Summer Writers Programs

It’s that time of the year when a lot of deadlines are coming up for applications to summer writers’ retreats, residencies, fellowships, workshops and conferences. I’ve had students ask about the Indiana University Writers’ Conference, which opens for early registration this month, and many of my colleagues are applying for residencies and workshops at excellent places like the Vermont Studio Center,  the New School Summer Writers Colony, the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, and endless others. Even beyond the problem of that ambivalent apostrophe (is it writers’writer’s, or simply writers?) these programs can pose a problem for writers who aren’t funded by grants, universities, or their families. If we saved all we spend on application fees, contest entry fees, reading fees, and so on, many of us could probably afford to pay rent thirteen months a year.

In 2010 I attended the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College, two fabulous weeks of workshops, readings and talks.  I had the opportunity to work with a couple of writers I deeply admire, and I made some great friends. I couldn’t have done it without the generous scholarship I received. Virginia Woolf’s famous assertion, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” is especially well taken when the former is necessary in spades to afford the former. (The A Room Of Her Own Foundation, an organization that took Woolf at her word, offers a writers retreat for women in New Mexico.)

The writers retreat can be very inspiring. It can wake up a writer who feels she is in a rut, and help to affirm her writerly identity. It can foster intellectual dialogue, and ignite lasting friendships. It can help fend off that ailment peculiar to writers, loneliness. It can be an adventure! There are retreats in the mountains, on lakes, and in cities, in Gambier and Saratoga Springs, in Greece and Spain. When space tourism really takes off, there’ll probably be a writers retreat on Mars. If the question is why to go, the answers are innumerable.

If the question is how, though, I’m not sure. Trolling the Internet the other day I found the site of an idyllic-looking retreat on the coast of Ireland, and was instantly swept into a sea of reveries (most of which involved walking barefoot on long rocky cliffs, salt spray on my face and wind in my hair, like some extra in The Lord of the Rings) before finding that it cost over seven thousand dollars. Not going to happen. I closed my browser. I rearranged the framed photos I keep on my desk: seagulls on a white rock in the ocean, a sunset over a lake I know. All this hoopla about writers retreats suddenly seemed like nothing more than an attractive distraction.

Not So Novel?

Cooling down after a run this weekend, I stopped by a local cafe to pick up coffee and the New York Times. On Sundays I often turn first to the crossword puzzle, to delay the inevitable slew of international and financial crises. Yes this week, rounding the corner, even the magazine pointed to crisis for me as a reader, writer, and editor. Garth Risk Hallberg’s riff “Why Write Novels at All?” asked me to consider questions I wasn’t prepared to answer, and definitely not sweaty, pre-caffeine, at 8 AM. At first, the question seemed silly–as a writer I write because I must. Because I believe in the power of words to help us understand and make sense of an inexplicable and yet beautiful world, because it is rent with pain that needs voicing and from which we can learn. I write because it is something I can offer–a mainstay, and a crafted one, amidst chaos.

Hallberg writes that, according to many contemporary novelists, the main purpose of fiction is to make us feel less alone. The article goes on to question the ways in which a novel can do so, namely David Foster Wallace’s take that “if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own” and Jonathan Franzen’s reasoning that “simply to be recognized…simply not to be misunderstood: these revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.” To me, however, both of these seem unsatisfying and to a certain extent, egotistical takes on the value of novel reading and writing. A blog or Facebook page is also a place to broadcast one’s emotions, and, conceivably, receive some sort of community or comfort, in the same virtual way that writing and reading can. This is predicated, of course, on the assumption that people care and want to hear about one’s life, which I’m not sure everyone does. Hallberg directs us to the distinction–a key one–between writing to feel less alone and writing because one wants a reader to feel less alone. And yet I wonder the impulse behind many modern novels.

If the purpose of the art is, according to Hallberg’s sources, “to delight and instruct.” And I think the best novels (or poems, or short stories) do. But if our purpose is to feel less alone, to write out of our solitary condition, delight and instruction for others may not be inevitable. In writing to feel less alone or to imagine the pain of others we may write ourselves into a whole new type of loneliness, a loneliness born of inattention to the power literature has to “both frame the question and affect the answer,” and to do so beyond the scope of our own concerns.

This is not to say that many novels do not or cannot delight us as entertainment, or instruct us as to the pain or joy of another. But is it enough to make a novel worthy of reading or writing, enough to make a novel a good piece of art? Or one that lasts? I don’t know that I can answer that question. Maybe it is not the nature of fiction to have the Great American Novel, or classics in the way that we used to. Maybe this means that books become classic to individuals, when characters and language sticks with us even when they are not widely read and lauded and in mass circulation. Personally, I don’t think I’m wiling to concede that easily. I think it is a worthy endeavor to try, with each piece to delight and/or instruct someone else, whoever that may be. Some of that pleasure and learning will inevitably find me as I’m writing. Or picking up the next great novel.

“Why Write Novels at All?” New York Times Magazine, 50-51. Sunday January 15 2012.

Paying it Forward


Image: OPL Teen Space

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how lucky I’ve been to have had some really incredible teachers, over the years. Their encouragement and enthusiasm and knowledge and example was invaluable to me as a young writer, and has continued to be invaluable. More and more, I realize that, while I may never be able to repay them for all the time and attention and faith they’ve given me, I can do my best to pay it forward.

For the past five summers, I’ve had the privilege of teaching at a workshop for high schoolers, and the students I’ve met there are intelligent, enthusiastic, eager to learn, and excited to be part of a writing community.

Do you know any young people who love to write? Below are some great opportunities to let them know about!

  • The Academy of American Poets website has some great resources for teens.
  • There are several really fantastic writing programs for teens, such as the Reynolds Young Writers Workshop at Denison University, and the Young Writers Workshop at Kenyon college.
  • New Pages’ Young Authors Guide has a comprehensive list of literary magazines that have contests and submission opportunities for children, teens, and young adults.
  • The Scholastic Arts Awards has several great opportunities for young artists to submit creative work.
  • Remember the beloved children’s poet/illustrator Shel Silverstein? Last year, Every Thing On It, a collection of previously unpublished poems and illustrations, was published posthumously by Silverstein’s family. This article has the scoop, as well as a touching audio recording of kids reading the poems in the collection.

Happy reading, writing, teaching, and learning!

2011 Fiction Prize Winner & Runners-Up


Announcing our winner of the 2011 Fiction Prize


Elise Winn

Davis, California

& Runners-Up:

“Eight, Nineteen, Twenty-Seven”

Natasha Sunderland

“Last Night with Cicely”

Kyle Winkler

Congratulations to our contest winner, Elise Winn, our runners-up, Natasha Sunderland and Kyle Winkler, and all our fantastic finalists. We’d also like to extend a huge thank you to our final judge, Kevin Brockmeier, and all of our contest entrants, for making our 2011 fiction contest a success!