3/03/2015 Constance Fenfrow

Literary Legacy

This magazine article is part of Winter 2015 / Issue 80

As an editor at an indie press, I frequently demand of my authors, “Where’s the turkey?” And for that I blame Philadelphia Alumni Writers House at Franklin & Marshall College. I usually don’t mean it literally (though I could see why those of you who’ve attended a Writers House Thanksgiving, where beloved English department faculty carve birds, might think so). No, more often than not I’m referring to the rule of fiction writing I learned at Writers House that states if your character has picked up an object—particularly a bulky one—they had better put it back down again before making any sudden movements.

This academic year marks the 10th anniversary of Writers House, which was founded with the support of F&M alumni from the Philadelphia area. Three English department professors spearheaded the project—Jeff Steinbrink, Patricia O’Hara, and Nicholas Montemarano—along with then-President John Fry and Provost Bruce Pipes. Nestled near the arts quad along College Avenue, it’s a crafts-style cottage that serves as a home for writers, readers, and creative types across all campus departments and class years.

It has hosted hundreds of world-class and emerging authors; is an incubator for student-run publications and programs; and includes a classroom for writing-related courses. But a decade after its founding, alumni are thinking about its deeper meaning—how much the Writers House community has inspired us and shaped our lives and careers.

Writers House alumni are doing diverse and incredible things in a wide range of professions. They work for public relations companies and in the publishing industry, curate museum exhibits and teach, and have received doctorate, master’s and law degrees. Above all, they are still reading and writing and creating and celebrating their passion for the arts. When I asked alumni to share with me the ways in which the Writers House has influenced them after college, it became immediately apparent that our stories are linked by a theme so clichéd it would never survive one of our workshops. But it’s absolutely true: You can take the grad out of Writers House, but you can’t take Writers House out of the grad.

All of our stories can be traced back to our shared classroom, our Thanksgiving table, and the “third space” in which we sang, wrote, published, and inflated plastic zebras: Philadelphia Alumni Writers House.

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Affirmation of the Creative

Elizabeth McDonnell ’05, an English literature major when Writers House opened its doors in 2004, says Writers House and the College’s creative writing major laid the foundation for her artistic career. She spent more than eight years working in the arts as an administrator; in 2014, she opened her own business as an artist and now creates and sells her original notecards, art prints, and deeply evocative paintings.

“Writers House helped me realize I could live a much more creative life than I had previously thought,” says McDonnell, who arrived at F&M interested in poetry and writing but did not know what direction her career could take. “All these writers and artists carved all these different paths for themselves, and it gave me the confidence to realize my own creativity. I needed that confidence to stay in the arts throughout my career and to reintroduce myself as an artist now.”

This affirmation of the creative was also instrumental to Chao Bian ’11. Bian once thought his dream of working with opera and theater was “impractical and unrealistic.” However, he remembers how assertive Writers House Director Kerry Sherin Wright was about his vision, and how, during a moment of doubt, she promised him: “Don’t worry, you are an artist.”

“Those words encouraged me tremendously,” Bian says. He also credits Wright for introducing him to an alumnus who offered him the opportunity to observe the process of making the show “Act One” at Lincoln Center Theater. Today Bian is working toward his MFA on a scholarship at Brown University/Trinity Rep Consortium, where he is one of only two directing students chosen per year—and the first international stage director they have chosen for the program.

The Conversation Deepens

Writers House has influenced its alumni in more ways than just what we do for a living. Poetry and fiction readings in the Dodge Reading Room introduced us to the culture surrounding modern literature, and we continue to remain a part of the conversation—through submitting to the F&M Alumni Arts Review, a printed publication that showcases written and visual work by F&M alumni; by bringing pieces to workshops; and returning to participate in events on campus.

One of the more memorable events for students and alumni is the annual Emerging Writers Festival, which Writers House organizes in partnership with F&M’s Department of English. The event allows students to shadow up-and-coming writers for several days, picking their brains about their craft.

"I still keep up to date with Elna Baker. I listen to her podcasts and radio shows,” Katie Stryker ’11 says of the storyteller she shadowed during the 2010 Emerging Writers Festival. Stryker doubles as a freelance photographer and a nurse recruiter for a staffing organization, but her passion is film; she recently completed an MFA from Columbia University. “Writers House and my literary experience at F&M still fuel my creativity,” she says.

Pamela Eisenberg ’06, now a copywriter for Walden University, has been inspired by the many ways Writers House offers outlets for alumni to share their creativity, from open houses to reunion celebrations.

"We may suddenly decide that this is the day we attend an event or submit our work,” Eisenberg says. “When something happens in our lives that allows us to come back to the Writers House frame of mind, we hope it will still be there to hear us.”

Will it? The answer is a resounding yes, Wright says.

“The point of Writers House is to introduce students to a way of living in writing and reading,” Wright says. “It happens in classrooms, through the Emerging Writers Festival, and in every craft talk and casual conversations with writers. This is a rich, creative culture that extends beyond the walls of the house. We remember everything the students did here, and we miss them, but the important thing is that students bring that literary culture and understanding to their later lives and careers.”

Constance Renfrow ’12 is editor and creative consultant at Three Rooms Press in New York City. Her work has appeared in such places as Cabildo Quarterly and LitroNY, and she credits Writers House with pushing her to pursue writing and editing professionally.



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What Does Writers House Mean to You?

“I learned so much about myself at Writers House. It helped establish my identity as a writer. I haven,t stopped writing, and I have the spirit of Writers House to thank for that.”
Christine Valzovano ’11
“By paying close attention to how Kerry Sherin Wright and others built an undergraduate literary community from the ground up, and by getting to participate in it directly on so many levels, I was—by the time I left F&M—prepared to put those skills into action elsewhere.”
Kathryn Bursick ’06
“Writers House should be emulated at more colleges. It,s a great marriage of literary and creative forces.”
Emily Houlihan ’11
“I still remain in touch with people I met at Writers House. Two of us even started a writing group here in New York.”
Michael “Boosh” Kreisbuch ’10
“Writers House gave me the courage to get up in front of people and share my work with others, no matter how personal. I carry that with me now.”
Carey O’Donnell ’11
“Writers House taught me that it,s okay to love books and writing—that it,s not just a vague hobby you indulge in on the side. There’s an entire world revolving around it that you can belong to.”
Ifra Asad ’13
“I took away a continued appreciation for poetry and actively seeking out readings. To hear a poem come out of the author’s mouth adds clarity to the tone.”
Kathryn McGuire ’05
“Writers House provided an anchor for me. Each year, I lived in a different apartment and took classes in a different building, but Writers House was always there.”
Zachary Critchley ’12
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