Friday, May 12, 2017

Rite of Passage: UWS Writing Program Grads Show Their Stuff

Wednesday evening I attended the UW-Superior Writing Program's Senior Capstone Portfolio Presentations. When invited by members of the school's writing staff, I didn't know what to expect. I kept mentally stumbling over the word "Capstone" in the title. Portfolio Presentations I could understand though, which sounded a little boring since we're talking about a lot of writing and how much can you read while students are looking over your shoulder.

Well, I clearly got it wrong. The two hours zipped past faster than a weaver's shuttle. I came away impressed by the students while making calculations that there must be a whole army of writers graduating from schools across the country ready to tell their stories, open our minds to new ideas, inspire, inform, persuade, entertain, enlighten and challenge us. What made the event exciting were the encounters with writers who had that same passion for the written word that has been shared by generations of writers down through the ages. 

The program went like this. During the first hour the students each stood by small, elevated tables with their laptops opened to the web pages where their portfolios were displayed. Friends and guests were invited to visit with each student to engage one-on-one with the work and hear the grads' stories. In the second hour the students individually made seven minute presentations to the group, highlighting various aspects of their life stories, their work and reading excerpts from their work. 

Several things struck me during the program, lingering in my thoughts as I drove home afterwards. First, I could tell these were writers and each seemed fully awakened to this fact. That is, they were not students who one day hoped to become writers. Nearly every one had a story of how they took up an interest in writing that went beyond the mandatory school work we were forced to trundle out as school kids. Jill Knutson wrote her first novel at age eight. 83 chapters! She always wanted to write. Erika Shearer, an English major with minor in writing and German, said, "I write because I cannot bear to stop." 

Those are the kinds of things only writers would say and do and feel. 

Each student had a story. Nyanika Banda told of her early love of books. With a culinary background it was not surprising to see that she's earned some bylines writing about food. Faith King taught me a new word: "ekphrastic." It's a Greek word "that combines my two greatest loves: art and poetry," she said. 

Lena Hansen is likewise both writer and artist. In addition to her academic and creative writing, she shared several drawings she's produced using traditional technique. She also read a portion from her creative essay, "A Close Yet Distant Longing." 

Nearly all of the writers referenced other writers who had been influential in their lives, from Dickens and Vonnegut to Maya Angelou and Barbara Kingsolver. Sarah Lindell, whose interests are both writing and theater, referenced a quote from Oscar Wilde, himself a master wit who transcended the common in both theater and literature. "We're all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

I was similarly impressed by the experiences these grads had taken advantage of. Kelci Greenwood, who spent a semester in Edinburgh, Scotland, served as editor-in-chief of the literary journal Nemadji Review, to which several others had contributed as well. 

The last presenter, Kenneth Timm, read prepared remarks rather than walk us through his portfolio, which was available to all on the web, and closed the presentations with a short piece called Touching Infinity, a nice finishing touch to the program.

One last observation. Not all writers are public speakers, and in point of fact many probably take up writing because public speaking is too dreadful to imagine. Nevertheless, these students appeared well on their way to being pros as presenters. I know that when I was young I'd have simply melted, or to borrow an Old Testament description from the Bible, my knees would have smote one another. 

Kudos to the university's writing program.  It's apparent that real progress is being made. Thanks for inviting me. 

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EdNote: Bad news, good news. I learned from speaking with Nanyika Banda that our Coney Island on Superior Street in Duluth is being, or has been shuttered. The good news is that Ms. Banda will be chef of the new restaurant opening in its place. Can't wait to check it out! 

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