NYS Summer Writers Institute: 5 More Lessons from Skidmore

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This second, and final, week of the New York State Summer Writers Institute brings with it a new teacher for my Advanced Fiction course, Paul Harding (Pulitzer Prize winner for  Tinkers), and an ongoing full schedule of visiting authors to share their work in readings and craft talks.  As my time at Skidmore draws to a close, here are 5 more lessons I will take with me at the end of the week, along with duffel bags full of mementos for my family and many, many signed books to read for the first time (or enjoy again). Although I will return home soon, I find great comfort in knowing, as is true with most formative experiences, that NYSSWI will never really leave me.

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  1. Do the student reading organized for Sunday afternoon.

    So many of the student writers at Skidmore were nervous or hesitant to put their names down for the reading. For those of us who did, I can tell you that every author I spoke to said they were glad they went for it. Sure, you get nervous before you have to go–I teach in front of 200 undergraduates throughout the year, and it surprised me how raucous the butterflies in my stomach got before my turn–but the opportunity to share your work aloud with writers you’ve befriended over the last week is special, to say the least. For days following, I saw fellow writers approach each other to comment on the pieces shared, on exquisite lines spoken aloud, and to ask each other about their inspirations for their work. In other words, the student reading helped bring us closer together as a writing community. An added bonus, Bob and Peg Boyers attended the student readings and later spoke with several students to comment on their pieces. Totally worth the butterflies.

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With Paul Harding after class. . .

2. Having tandem teachers is beneficial to your growth as a writers.

We were all sad to say goodbye to Amy Hempel at the end of our first week at Skidmore. It felt like, just as we were getting comfortable with each other, our classes with her were done. Two classes into Paul Harding’s portion of the workshop, though, the wisdom behind having two instructors for the workshop is apparent to me. Amy and Paul offer their unique styles to molding developing writers and, by the end of the two weeks, a student has a wealth of diverse techniques and recommendations from both writers to process as they proceed with their own writing career. To offer just a few pieces of wisdom from these accomplished writers:

Avoid vacuums in your writing, because the reader will fill it in for themselves. (Paul)

Read Mary Robison. (Amy)

Slow down. (Paul)

Humility as a writer is a powerful protection from feelings of inferiority. (Amy) 

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Ask yourself: Does the story begin where it should? (Amy)

Fiction tries to describe human existence, not explain it. (Paul)

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3. Go see the horses at the racetrack in the morning.

I find horses to be captivating animals, so perhaps this lesson won’t work for those who are ambivalent towards or afraid of them. But, for those who are like me, there is nothing like watching a horse be groomed, petted, walked, and tended to with gentle precision to inspire your engagement with the world. I went to the stables around 7am (it’s about a 30 minute walk from Skidmore, or a 5 minute drive) and saw the horses being washed with an attention to detail–especially their legs and hooves–that could only be described as tender.  The groomsmen and the horses were reliant on each other in that moment–the horse for proper care to keep it healthy, the groomer that the horse would not harm him as he provided this care–and their symbiotic need for each other struck me as utterly beautiful. So go and watch–I dare you to not be inspired.

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4.Watch out for the Sidewalks.

On a more practical note, if you go to watch the horses or on any other amble about town, beware of the treacherous sidewalks. I used my morning run as the means of transporting myself to the racetrack, but ended up tripping on the uneven and disintegrating sidewalks of this otherwise well-tended town and scraping myself up. Although there are worse things than being reminded of what it was like to 8 years old  (skinned knees, elbows, and all), I recommend being careful where you step.

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Having fun at The Wine Bar after the student readings.

5. Make friends and spend time going off campus with them.

I can assure you that you will make friends at Skidmore. The climate here is cultivated such that it is supportive, rather than competitive. Your fellow writers will be there to encourage and challenge you constructively to become a better artist, and will cheer on your successes as you would cheer on theirs. A few highlights from the social side of Skidmore:

The Merry Monk has fabulous food, beer, and frites. Go for the garlic aioli mayo.

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The Wine Bar, along with our friendly waiter Colin, was a chic setting for drinks and munchies after the student reading on Sunday. Many stories of adolescent hijinks were shared over excellent bottles of wine.

Uncommon Grounds might be pricey for coffee, but their lattes are well worth the extra pocket change.

The Bow Tie Criterion Movie Theater is just a 20 minute walk away–we went to see the new Ghostbusters. Sharing laughs proved a great tonic for homesickness and forged friendships even further.

Char Koon might not be designed fully for in-house eating, but the food is delicious and the environment inside is quiet. It’s a good place to sit and talk about writing, and things other than writing, with your new friends.

