English department and Writers House host annual Emerging Writers Festival

By Vanessa Chen and Christa Rodriguez || Staff Writer and Campus Life Editor

Photo by Christa Rodriguez

The annual Emerging Writers Festival (EWF), hosted by the English Department and the Philadelphia Alumni Writers House, was held this past week Wednesday April 4, Thursday April 5, and Friday April 6. The festival involved a multitude of events throughout the week, including readings in the Green Room Theatre, craft talks in the Writers House, and a concluding “Bye Bye BBQ.” EWF celebrates writers that are early in their careers, and comes together through the shared efforts of students and faculty.

EWF brought five new writers to campus, including Mandy Berman ‘09, Raymond Antrobus, Tessa Fontaine, Sarah Gerard, and Chinaka Hodge. Berman is a fiction writer and F&M alumna. She shared parts of her first novel, Perennials, which was published in 2017. Antrobus performed some of his poetry, which included themes of race and disability as a British Jamaican person. Nonfiction writer Fontaine shared parts of her upcoming novel, The Electric Woman, which detailed her experiences in a traveling sideshow eating fire and charming snakes.

Gerard is the author of the essay collection Sunshine State, from which she read, and the novel Binary Star. Finally, Hodge is a poet, playwright, and screenwriter from Oakland, California. During the reading, she performed poems and a rap.

While Berman, Antrobus, and Fontaine gave their craft talks throughout the day on Thursday, Hodge and Gerard gave theirs on Friday. Chinaka Hodge started her craft talk articulating four rules: there are no wrong answers, you are the standard, you can write in any language, and, perhaps most importantly, have fun. Of the second rule, Hodge stated: “No one is equipped to tell the stories that you carry.” Hodge felt it important to set the tone for creativity by having everyone in attendance introduce themselves first.

She then had attendees call out the names of songs with protagonists in them as she displayed them on the board. There were songs like “Jessie’s Girl,” “Stacy’s Mom,” “Roxanne,” and “Sweet Caroline” to choose from. She told the audience to write a poem from an unseen point of view from one of the songs mentioned, such as the mom in “Stacy’s Mom,” which many wrote about.

Following this exercise, she asked attendees to “add yourself into it,” whether it was their opinion, their style, or their favorite color. Attendees then had to underline a line in their poem and use it as a part of a new poem “expressly about yourself.” The point of this exercise was “[to kill] the writer voice that says ‘I can’t’,” which is what Hodge believes we need more of in craft. After this, without looking at the poem they wrote, she told the audience to re-write the poem from memory and see what changed. In discussion afterward, others said the exercise allowed them to be more concise in their language and clarify what the poem was really about. As a final exercise, Hodge asked to write “a single line where you risk something to tell the truth.” She commented that this sentence would turn into a poem one day, because, in essence, that is what poetry is.

After Chinaka Hodge, Sarah Gerard gave a craft talk on the importance of “patterns” in fictions. A lot of of fiction writers struggle with building plot, including Gerard. But she had come to view plot-building as pattern-building. In building character, each character should have an essence and a set of central beliefs that you express through repeated imagery and actions. Characters with distinct patterns of thoughts, actions, and imageries come together to form larger patterns of the book.

You can decide whether the characters’ patterns complement each other, creating harmony like layers of music in a symphony, or clash together, creating conflict. In building setting, you should also think about the geological landscape, which will create patterns of imageries so that as soon as a imagery is invoked, the readers knows where they are. Patterns of language can also bring readers into a specific setting. Language in the American South is different from language in Victorian England. Language also reveals character; a cowboy speaks differently than a school teacher. Places have rules, and you must figure out what the rules of your world are, and they will create patterns.

What is just as essential as creating patterns is breaking patterns. When a pattern is broken, it signals that something significant has happened. Gerard asks us to think about our own lives. If a professor takes you out to lunch every Friday, and one day she just stops, what will you think? Think about what will happen if you break a pattern in your writing. Plot is just as much about building pattern as breaking pattern. Patterns create stable settings and characters that the reader can invest in, and breaking patterns creates change, excitement and intrigue that moves the story forward. To conclude, Gerard says “stories begin and end when patterns begin and end.”

In the panel discussion after the craft talks, the writers discussed topics like how to be vulnerable with the audience, the worst advice they have ever received, and the balance between how much you reveal about your life and how much you keep to yourself. The writers talked about times they had edited elements out of their book that related to friends and family because revealing certain details would hurt their loved ones and may not add much to the book. Since writers often find inspiration from their personal lives, many may mistakenly feel that they have to bare it all in order to be honest. The five emerging writers assured students that writers are humans too and are entitled to privacy.

After the panel discussion, an open barbecue was held. Students, faculty, writers and members of the Lancaster community mingled and engaged in book signing. The Writers House bid a warm farewell to all the writers, and concluded the Emerging Writers Festival.

Junior Vanessa Chen is a Staff Writer. Her email is wchen1@fandm.edu. Junior Christa Rodriguez is the Campus Life Editor. Her email is crodrigu@fandm.edu

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