An Introduction to the Shared Worlds Camp
For the next two weeks I will be posting material related to Shared Worlds, which is a creative writing and world-building camp that Jeff VanderMeer and I developed with a handful of my forward-thinking colleagues at Wofford College. The idea for the camp (as I explain below) grew out of a classroom experiment while I was teaching at a high school in Kentucky.
My goal for Booklifenow for the next few weeks – it’s hard to type with my fingers crossed, by the way – is also to post articles that are not related to Shared Worlds. I will finish up the Writing the West series, start a Writing and the Martial Arts series, and continue the Music and Writing series. But I do think the Shared Worlds material will be of general interest, too.
Meanwhile, for those of you who don’t know about Shared Worlds I recommend that you swing by our website. Also, below, Jeff asks me a few questions about the origin of Shared Worlds.
Jeff VanderMeer: What served as the spark for Shared Worlds? Do you remember when the idea hit you, and why?
Jeremy L. C. Jones: About eight or nine years ago a student handed me a novel set in a shared world. The student had to explain the concept of a shared world to me. Basically, he said, you have one setting and a lot of different writers. Something about that idea just really blew my mind.
The novel that student gave me was Homeland. The novel is written by R. A. Salvatore, but it is set in The Forgotten Realms, which was created by Ed Greenwood as a campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). I loved the novel—great characters, plenty of action, lots of heart.
And I was totally captivated by how the book was made.
It’s a novel written by one author. Set in a world created by another author. The setting, I thought, was designed for use in a role-playing game, but adapted to be used in a novel—in hundreds of novels. Turns out Greenwood had started creating the world when he was a kid, so it was a world created for use with fiction and later adapted for use in a game and then for fiction again. (Also, it’s important to note that Greenwood started working on The Forgotten Realms when he was the age of Shared Worlds students or younger.)
I very quickly became obsessed with the process of world-building and world-sharing.
Meanwhile, I started corresponding with novelists who have written in shared worlds, including Ed Greenwood who continues to be very supportive. Both R. A. Salvatore and Greg Keyes visited the school where I was teaching and I saw first-hand the positive influence their work had on students. Matt Forbeck and James Lowder were extremely generous with their time and advice. Christie Golden, Karen Traviss, Thomas M. Reid, and Lisa Smedman were also very helpful. These kind folks and many others sent essay length responses to my questions about how writing in shared worlds works and they helped me better understand the educational possibilities of shared worlds.
In time, I gathered together a bunch of students and we started trying to build a world together. That world didn’t really come together, but we learned a lot about the process, about the pitfalls of collaborative creativity.
Two things changed my pedagogical obsession and classroom experiments into what would become the Shared Worlds camp: my wife and I came to Wofford College and I met you [Jeff VanderMeer].
At Wofford, I met a lot of like-minded professors and an administration that was not only open to, but eager for some innovative programming. I wanted Shared Worlds to be an opportunity for students to go off for two weeks, without distractions, without homework, and to be able to focus on building worlds. I wanted them to have total immersion in the world-building and world-sharing process.
Jeff VanderMeer: How has it changed since inception, and were there false starts?
Jeremy L. C. Jones: Originally, I planned for there to be a lot more game design at Shared Worlds. Role-playing games (RPGs) are great teaching tools on a lot of levels. As Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball say in their excellent book Things We Think about Games, “Gameplay is based on choices and consequences.” Sound familiar? That’s life! Games, like a classroom—like the Shared Worlds camp—give us a safe place to make choices, to see what will happen, to experiment, to have fun, to exceed our expectations for ourselves and for others.
See, I’d played Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) when younger. I knew from experience that the game drew on my knowledge of a lot of the things I was learning in history, English, and Latin classes. By the time I was in the eighth grade I was writing my own RPG, set during the Vietnam War. I was doing a lot of reading and research, a lot of math, not because I had to, but because I wanted to.
D&D and most other RPGs are non-competitive and highly interactive versions of make-believe held together by rules and a collective desire to have lots and lots of fun. Playing an RPG together is a form collaborative storytelling, which I find very cool.
