Tenth annual writers’ festival hosts three prominent authors

Maddie Burakoff, Web Editor

This week, instead of going to class, students in Northwestern’s creative writing program will spend their time attending readings, discussions and master classes with award-winning writers.

The tenth annual Spring Writers’ Festival, hosted by the creative writing program, runs Tuesday through Thursday at the Hilton Orrington. Every year, the program invites three writers representing the genres of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, which reflect the different concentrations for creative writing students, said Jennifer Britton, assistant director of creative writing. This year’s guests are creative nonfiction author Aleksandar Hemon, poet Cathy Park Hong and fiction author John Keene.

At this point in the year, students in the advanced-level sequences are working on their required longform pieces, Britton said. The festival serves as a way to “inject” an outside perspective.

“It just gives them a kind of pause in the middle of the quarter to really look at, ‘This is what I’ve done, this is where I can go,’” Britton said. “They might be able to think of new ways they can create that they hadn’t been thinking of before.”

Most creative writing professors incorporate the festival into their courses by not holding traditional class and instead requiring students to go to one or more events during the week, Britton said. Some students are also selected for one-on-one conferences with the visiting writers, and are able to submit their own work to receive feedback from them.

In addition to giving practical writing advice and “demystifying” the actual process, the hope is that the authors will also be able to inspire students to continue learning and writing, said Rachel Webster, director of creative writing.

The festival also reaches beyond Northwestern, Britton said. Though the master classes are reserved for students, she said, the readings and conversation are open to the public. For the past three years, these events have also been incorporated into the Evanston Literary Festival.

“(The guests) may not be literary celebrities — some of them are — but they’re really deep, thoughtful writers,” said John Wilson, an organizer for the Evanston Literary Festival. “It really is something that helps put Evanston on the map as a high-profile literary community.”

The featured writers are chosen by faculty members, who are also working writers and “tireless” readers with a wide knowledge of current literary trends, Webster said.

“These are three outstanding authors that are really important voices in this time in particular, when we’re kind of cracking open the dominant myths of America,” Webster said. “They’re breaking open and complicating and nuancing each of their fields.”

Hemon’s work deals with the immigrant experience and living between cultures, Webster said, while Hong’s poetry book “Engine Empire” is playful and inventive but also deals with profound questions relating to empire and domination. Keene’s book “Counternarratives” considers themes of colonialism and stories that get left out of the “official history,” she said.

Since its establishment over 30 years ago, the creative writing program has always invited outside authors to speak, Britton said. However, these visits have only been unified into a weeklong event for the past ten years.

Hosting all three authors at once allows the program to directly bring them into dialogue with one another, Webster said, which creates spontaneous moments between the authors.

“Often you hear writers and realize how much time they spend putting words together, because even what’s unscripted is really thoughtful,” Webster said. “I feel every year I leave that conversation changed.”

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Twitter: @madsburk