Graduating BA/MA Reading!

1618175_10201994660455957_737755771429150614_oLast year’s BA/MA graduating class in their post-reading glow.

In case you missed last year’s BA/MA graduating cohort’s reading at Webster’s and you are still devastated by the loss, never fear! The tradition continues this Saturday, May 2, at Webster’s Bookstore Cafe from 2:30-4:30. All are welcome to immerse themselves with delicious treats, excellent readings from talented writers, and an almost crushing sensation of nostalgia and love.

Jess Walter Visit

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Jess Walter Poster courtesy of The Center for American Literary Studies at Penn State

Jess Walter, bestselling author of Beautiful Ruins and the recent We Live in Water, was this year’s Steven Fisher Writer-in-Residence, visiting our (slightly warmer, finally!) campus from March 16-20, and his visit brought more than just better weather. Jess spoke with our 512 fiction writing class about his personal writing process (“It usually begins with coffee and a big cookie.”), what it means to live as a writer (“Writing is my religion. I go to the church of writing.”), and how it feels to write from the perspective of a character who is completely different from yourself (“I’d have to remind myself, the kids are coming home now, I can’t be saying the ‘F’ word.”).

A handful of us were lucky enough to get the opportunity to have one-on-one workshop sessions with Jess, and we unanimously report that these sessions were wholly awesome. Jess was helpful in the best way; he’s a great reader, and seemed to understand exactly what we were hoping to achieve with our stories. All of his advice was administered to help push us further in the direction that we were already hoping to go. He called our writing ambitious but successful, vague at times but, in a few moments, beautiful. And that’s among the coolest things any of us could have asked for from someone with Jess Walter’s talent.

As an added bonus to one of the most exciting academic weeks ever, Jess ate Indian food and talked Robert Durst, charming criminals, and really awesome dogs with us. He gave a reading that was equal parts hilarious and sad to cap off his visit, and signed our books as we said our goodbyes. The BA/MAs are still raving about his visit and reading, and have the Instagrammed posts of our signed books to prove it.

March Write Night!

Student Writers: Mark your calendars for our next WRITE NIGHT at Webster’s: Friday, 3/27, 3-5 pm.

Join a community of student writers for our next night (ok, afternoon) designed to invigorate your writing life — burst into spontaneous writing, share your writing with friendly ears, get constructive feedback, discuss publishing opportunities, and more. The third in our series of writer gatherings designed to build an even more encouraging student writing community in State College. Sponsored by the Penn State English Department and run by BA/MA creative writing students. Meet in the backroom, where you’ll find food/drink, sparkling wit, direction and ideas. FREE!

For a complete list of Webster’s events, click here!

A Message to the Ba/Ma Gang, from Nick Miller

10294448_271165483065178_8443011393480168967_nCover art for Nick’s Ba/Ma thesis by Kyle Dawson

Nick Miller, not to be confused with this Nick Miller, is a Ba/Ma class of 2014 graduate, and a current Michener fellow. To the Ba/Ma class of 2015, he is a good friend, an irreplaceable presence in workshop, an intimidatingly talented brotherly-teacherly figure inside and outside of the classroom, and a purveyor of the inadvisable-to-consume Uncle Runkle’s.

First, some good news: by most metrics, there is life post-Ba/Ma, though I admit those blood- pressure fractions have always confused me. In my case, life post-Ba/Ma is in Austin, Texas. Before the prodigious James A. Michener died, he used his estate to fund artists, to build museums, to establish the National Poetry Series(*1), and to design an MFA program in his name. Oddly enough, Michener and I hail from the same sleepy, small-potatoes Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I have followed Mr. Michener to Texas, to the James A. Michener Center for Writers, where I’m a first year fiction fellow, writing stories and screenplays.