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One bonus lesson: Go to the readings in the evening and the receptions to follow.

When else will you get a chance to talk to accomplished writers about their lives, their work, and writing in general? Be brave and start a conversation with an author you admire–at Skidmore, generosity, rather than ego, rules.

 

Summering at the NYS Writers Institute: 5 Lessons from & for Skidmore 

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For these two weeks, I have the pleasure and privilege of participating in the NYS Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. If you’re not familiar with this fantastic workshop, you can learn the particulars here. In brief, though, the Writers Institute offers two-week or four-week sessions for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction workshops. Students are grouped into classes of 13-17 writers to meet 3 times a week for 3-hr classes. In between, there are daily readings in the evening, followed by a reception for mixing with other students, faculty, and visiting authors. Non-class days also offer craft talks with visiting authors. Finally, each student has a single individual meeting with their faculty member to discuss questions and receive one-on-one feedback.

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And did I mention the faculty? Esteemed doesn’t even begin to cover it. In aggregate, they have won almost every literary award available. These two weeks feature Amy Hempel, Rick Moody, Henri Cole, Adam Braver, and Paul Harding.

Just a few a days into my stay here, I thought it helpful to jot down some tips for next year’s attendees, along with what I’ve learned so far.

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1) The housing is clean, air conditioned through central air, and relatively new, but spartan. Standard dorm room style. I recommend, if possible, bringing your own towels, sheets, and pillow just to make your stay as cozy as possible. What is provided for you (basic bedding and two towels) are functional, but two weeks is a long time and a little comfort goes a long way while you are working so hard.

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I love my bike!

Along with that, I’ve found having my bicycle with me to be quite advantageous. The campus has well-kept bike paths and although town is close enough to walk to (maybe 20 min), having a bike makes it that much more accessible for a quick trip to check out the shops or grab a nice coffee. If you are driving, parking on campus is free and accessible, and no permit is needed for your bike either.

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Amy Hempel and me after class one day. . .

2) I am in the Advanced Fiction workshop, which Amy Hempel is teaching this week and Paul Harding will lead next week.  I cannot stress enough how generous all of the faculty are. Coming from an academic background, I’m used to talent often being partnered with ego. At Skidmore, where many of the faculty have been returning for over a decade, this is absolutely not the case.  They are genuinely interested in their students and in helping them grow. There is no belittlement and no showing off. Amy Hempel has been the epitome of this to me–in her class, she will introduce you to myriad works by talented writers, but rarely mention her own pieces as reference. Her genuine pleasure in working with developing writers and with her fellow faculty at Skidmore is apparent. So far, having her as a teacher has been revelatory, and I mean that without any sense of hyperbole. To be such an excellent writer and also a transformative teacher might seem unlikely, but Amy achieves this with what can only be described as graceful ease. That, in essence, is Skidmore.

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3) On a more pragmatic note: Bring your copies of the faculty and/or visiting author’s work. Seeing my note above, it’s no surprise that they will generously sign it for you and often include a note as well. Don’t be shy about it. All of the faculty will have a reading at some point during your stay, with a reception to follow where you can get it signed along with other students. Don’t have a copy to bring? Each reading features a table where you can purchase copies, and the proceeds go towards Writers Institute scholarships.

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4) Your tuition for the institute covers your meal plan at the dining hall on campus, but does not include any purchases at the on-campus cafes. The hours for the dining hall are also fairly restricted (e.g., breakfast ends at 9:30), so bringing some snacks or purchasing a few items when you get there might be helpful. There is a kitchen in each apartment, but no dishware or silverware. I ended up buying a few odds and ends for breakfast each morning, along with a Tupperware and spoon to eat my yogurt. The food in the dining hall is varied and offers plenty of options for the health-conscious or vegetarian/vegan. One thing to note: you will be sharing the dining hall with summer camp groups that are mainly rambunctious adolescents. Not to worry, though–there are plenty of seats in the dining commons that are set away from the noise, so you can enjoy a quiet meal if you so choose.

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5) For class, you will receive manuscripts from your classmates to comment on and then discuss at the next class. It’s very beneficial to include a short note at the end of each piece, noting what worked first (please don’t forget to always include something positive), and then highlighting areas for improvement. Some classmates get hung up on providing detailed in-line comments or only examine what they think needs work. Sharing work creates such vulnerability for a writer–offering praise for what you liked is not only kind, but also opens the writer up to accept the critical feedback you are offering. The old adage remains true: Treat their piece the way you’d want yours to be treated.