ESSAY- Write on: Who do they think they are?

"Who do think you are?" That's the snide little voice that writers hear when we sit down to work, our pens hovering over paper, our fingers poised above keyboards. Who cares what we have to say?

Okay, maybe I'm the only one who hears that voice, but I don't think I'm alone in this. In fact, it's whispering in my left ear as I type the words you're reading now. No one's around, so I just muttered, "Shut up! Leave me alone!"

You're right: I need counseling. (A shrink specializing in counseling writers could make a fortune, if only writers could afford such a luxury.) I just know that I'd have truckloads of confidence today if I'd had some serious encouragement and training in my tender years.

When I was a kid, one of my great pleasures was curling up inside a box with a flashlight and a Nancy Drew mystery novel. (Hmm... come to think of it, maybe I should start saving up for those counseling sessions.) Near the end of fourth grade, having read maybe a dozen of these stories, I figured I could write one, too. I took a few sheets of lined paper home from school, sharpened a pencil and came up with page one of my own mystery novel.

One night while my parents and I were lingering at the dinner table, I showed them my opus. Dad read it carefully, taking slow drags on his after-dinner cigarette, then asked whether I had copied it out of one of my Nancy Drew books.

Now that I'm older and wiser, and have hacked my own way through the parenthood thicket, I know that Dad meant that to be a compliment. At the time, I took it as an accusation of plagiarism. I retreated to my room, and decided that, since I had no discernable individual style, what would be the point of writing? The literary world already had Carolyn Keene– it didn't need me.

In high school, apart from completing assignments, and scribbling my boyfriends' names on my book covers– with "Mrs." tacked onto the front of the name– it never occurred to me to write anything. I would have been embarrassed to be caught writing. After all, who did I think I was, anyway? I'd never met anyone who had written a book. I assumed that writers were members of a superior race. Regular people, like me, shouldn't bother to pick up a pen.

The next time I dared to give in to the creative impulse I was in my late 20s. My husband and I co-wrote a play, which won a contest, and it was produced as part of a playwrights' festival. Spurred by that encouragement, I've been writing ever since.

Our three children inherited our penchant for writing. Lucky for them, they found out about the Young Writers Workshop at the University of Virginia when they were in high school. Waldo, Jackson, and Jill are all Workshop alumni.

The YWW is a program run by the Curry School of Education. High-school students blessed with the desire to write apply for a coveted space in one of their two- or three-week residential summer sessions. Talented kids from all over the country come to Charlottesville for this life-changing experience.

What a relief it must be for a kid to go from a school where his peers likely have little regard for anyone's writing ability to an environment in which this talent is appreciated, where, at last, the student writer is honored, and is immersed, for a few sweet weeks, in a world of ideas expressed as poetry, playwriting, fiction, creative non-fiction, and song.

According to Workshop Director Margo Figgins, "The most important thing that happens here is that students are taken absolutely seriously. Their work as writers becomes the focus of everybody's attention here."

Oh, how I wish a life-altering program like the Young Writers Workshop had been around when the beginning of a mystery novel was streaming from my pencil. I would have understood from that early age that being a writer was something even I could contemplate.

This summer, the folks at YWW are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the program. For a quarter-century, the Workshop has been giving kids the confidence to define themselves as writers, and to demonstrate their talent and creativity publicly.

I bet these Workshop alumni don't hear any nasty little voices in their heads saying, "Who do you think you are?" They already know.

Janis Jaquith can often be heard reading her essays on public radio stations.