Alas, not everyone is interested in RPGs. We scaled back the amount of game-design at Shared Worlds in order to make room for more of the world-building and more of the creative writing. Students interested in games have plenty of opportunity to work with Will Hindmarch. And Will and I are always exploring new ways to tap into the educational potential of RPGs.
Jeff VanderMeer: What are some of the main benefits of the camp?
Jeremy L. C. Jones: Everyone has a creative impulse. We all have this drive to reach out, to share, to let other people in. Of course, we struggle with how to negotiate these impulses in a group without sacrificing ourselves and while remaining true to ourselves.
Some among us are better at creating—at reaching outward–than others. For instance, I get nervous being in a room with more than three other people in it. The idea of working with ten other people freaks me out a little. But I also know that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, that a certain amount of discomfort and personal risk can be invaluable in the creative process.
Collaborative creativity is hard work. It requires that participants use a wide range of skills in new ways. There’s a lot of negotiating, compromising, learning when to stand your ground or when to bend to consensus, stuff like that.
Collaboration works best—is the most pure—when everyone leaves his or her ego outside the woodshed. We bring our best selves, our least selfish, our most positive selves to the table. Or we should!
And whether a student from Shared Worlds goes on to be a writer or game designer or architect or doctor or whatever, she will have spent two intensive weeks working closely with a group of people, solving problems, communicating, and accomplishing something bigger than herself.
A couple of months ago, one of the classroom teachers, Christine Dinkins, who is a philosophy professor here at Wofford, received an e-mail from one of the who attended Shared Worlds 2008. The student, Kristine Wolbrink, was writing to thank Christine for writing a college recommendation letter. Kristine and Christine said it was okay to share it with you.
Shared Worlds is hands down one of the best experiences of my life. I’d known for a long time that I had an interest in doing collaborative creative work, so the idea of world-building really appealed to me. It turned out to be cooler than I could have imagined.
I walked away with a sense of confidence in my creative abilities for the first time and a renewed excitement in the creative process (and a group of new friends that, two years later, I still talk to and see with some frequency).
I used my experience at Wofford’s Shared Worlds in almost all of my college essays. I think that because it is a truly unique experience—one where success is determined by the teamwork and passion of those involved—I attribute a large amount of my success during the admissions process to Shared Worlds.
I knew going into [Shared Worlds] that I wanted to write for television and comic books one day, but I walked out thinking there was an actual chance that I could do that.
Pretty amazing stuff, isn’t it? By the way, Kristine will be heading off to the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University in California this fall. We’re all pretty darn proud of her.
Jeff VanderMeer: Why do you think the concept of “Shared Worlds” is so important?
Jeremy L. C. Jones: At the heart of Shared Worlds is the idea that learning is not just about acquiring knowledge. Learning is about what we do with what we know, and Shared Worlds challenges students to try to do new things, in new ways, in a new environment, all with a group of peers they’d just met at the beginning of camp.
Over the past 18 years or so, I’ve taught at a number of different schools, in a variety of programs and venues. Each teaching experience I pick up a few new tricks and I’ve acquired a none-too-short list of peeves and quirks.
As a special education teaching assistant, I saw that flexibility and creativity are crucial for both the teacher and the student. I learned to never, ever under-estimate what students are capable of—to put my faith in them and to give them the freedom to excel.
I was increasingly disturbed, as a high school English teacher, by the fact that my male students didn’t seem to read all that much and that my female students tended to defer to the boys during classroom discussions. We’ll have none of that at Shared Worlds!
Shared Worlds students love to read and write. They are enthusiastic about learning and doing. We encourage those enthusiasms and help students channel all that energy.
Versatility, flexibility, and adaptability, enthusiasm, all of these are crucial in life, not just the classroom.
Lastly, we share our world with others. We also shape our world by giving of ourselves, by contributing and taking responsibility for our contributions. If we really share our world, share the vision, share the work, share the responsibility, we can make a better world. What is a better world? I’m not sure. That’s sort of up to all of us, isn’t it?
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor. Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.