Quickly jotting down bits of insight in his leather-bound notebook, Train Schickele ’18 sat face-to-face with esteemed author Abigail Thomas. He was speaking to her about his own writing, and receiving her genuine feedback and advice.
His experience was part of the Distinguished Visiting Writers Series’ Visiting Writer’s Workshop. Each semester a poet, a nonfiction author and a fiction author come to the college to offer public readings to the Ithaca community and to participate in the Visiting Writers’ Workshop. The workshop is offered each semester and all Ithaca College students have the opportunity to apply, regardless of their majors. Fifteen students are selected to attend two courses taught by each author. The students also have the chance to eat lunch with the author and meet individually to receive feedback on their work.
Schickele, a writing major, participated in this semester’s workshop for his third and final time as a fiction writer, having attended both nonfiction and poetry workshops in the past.
“I have pages and pages of quotes of what past authors have said during their workshop classes,” said Schickele.
He recently attended poet Ada Limón’s course. The author of four books, including 2015 National Book Award finalist “Bright Dead Things,” Limón came to Ithaca College to give a public reading on Sept. 19, earning “snaps” and applause from faculty and students alike. She read 10 poems, all raw with emotion and honesty, some sprinkled with humor, which roused thought-provoking questions during the question-and-answer session that followed. Though she enjoyed teaching the courses, Limón said she enjoyed the individual meetings the most.
“My favorite part was getting that nice half an hour of time where we can have that one-on-one and actually work line by line through the poems, which is a real gift because you don't always get that with students,” Limón said.
Eleanor Henderson, director of the Distinguished Visiting Writers Series and Workshop, says the program gives students an opportunity to not only learn from renowned writers but to speak with them in both an academic and more informal, personal setting.
“The students get to work with faculty who are writers, but there’s something special about having an outsider come and visit to share knowledge for a concentrated period of time,” Henderson said.
In previous workshops, authors have had students focus on one concept, like plot or characterization, within their classes. Some authors have also had students share their manuscripts, editing them together as a class.
Limón took a different approach and gave a few writing prompts that incited different types of thought and creative writing. In one prompt the students were directed to write a poem describing an orange, but then after it was written, she asked them to name it something completely different and unrelated. For example, naming a poem about an orange “depression” allows the poem to take on new meanings. In another prompt Limón had the students write a poem describing a heart, but only its physical aspects.
Though the classes and one-on-one meetings between author and student are valuable, Henderson says having lunch with the authors is often what excites the students the most.
“Generally, students say that this is their favorite part of the writer’s visit because they get to see the writer in the wild and just being a regular person,” Henderson said. “That’s really what students say they are inspired by.”
To apply for the workshop, students must submit a 10–15-page fiction or nonfiction manuscript, or five to seven poems. Five students from each genre are then chosen to work directly with the author of their genre. Though the one-credit course is offered each semester, a student can only partake three times in order to earn the full three credits for the workshop.
Other participants in the fall 2016 Writer’s Workshop include Kiese Laymon, nonfiction writer and author of “Long Division” and “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” who gave a reading on Oct. 10. Fiction writer Dana Spiotta, whose novel “Stone Arabia” was a 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, will give her public reading on Nov. 28.