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Ever wished to be a writer? Show of hands—Whoa, lots of hands! Everyone, it seems, has a story to tell, a word to share. And each summer, the distance between the wish and the word shrinks dramatically for writers-in-waiting lucky enough to know about the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore.
“Coming here is like finding your way to Delphi,” says Lloyd Lynford, a three-time veteran back again this past summer to polish his prose. He joined some 120 others in two- or four-week sessions in which they took three-hour writing workshops, critiqued each other’s stuff, and soaked up wordsmithing at student readings, afternoon technique sessions, and free public readings delivered by different renowned authors every weeknight: Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody, Ann Beattie, Russell Banks, Philip Lopate, and more. (“It’s like a rock concert for writers,” reported one dazzled local arts critic.) “The schedule is packed. It’s a whirlwind,” says Lynford happily. “Just the right blend of organized rigor and improvi-sational encounter,” approves novelist Nicholas Delbanco, a veteran Summer Institute teacher.
It all started when Albany novelist William Kennedy used his Ironweed Pulitzer Prize winnings to create the New York State Writers Institute at the state’s University at Albany in 1984. Its summer version in Saratoga Springs has been shaped and directed for the past twenty-one years by Skidmore English professor Robert Boyers, founding editor of the journal Salmagundi, with the help of wife (and poet) Peg O’Higgins Boyers ’75 and associate (and poet) Marc Woodworth ’84.
From the start, the program bypassed literary agents and the business of publishing to concentrate on the art of writing, as imparted by the finest writer-teachers Boyers and colleagues could attract. Many were enlisted just before they became famous, including Michael Ondaatje pre–The English Patient and Charles Simic before becoming US poet laureate. Rigorous and academic, the institute offers students an optional full-manuscript faculty critique instead of various Saratoga side trips, because, as the students tell Boyers, “We’re here to write.”
The actual workshops are closed to reporters; writing is not a spectator sport. “Even if it’s not autobiography, writing reveals your innermost self. You cut to the bone,” says fiction student Mamta Chaudhry-Fryer. It would be a waste of time for busy adults to spend two weeks just “to get stroked,” says Bob Boyers, “so there is a great insistence that people speak truthfully.” Writers hear promptly if there are too many similes per poem, for instance, or if they’ve failed to set up a conflict between two characters.
Sometimes “you also need a pat on the head,” admits Lynford, for whom Pulitzer-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson has become an inspiring Summer Institute mentor. “She finds what is vital and strong in a piece and brings that to blossom,” he says. And when it blossoms, there’s “a moment of illumination that allows us to see our work more fully and clearly—and
a little oomph to keep us going for another year,” says Chaudhry-Fryer. She adds, “The level of attentiveness to the work and the ferment of each other’s company make for the best kind of party you can imagine, even without the champagne.”
It’s a contact high that stimulates fledgling and famous writers alike. Many of the institute’s faculty return each year as if to a family reunion, says Delbanco, “because it gives us so much pleasure to be here.” The literati relish the richly word-laden atmosphere and the nightly dinners at the Boyerses’ house. And they love the gemlike essays with which Bob Boyers introduces their public readings. (Of Robinson, he once told the crowd, “There are no wobbles in her sentences. Her paragraphs are shapely.”) When Boyers begins in his soft voice to introduce the next writer to a room packed with hopeful writers, suddenly you can hear a metaphorical pin drop. Why? Perhaps it’s the unbearable lightness of being—or becoming—that next great writer. —BAM