This summer I’ve been doing a great deal of simultaneous reading. Some of it has been straight-up pleasure reading, includingI Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, which I came by as a recommendation from Nancy Pearl.
Similarly, I read Naomi Jackson’s debut, The Star Side of Bird Hill, which offered a literary experience so intimate and emotionally deft that I finished the last line, closed the book, and let out a sigh of satisfaction. It is a brilliant work examining the powers and faults rooted in celebrating a family’s matrilineal ties. I feel incredibly lucky to be working with Naomi in her Catapult Master Fiction class for the next several weeks (Catapult offers a variety of in-house and online courses for all matters of writing–I highly encourage aspiring and experienced writers to check out their offerings). With that in mind, I am also reading submissions from my fellow classmates for each weekly class, which provides an enjoyable departure from focusing solely on novel-length works.
Finally, this summer has also been devoted to reading for research purposes, which brings me to The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria by Alia Malek. I started reading Malek’s memoir as part of the research I’m conducting for my next novel, which is partially set in Syria. It is a gorgeous memoir, made even more striking by Malek’s own unique history. Born in America to Syrian immigrants, she spent many of her childhood summers in Syria and went on to live in Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria as a young professional. Her own experiences with the Syrian diaspora allow her to swivel between offering readers an inside look at her family’s country and recognizing her feeling as an outsider looking in on her cultural heritage. As a result, readers are able to experience Malek’s own grief as she watches her family’s beloved homeland descend into civil war, an outcome that does not surprise her but that she is nonetheless powerless to prevent. Although I began reading this book for educational purposes, Malek’s writing is so emotionally evocative that it transcends that fine line between memoir and non-fiction: She manages to inform her audience while also immersing them in her own personal journey. I highly recommend this exquisite memoir to all readers, and especially those wanting to understand the beauty and devastation that embodies Syria in today’s political landscape.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.