Opinion & Editorial

Summer Writers Institute Alums Talk Craft, Community and Creative Writing

In just a few weeks, Summer Writers Institute at Washington University will begin, offering seven creative writing courses taught across a two-week period in July. Writers Katie Rice-Guter and Meghan Clark took courses through the SWI program—Rice-Guter attended three summer sessions and Clark attended two—and they both said they’d go back for more.

Rice-Guter first enrolled in the “Personal Narrative” course after her boss recommended it, and she enjoyed the experience so much she returned to complete the “Microprose” and “Advanced Personal Narrative” courses as well. The SWI allowed her to reestablish her love for creative writing and helped her gain experience in a workshop setting.

Though Clark didn’t previously consider herself a professional writer, she initially enrolled in the SWI’s “Creative Nonfiction” as a way to explore a writing form that she loved teaching to her eighth-grade students. She returned a few summers later to complete the “Advanced Creative Nonfiction” course, and she now runs her own freelance writing business.

We spoke with Rice-Guter and Clark about their writing and classroom experiences in the SWI’s program.

Katie, can you talk about the supportive environment that instructors create in the classroom? What kinds of things can students look forward to about the experience?
Katie Rice-Guter: There’s no better way to really get to know a set of classmates than to be in an intensive format like that, meeting so regularly. I think using words like “intensive” can make it sound intense, but that’s really not the social experience of being in the Institute. Actually, the first course I took back in 2015 was one of the only classes I’ve ever been in where people switched seats every single day and really got to know the entire class. Some of the students were current undergraduate students, some people were retired—and I was sort of on the younger side of the age range. But the process of sharing your own story every day by doing a daily writing prompt and then going around in a circle and reading parts of what we’d written really increased the sense of community and trust in the room.

What kinds of craft-related things did you learn in the “Microprose” course? Were there any insights you were surprised to learn or explore?
Katie Rice-Guter: The instructor pulled from a lot of different types of writing. We learned lessons about how jokes are structured and how fables are structured, and we looked at these really small forms where you only used 250 words or 50 words. The lessons there were about how to use small details to imply a bigger picture—how to convey a lot with very few words.

What I really remember taking away from that “Microprose” class was about using details that emphasize what’s important about what you want a reader to understand about a place or person. Our instructor for that course also had a background in visual art, so he’d show us paintings and use them as metaphors for the way that we were writing. What are the details that need to be really up close to the reader? Are there things that are more in the background that you’re just suggesting? He did a lot of sketching on the board in ways that I found really helpful.

What does your writing practice look like now, three SWI summers later? What have you since learned about your writing from taking those courses?
Katie Rice-Guter: I took the “Microprose” class because I wanted to check out fiction. I almost exclusively write nonfiction, so I wanted to try fiction in a low-risk environment. Having the flexibility to try something new and really throw yourself into it for two weeks and then keep whatever lesson comes out of it was great.

Each of the two-week courses helped me develop the skills and confidence to really deepen my writing. I’m now halfway through an MFA program in creative nonfiction, and everything I write is grounded in the lessons I learned in the Summer Institute courses.

Would you consider returning to the SWI even after finishing your MFA program?
Katie Rice-Guter: I’ve always wanted to take “Modern Humor Writing” with Heather McPherson. One of the cool things about the SWI structure is that in the evenings there are readings and craft talks from a lot of the faculty members. I heard Heather give a craft talk about how she uses humor in her writing and I’ve had my eye on her class ever since.

Meghan, what was it like being a student again and seeing how SWI instructors built a mini writing community in those two weeks?
Meghan Clark: As a teacher myself, I was really amazed at the culture my instructors were able to create in the space of just a few days. It helps that the courses are intensive in terms of the time we spent with each other. It’s kind of like summer camp for adults—there’s a quick intimacy. And certainly for my classes in creative nonfiction, you’re sharing personal information and personal narrative, so that builds a degree of pretty quick intimacy into the course itself.

One thing I really loved that both my instructors were absolutely one hundred percent clear about was that we were going to be dealing with the events and emotions of people’s lives and that those things needed to be treated with the utmost respect. We had to have a huge interest in craft and in crafting narratives but also in respecting the vulnerability that comes with creative nonfiction. I thought they were able to strike that balance [between craft and vulnerability] really well. And I was amazed too—again as a teacher—how these instructors would bring dedication and such attentive ears and eyes to the work. They were deeply committed.

The SWI tends to draw a pretty diverse group of students. Can you talk about what it was like to explore your writing in that setting?
Meghan Clark: Oh, that was huge for me. In my first session [“Creative Nonfiction”], I really fell in love with the work of a writer who was in her late 50s or early 60s, which isn’t an age group I get to interact with a lot. Her essays and writing about parenting were incredibly moving to me and informative in a way that I don’t think I would’ve had access to without that class. And in my most recent session [“Advanced Creative Nonfiction”], there were two undergraduate students in the class. It was wonderful to see their perspective and hear what they were thinking about and writing about. And one of them was heading to University of Iowa’s writing program in the fall. So she was just taking those two weeks to continue to hone her craft in preparation for a huge investment in her writing.

What about your own writing practice? How much has it evolved since taking classes at SWI?
Meghan Clark: Being in both of those classes and seeing how much other writers trusted their readers and were willing to take creative risks—both in terms of subject matter and craft—really encouraged me to put myself out there a little bit more and be a little bit more authentic or straightforward with information I wanted to convey.

It really encouraged me to be bold in my writing, and part of that meant the frequency of my writing. The course load taught me that quantity is important on the road to quality. You have to make it a part of your life and a part of your habits in order to eventually arrive with a product that you feel really happy and satisfied with. I credit the SWI with really encouraging me to make writing even more a part of my life—to the point where I decided to leave teaching and strike out as a freelancer. And now I spend the majority of my work in the world of words. Seeing the possibilities for how people integrate writing into their lives gave me the courage and confidence to build my own freelance writing business.

Outside of your own creative nonfiction writing, what kinds of other things have you been able to do after completing courses at SWI?
Meghan Clark: Actually, when I came back to my eighth-grade classroom after the first session, I completely restructured my curriculum. Once I was able to experience a formal writing program, even in a micro sense, I decided to rework everything. I started doing a lot more writing practice with the kids instead of just having them work on one big essay. We’d read a short creative nonfiction essay and then write an imitative version or a piece inspired by that reading. It took away that anxiety that kids—and adults—can have about writing, and especially writing about personal information. It allowed them to see how, even though they were only 13 years old, they had infinite stories that could be turned into literature.

I’m sure there are plenty of valuable aspects of the SWI, but what’s one valuable thing about the program that you’d like to share?
Meghan Clark: Honestly, I think the valuable part of this program is that it allows working, employed adults to spend concerted time and effort on art, you know? Art is so life-giving. Writing and other forms of art often have to be practiced on the margins of people’s lives, and this program allows people to put that front and center for a few weeks. And the dividends that it can pay in terms of knowledge about craft and awareness about audience—you can use that for months and years afterward.