There is a fretful, unifying moment: a cohort of weirdos show up for the first day of graduate school. In each of our minds, we know ourselves to be horrible phonies. We hope to keep this a secret, at least until we can cobble together our first book manuscript. Then, Elizabeth McCracken(*2) (or some iteration of Elizabeth McCracken), enters and stands before the seminar table. She says, “Rule one. Stop asking yourselves whether or not you are writers. The word write is a verb. Are you a doer of that verb? Do you write? If not, sorry, you are not a writer. If so, congratulations! Your psychological torment ends today!”(*3)

This advice wrenched me. As I drive over the sparkly Colorado River and look down, I see rowers. Are they rowers by profession? Are they rowers because they’ve won rowing awards? Do their peers, when reviewing the rowers’ skills, deliver unto them only compliments? Is that what makes them rowers? No! They are rowers because, um, they’re rowing. I am a writer not because I was hand-selected by Minerva, nor because Toni Jensen cracked my heart like an egg over Brady Udall’s stories(*4). I am a writer because I write(*5). I am a doer of that verb. And so are you. I’m sorry if this seems painfully obvious, but it’s the utter simplicity that I find so empowering.

One more takeaway that recently sucker-punched me. Have y’all(*6) seen Whiplash yet? What an alive story of the artist’s growth, suffering for craft, the true and false rewards of self-criticism. There are these great sequences when J.K. Simmons (a malevolent jazz instructor) and Miles Teller (his young drumming student) are face-to-face, sometimes in a shot-reverse-shot series of close-ups, and sometimes sharing a single frame. Simmons’ face is heavily creased, and wormlike veins decorate his bald skull. Teller is nineteen years-old, almost cherubically full-faced, with scars that belie his innocence. A viewer can’t help but think: why is this young person torturing himself? Why is he turning his face into the face of the beleaguered, older man? The antithesis the film presents itself: to be great, the young artist must torture himself, must sweat out ability to achieve greatness. Of course, this is too easy to be true.

My takeaway: don’t make the same mistake as the young drummer. Is pushing oneself beneficial? Yes. Is torture a necessary ingredient for greatness? No. So if you are the self-flagellating, I’m-not-good-enough type(*7), stop wasting your time on torment, and get back to that sacred verb. Write(*8). Within you, the stories are waiting.

 

1 In your midst is the magnificent Charlotte Holmes—a past winner of the N.P.S.

2 Don’t read this. Read The Giant’s House or Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken.

3 Of course, Elizabeth McCracken is very smart, and this is a very paraphrased version of her wonderful, lucid advice.

4 Letting Loose the Hounds. Yowzer.

5 Try saying this aloud. I dare you. What liberation!

6 I am not a proud man.

7 As I have been over and over throughout my life.

8 Thank you for indulging me in this. I love and miss you all, and know that you are in a good, good place.

Elizabeth Kadetsky Reading

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Image from elizabethkadetsky.com

 Our own Elizabeth Kadetsky gave a reading from the beginning of her forthcoming novella, On an Island at the Center of the Center of the World, as part of the Mary E. Rolling Reading Series on Thursday, February 26 in Foster Auditorium. Elizabeth’s published work includes fiction, memoirs, personal essays, and narrative journalism. She has a published memoir with Little, Brown called First There Is A Mountain: A Yoga Romance, an account of her year spent in India as a Fulbright scholar studying with famed yoga master BKS Iyengar, and which explores her yogic journey with the fearless intuitions of a journalist and the powerful and careful prose of an accomplished essayist.

Andrew Foster Altschul has said of her forthcoming novella that “Elizabeth Kadetsky’s malta is a land of unstable identities and suppressed violence, a blank map onto which her characters’ confusion and paranoia are projected. Kadetsky’s novella brilliantly dramatizes a foreigner’s sense of otherness, and the looming panic of a woman trying to pick up the pieces of her life by escaping the self,” an observation which aptly sums up one of many of Kadetsky’s great strengths as a writer.

We had a wonderful evening getting to listen to Elizabeth read and can’t wait to get our hands on her novella–due out this April!

