week, these aspiring writers look forward to discussing the written word in a workshop created by the New South Story Lab, an organization that connects creative kids and teens with mentors who encourage their artistic aspirations.
“It’s kind of nice to be able to talk about this because you don’t get the opportunity some times,” says Kyle Mann, a 19-year-old Catholic High School senior. “It’s nice to have a designated time in my week to talk about writing and improve it.”
The group discusses two unconventional short stories — one composed of short vignettes told by a drug-addled young man, another told in a brisk conversational tone by a middle-aged woman. One writer shows; the other tells. Both stories work, and they talk about why.
“We talk about reading contemporary stuff … and not reading as readers, but reading as writers, which is a totally different skill and leads to totally different discussions,” says Nick Molbert, an LSU creative writing student who volunteers to co-teach the workshop.
These workshops force them to type and scrawl out paragraphs and become writers in ways their regular English classes do not, says Virginia Archer, executive director of the New South Story Lab.
“Getting your hands dirty in the actual craft is the most valuable experience,” she says.
Started last year, New South Story Lab aims to encourage young writers, filmmakers and visual artists.
“We want to be able to be sort of a matchmaker for students and mentors,” says Archer.
Archer, who is the development director for the Louisiana Fish and Wildlife Foundation and writes on the side, was always interested in the arts while growing up in Mississippi and north Louisiana. However, in school she had few opportunities.
“While it was a really great school, it didn’t have the creative opportunities I could have had as a young writer,” Archer says. “I didn’t start to get those experiences until I went to LSU. I feel like I missed out on a lot of years that I could have been challenged and exploring a lot.”
New South has teamed with the Baton Rouge Arts Council to lead two writing workshops in lower income areas, she says, and the organization is in the process of becoming a nonprofit.
They are looking for board members, Archer says, who are “passionate about working with youth and are excited to grow the arts and want to support arts education.”
For the first few months of its existence, New South has mostly focused on writing, but Archer did help one student create a short film.
Last summer, Estelle Eisherloh, a senior at St. Joseph’s Academy, decided she wanted to study film at Emerson College in Boston.
She had never written a script or shot a scene.
Eiserloh reached out to Archer, who contacted college students studying film, and Archer helped Eisherloh, 18, write a script.
The next week they shot the script — a short message about female empowerment — with the help of a few local women.
“I didn’t have any experience. I didn’t do it in high school, so I said, ‘Why not do this now?’” Eisherloh says. “It was so enlightening, which I think is New South’s mission, to enlighten young students on new types of arts that we’re not given on a regular basis.”
That’s one of Archer’s goals.
“I would love for our students to go into college with portfolios, already strong in their chosen area, and go to college to really polish those skills,” she says. “I think all too often we’re not figuring out what it is we really want to do until our college counselors get their hands on us.”
For the young writers’ meeting on Saturday mornings, belonging to a group of like-minded teens is exciting.
“I started writing when I was really young, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to because no one else was into it,” says Cassandra Nguyen, a 17-year-old St. Joseph’s Academy student.
“I always wanted a group to talk to about it,” the young writer said. “This is what I’ve been waiting for.”