New York State Summer Writers Institute

A couple weeks ago, I printed out the “ABCs” of writing that a friend and loyal reader sent to me many months ago. I pick up this list from a shelf and read it every morning before I write.  It ranges from “Dream of success” and “Focus on your writing career” to “Prepare and be positive” and “X-out all negativity.”  The “Y” advice made me giggle: “Yodel and yell over every accomplishment.”  The thought of a yodeler yodeling tickles my funny bone.

Events over the last three days – good stuff that I want to share – have left me without humble words.  Thus, you have been warned, so if you choose to continue reading, be prepared for a primal yodel!

The back story…  I’ve never been able to fit my writing into an easily defined genre.  Since college, I have hung with fiction writers and journalists and taken a swing at freelance working for pay.  When I started writing in 2009, it felt different – I was writing about topics I wanted to and sending these “stories” to you in a letter.  If you’ve been in this for the long-haul, do you know you’ve received 415 letters from me?

Around letter 300, I wondered, “What am I doing?  What exactly am I writing?  What do I want to do with this for the next ten years?”  I dug out old “short stories” from college by authors whose names stuck in my memory; they were written by people like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and Joan Didion.  Didion’s work struck a chord; her voice spoke to me, not via fictional characters but through a narration expressing direct thought and opinion.  I googled her to see how she was labeled.  Down the rabbit hole I went for a week of self-analysis of my own writing style.  And through a steep offshoot tunnel, I slid face first and hit my forehead on this book:  To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, written by Phillip Lopate.  Lo and behold, he tells me through ink on the page that I write personal essays.

Have you ever been to a family reunion and an uncle who you’ve only met once and who lives half-way across the country appears? And in talking with him, you realize you are kindred spirits in this diverse gathering of family members?  That’s as close an approximation I can make to how I feel about reading words from Phillip Lopate’s hand.

And for three years, I’ve had an unspoken goal: to be his student – not through reading his work but in real life.  Lopate directs the non-fiction MFA program at Columbia University in New York City – too far to travel for a class.  With a little more research, I see he’s on the faculty at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.  This fact has stayed on my radar, but I’ve been more “Mom” than “writer” to be away for two weeks during summer vacation.  However, over the last six months, I see more independence in Will and Liam.  One evening last month before leaving for a writers’ meeting, I was rattling on about dinner for them, and Liam said – probably with an eyeball roll, “I won’t starve, Mom.  I can find food.”  Liberating and truthful words.

On January 8th, applications opened for this year’s Institute.  On January 12th, I submitted my application; only 16 applicants are accepted into this workshop, so I gave myself credence for the bravery of actually pushing “Submit” on the application, fully prepared to apply again next year.  Then last night, January 14th, I read an email from the director of the program, Robert Boyers:

“I’m delighted to accept your application to the NY State Summer Writers Institute and will move at once to enroll you in the workshop you requested: the non-fiction workshop taught by Phillip Lopate. Your experience indicates that you are an ideal student for this workshop, and I look forward to meeting you in July.” 

My throat is dry from yodeling, but I wanted you to know.  And, I want to thank you for opening my letters every week and for your emails over the years.  You have kept alive my “Dream of success.”