Taking a Write Turn

MFA Student Heather Osial Organizes a New Student Writing Conference

by Ellen Weeren

Taking a Write Turn

How do you rally nearly 100 middle and high school students to eagerly come back to school on a chilly Saturday morning? Apparently, you offer a writing conference.

On November 16, 2019, Marstellar Middle School in Bristow, Virginia, hosted the first of what is hoped-to-become an annual writing conference for teens interested in becoming better writers. The Write Turns conference is the brainchild of current George Mason University MFA student Heather Osial, an English teacher at Marstellar. Kristy Gillespie, Marstellar’s librarian, helped Osial coordinate the event, and the Mason’s Creative Writing Program was one of the sponsors.

The conference started off with donuts and an engaging keynote speech by the 2014 Prince William County Poet Laureate Dr. Robert Scott, who took the young writers on a fantastical voyage through time and space by pairing unexpected literary icons in an exciting adventure that highlighted why he “loves to write.” Dr. Scott shared that he used to think of writing on mostly academic terms, but he’s since come to love how a pen (or computer keyboard) can become a mode of travel through uncharted lands and dimensions.

After Dr. Scott’s speech, the students set sail on their own journeys to workshops throughout the school, where they got to work in small groups with professional writers on a variety of topics: Character Development, World Building, Flash Fiction, Screenplay Writing, Showing versus Telling, and many more. In most of the workshops, students spent time creating, or at least beginning, their own stories. There were shouts of zombie apocalypses, tattooed farmers, and spaghetti-loving priests as the students filled the halls between workshops.

Each student had the opportunity to attend four different workshop sessions, with a break in between for lunch and refueling. Participants came from as far as an hour away to attend. Nine area high schools were represented, including Chantilly, Patriot, Hylton, Potomac, Brentsville, Jefferson, Oakcrest, Osbourn Park, and Colgan high schools. Nine middle schools had students in attendance, including Belville, Pennington, Bull Run, Lake Ridge, Graham Park, Benton, Saunders, Parkside, and the host middle school Marsteller.

Presenters included two alums of Mason’s MFA program—Michelle Orabona and Ellen Weeren, both MFA ’19— as well as Brendan Baggitt, Kristen Burnham, Jeni Chappelle, John Dutton, Erica Gravely, Melissa Koberlein,  Stuart Schadt, Rachel Strohman, and New York Times bestselling author, Lisa Maxwell. There was also a bonus class from literary agent and freelance editor Kaitlyn Johnson.

In addition to Mason’s Creative Writing Program, other sponsors for the event included Chick-Fil-A, Creative Brush Studio, The Bone, Harris Teeter, Safeway, Envision Social Media, and Double Dessert Press, the latter founded by Orabona who also serves as editor-in-chief.

Because of this generous sponsorship and the presenters’ donation of their time, participants were able to attend the conference for free.

Heather Osial and Kristy Gillespie are already making plans for next year’s conference. If you’d like to help out, please contact Heather at osialhl@pwcs.edu.