Swarthmore writers come in all forms and draw inspiration from a variety of sources. They all, however, are linked by their passion for writing and a shared enthusiasm for written expression, from poetry to prose. Many Swarthmore writers, from renowned, published alumni to current students incorporate what they learn in the classroom as well as from the more general school environment to bring their talent to their communities and the world at large.
College is often a transformative time for a writer. As poet Josh Gregory ’15 explained, in his experience, “I think you need to grow up as a writer as a leave high school and enter a college environment where you mature by interacting with new people.” While this transition often comes organically, writers also benefit from creative writing classes. The English Department offers writing workshops which provide students with an environment geared towards improve their creative writing. These workshops, offered in beginning and advanced poetry and short fiction courses, provide participants with a setting to work on pieces while receiving input from their peers in small, focused groups.
At their most basic level, workshops help students to improve their writing and focus on helpful elements of writing craft. Kimaya Diggs ’15 is a short story writer who has taken both writing workshops. Diggs said, “I’ve acquired this bag of tricks that I can pull out whenever I’m stuck and that can be very helpful.”
Poet Sara Blazevic ’15 has taken both poetry workshops and is currently working on an independent creative writing project with professor Nathalie Anderson, who directs the creative writing program. “[The workshops] have really shaped my relationship to poetry and exposed me to a ton of wonderful writers, styles, forms, spaces, and exercises,” Blazevic said.
Poet Yena Purmasir has also benefited from the poetry workshops at Swarthmore. “In my first workshop, I had my first real struggle with someone who didn’t like the way I wrote. The professor didn’t like specific elements of my writing style,” she said. “It was good to have someone challenge me and to be able to grow from that by learning to take criticism but not take it personally or allow it to completely change me.”
Students who have taken the workshops agree that the environment is a helpful and safe space for students to express themselves and learn not only from the professor but from their peers. