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.

 

A Flash of Red: The Bard Interview

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What brought you to Ambrose University?

I really identified with the campus culture and its focus on both personal and intellectual growth. Although I’m a business major, I appreciate the comprehensive education Ambrose has to offer its students–so many other colleges are just degree-factories, churning out graduates who couldn’t tell the difference between Nietzsche and Donne.  In fact, I’m taking an incredible course on psychopathology right now.  It’s been revelatory–to say the least.

Why not study at a university closer to home?

Next question.

Sorry. Um, do you have any favorite authors or books to recommend to other students?

More than you could list here.  I’d start with The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, anything by Dale Carnegie, and Alice Sebold’s memoir, Lucky.

You’re quite an omnivorous reader!

Would you prefer I only read within one genre? Or limit myself to sale banners on Amazon, like my sister?

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply–

Of course you didn’t mean to offend me, but I really can’t stand it when people are impressed by someone showing the smallest amount of initiative. It implies that apathy is the new norm, don’t you agree?

Of course I do. Okay–moving on.  You enjoy cooking.  Where did your interest in food come from?

My mother was a wonderful cook–

Was?

Yes, was. She no longer cooks.

Why is that?

Would you prefer to continue this interview or to badger me into leaving? Right then. Yes, my mother was a wonderful cook and we spent many hours in the kitchen together when I was a boy.  She taught me to appreciate well-made food and, even as a university student, I am able to spend a decent amount of time in the kitchen preparing meals for myself. I find it a very agreeable way to spend an afternoon.

Do you have any favorite recipes?

I can share my recipe for quinoa salad with kale and chevre.  It’s rather delicious.

How else do you spend your free time?

I try not to have ‘free time’, as you put it.  I focus on my studies, I take care of myself and my home, and I have a part-time job to help with expenses.  My days are full, as they should be.

What’s this part-time job you have?

It’s a computer programming job, in a sense.

Oh, that sounds interesting. 

No, really it’s not.  At least–not interesting in the way it should be.  But it has its advantages.

Are you planning on pursuing work in computers once you graduate?  Why not major in computer science?

My father needs someone to take over the family business–we’re a coal family–and I have a head for it.  Computers are just a hobby for me and, in the case of my job, a means to an end.

One final question: If you could give one piece of advice for freshman starting their first semester at Ambrose, what would you tell them? 

Get to know your professors personally.  It just might change your life.