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Writers institute celebrates silver


“From the beginning, it was Bill’s baby,” says Prof. Bob Boyers, director of the New York State Summer Writers In- stitute at Skidmore. Bill is Pulitzer-win- ning novelist William Kennedy, who en- visioned the summer institute 25 years ago as a natural fit with Skidmore. “He approached us, and together we shaped the program,” says Boyers. Recognizing the gravitational force of star power, Boyers set out to recruit other literary heavyweights to the insti- tute’s faculty. “Russell Banks was my very first hire,” he says. Other early no- tables were wife and poet Peg O’Higgins Boyers ’75, poet Robert Haas, novelist and essayist Marilynn Robinson, and novelist Rick Moody.


Between the popularity of the re -


nowned teaching staff and the rigorous application process, gaining admission to the workshop is no mean feat. Once accepted, many students return year after year. Enrollment is for either two or four weeks, and courses can be taken for


The faculty too—from Michael On-


daatje (The English Patient) and Andrea Barrett (Ship Fever) to Rick Moody (The Ice Storm) and Frank Bidart (Desire)— tends to return year after year. Moody says the workshop has been “my only consistent teaching job over the years, simply because I love it so much.” But “nobody is get- ting rich,” Boyers says. “Instructors do this as a labor of love. The pay- off is in the cama- raderie amongst the staff, the mu-


“INSTRUCTORS DO THIS AS A


LABOR OF LOVE. THE PAYOFF IS IN THE CAMARADERIE AMONGST THE STAFF, THE MUTUAL SUPPORT THEY RECEIVE, AND THE FRIEND- SHIPS THEY FORM AND CULTIVATE OVER YEARS.”


tual support they receive, and the friend- ships they form and cultivate over years.” Poet Carolyn Forché describes the “rigorous workshops, deep mentor- ing, and 20 magical nights of readings” as “my community and inspiration.” Boyers muses that the workshop at- tracts special mentors who are generous with their time and with their students,


sit next to college sophomores next to first novelists next to joke-telling middle- aged poet laureates from New Jersey.” Participants say students and teachers feel encouraged to try out new material, to expose their nascent work in an open environment. As novelist Liz Benedict puts it, “It's a smart, engaging, and very supportive place to be.”


There’s also an almost militant rejection of com- mercial content— no “How to place your book” or


“Working with an agent” seminars. “We’ll have none of that,” declares Peg Boyers. “This is about making art, not about selling your work.” Nevertheless, many of the workshop’s students have gone on to meteoric success, including Christina Garcia for Dreaming in Cuba, a National Book Award finalist; Paul Hard- ing for his debut novel, Tinkers, a Pulit - zer Prize winner; and Darin Strauss for Chang and Eng, a Los Angeles Times Book of the Year.


WRITERS BILL KENNEDY, RUSSELL BANKS, AND JAY MCINERNEY


undergraduate or graduate credit, or on a noncredit basis. Whether in the fic- tion, nonfiction, or poetry tracks, inten- sive classroom discussion and critique are only part of the experience, as the days and nights are illuminated with gather- ings and readings, many of which are open to the public.


8 SCOPE SPRING 2011


who are “incredibly invested in the project of helping people work.” The faculty try to dampen any competitive culture, fostering instead an ambiance in which it’s safe to share, present, dis- cuss, and disagree. Says Banks, “There’s no hierarchy at the table. It’s almost a tribal setting. Candidates for the Nobel


Appreciative past students have es- tablished a fund that awards 40 full and up to 15 partial scholarships each sum- mer, allowing the best and the brightest young writers to attend the institute re- gardless of their financial means. Bob Boyers observes, “Scholarships have changed the cohort. It’s now younger, sharper, and more diverse.” In response, he says, the challenge is to recruit the next generation of incandescent, gener- ous leading writers to join the institute’s faculty, accommodating both change and continuity. A quarter-century since its inception, under the careful parenting of Boyers and company, the New York State Sum- mer Writers Institute has matured into one of the most popular writing work- shops in the country. And with his lega- cy already writ large on the workshop, Boyers is still tireless in continuing to foster the success of his brilliant off- spring. —Jon Wurtmann ’78


EMMA DODGE HANSON ‘93


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