Visiting Writers Series Expands with Robert Olen Butler

Now three writers in different genres will come to campus each semester, starting with Robert Olen Butler. by Greg Ryan '08

It’s not every day a Pulitzer Prize winner compliments your writing. Aspiring writer Evan Perriello ’08 knows what it feels like, though. In a master class conducted by Robert Olen Butler at the College in February, the author praised Perriello’s short-short story—a work of only a few hundred words and a genre for which Butler is renowned.

“It’s always edifying to get feedback from someone who has really succeeded in what you’re trying to do,” Perriello said.

Thanks to an experimental format change in the Distinguished Visiting Writers Series, two more well-known writers in other genres could critique Perriello and his fellow students’ work over the spring semester. The Department of Writing decided to bring three writers to campus this semester rather than one, as has been traditional: Butler, Pulitzer-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, and essayist Vivian Gornick.

Inviting three writers per semester allows for diversity in the genres of writers students are exposed to, said assistant professor of writing Jack Wang, who organizes the writers series. “With only one writer per semester,” he added, “there’s an impulse to bring in the biggest name. With three, we can bring in more hot, young writers, or midcareer writers who are great teachers.”

The writers stay campus for a few days rather than a week. Each holds a public reading and conducts two master classes, so students still benefit from hands-on instruction and commentary on their work.

Perriello was looking forward to Komunyakaa and Gornick’s visits. “You can’t take advice like that as make-or-break, but you hope for the best,” he said. “It’s nice to get the opportunity for someone [so accomplished] to look at your writing and critique it.”