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The Mojave School returns, plans to expand

The Mojave School, a completely free, week-long creative writing workshop for young people age 13 to 18, returns to Pahrump for its annual session July 16-20 and is open for registration.

Held at the Nye Communities Coalition on weekday mornings, the workshop focuses on the power of the storytelling experience as a whole, says its co-founder, Claire Vaye Watkins.

Watkins and her husband Derek Palacio are both nationally recognized authors whose achievements include a New York Times Best Book for Palacio’s “The Mortifications” in 2016, and the Story Prize for Watkins’ “Battleborn” in 2012. They created the Mojave School in 2012 and fund it with their own earnings as working writers and from teaching creative writing as university professors. It includes free transportation for students in need.

The students will do a variety of writing exercises and a lot of reading and will share and critique each others’ work, said Watkins. “It’s very organic. We do have a syllabus but we let it be more of a community endeavor. We do things like focus on the pleasure of reading a beautiful sentence and the power of creating a person just using words.”

The Mojave School begins in the classroom but also emphasizes bringing teens out into the world to experience other venues, said Watkins. Last year the class took a field trip to the China Ranch date farm in Tecopa to talk about the natural environment and writing about the outdoors.

Watkins said the workshop benefits aren’t limited to the writing itself, but also include a sense of camaraderie and finding kindred spirits. “Students sometimes already know each other but didn’t realize they shared this in common. They thought they were the only one doing this,” said Watkins, but in the Mojave School, “they discover there are others just like them.”

Watkins said many of her students are prolific writers, some have produced more work than she has, and some have already been published. Others, she added, have very little experience but a driving urge for expression.

“These kids are excellent storytellers,” said Watkins. “They have a real freshness to their language that I don’t often hear in everyday life.” She said she looks forward to the workshops that usually include 12 to 15 students every year and finds that the classes are as inspiring for her as for the students.

At the end of the class, the young writers hold an evening reading to which their friends and family are invited. Last year’s reading took place at the Writer’s Block bookstore in Las Vegas.

“Sometimes what comes out at those readings is surprising,” said Watkins. “We don’t censor them, we encourage them to express themselves.”

The registration deadline for the 2018 session of the Mojave School is July 1. Students are encouraged to sign up by emailing their name, age and contact information to mojaveschool@gmail.com. Students who have attended in previous years are welcome to return.

Watkins grew up in the desert, as a young child in Tecopa, and as a teenager living in Pahrump and graduating from Pahrump Valley High School. For the last several years she has been living, writing and teaching in cities far from her western roots but this fall, Watkins said, she and Palacio have accepted writing fellowships at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas and will be living there for the fall semester.

This, she said, is exciting for many reasons but most relevant to the Mojave School is the announcement that the school will be expanding its reach in 2019. “We kept hearing over and over from adults that they wished there were something like this for them. It’s not just teenagers who have an impulse to tell their stories, it’s everybody and we could meet that need.”

In 2019, said Watkins, the Mojave School will hold a simultaneous “generative creative writing workshop in and of the Mojave Desert” for adults in the town of Shoshone June 29-July 7, 2019.

Many of the details of the adult workshops are still a work in progress, Watkins said, however, that she hopes to bring in well-known writers who are passionate about the desert. The focus will be rooted in a sense of place and of being part of a community.

Like the teen workshop, the adult workshop will be free for locals, but Watkins also plans to attract a larger audience and bring visitors in for the conference with a workshop fee to help offset the cost.

At its heart, the Mojave School, both the teen workshop and the proposed adult desert writing festival, is about making a contribution. “There is a lot of need in the world and this is what I can do,” Watkins said. “Certain parts of America are afraid of each other, but the impulse to tell stories is not just on one side or the other of the political spectrum.” Through stories, Watkins said, people may come to understand those they perceived as enemies. “It’s healthy for a democracy and it’s healing.”

Contact Claire Watkins at mojaveschool@gmail.com

Robin Flinchum is a freelance writer and editor living in Tecopa, California. Her book, “Red Light Women of Death Valley,” was published last year.

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