Write Night

After the roaring success of our first Write Night, the BA/MAs will host our second (and now monthly!) Write Night (or afternoon) at Webster’s Bookstore Cafe tomorrow, February 20, from 3-5 pm. All are welcome for this free event. Join a community of student writers for our next night (ok, afternoon) designed to invigorate your writing life — burst into spontaneous writing, share your writing with friendly ears, get constructive feedback, discuss publishing opportunities, and more. The second in our series of writer gatherings designed to build an even more encouraging student writing community in State College. Sponsored by the Penn State English Department and run by BA/MA creative writing students. Meet in the backroom, where you’ll find food/drink, sparkling wit, direction and ideas. Once again, this event is free and open for all!

Cathleen Miller Reading

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Photo of Cathleen Miller and Charlotte Holmes from Author Cathleen Miller’s Facebook page.

PSU MFA Alum Cathleen Miller visited Penn State on January 29 to give a talk on her life as a writer and her experiences at Penn State and beyond, as well as to read several segments from books she has published and books she is working on. Cathleen also held a Q&A session in the class of Toby Thompson, one of her former advisers, where she offered advice on pursuing travel writing and the importance of persistence and aggression when it comes to getting published.

Among other texts, Cathleen read from The Birdhouse Chronicles, her published MFA thesis, which described the life she found when she moved from her competitive advertising job in San Fransisco to live in rural Pennsylvania with her husband. She has a keen eye for detail and her writing is just as funny and fresh as it is exalting and beautiful.  Cathleen also read from her book Desert Flower, the incredible true story of a nomad turned supermodel turned United Nations activist, which has sold over 11 million copies.

Margaret Atwood Reading

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Image courtesy of PSU IAH

Before Thanksgiving break, Margaret Atwood gave a hilarious and exciting reading from her newest collection of short stories, Stone Mattress, at the State Theater downtown after accepting the Institute for the Arts and Humanities’s annual Medal for Distinguished Achievement. Past winners have included Patti Smith, Marilynne Robinson, and J.M. Coetzee. The BAMAs took advantage of this campus event, as usual, and we had a great time.

As the semester is wrapping up, we’ve been working hard to finish the last of our projects–nonfiction and fiction pieces, as well as our final art book projects. Keep an eye out for samples of the work we’ve done in the past few months!

Chinelo Okparanta

545c58c6cff7d.imageImage by Kevin Kelley for The Daily Collegian

Our most recent visitor as part of the Mary E. Rollings Reading Series was Penn State alumna Chinelo Okparanta. She completed her undergraduate degree at Penn State and even took English 212, an introductory fiction workshop, with our own Charlotte Holmes. She went on to receive an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and publish a book of short stories titled Happiness, Like Water, which was an Editors’ Choice in the New York Times Book Review and was listed in The Guardians’ Best African Fiction of 2013.

In addition to the reading, students were fortunate enough to have a Q&A with Chinelo, during which she discussed the process by which she writes and how she found herself with a book contract and then with a wildly successful book, her struggles with titles, and how her real world experiences shaped, inspired, and influenced the stories that became her first published collection. It was such a treat to get to meet someone who has graduated from our university and found such success, and she absolutely deserves every bit of it. She is an incredibly talented writer and a smart and fantastic person to talk with, and we are all so happy that she came back to visit her alma mater.

Marilyn Nelson Visit

This year’s Emily Dickinson Lecture, a part of the Mary E. Rollings Reading Series, featured renowned poet Marilyn Nelson, who gave a reading that was at once hilarious, engrossing, and moving this past Thursday evening. A full crowd gathered in the library’s Foster Auditorium.

Marilyn Nelson read poems from several collections of poetry, ranging from lighthearted accounts of meeting fellow American travelers while abroad with her siblings and suspecting that they might be members of the CIA, to a frightening retelling of the true story of Preserved Porter, a doctor who dissected the body of his late slave, Fortune, in the name of science. Marilyn’s reading, like her poetry, was spirited and spellbinding, at once classic and refreshing. With a bit of time leftover for some questions, Marilyn spoke with the audience about her preference for form and her poetic process. It was a wonderful evening of remarkable poetry, and we are so lucky to have had Marilyn visit with us!

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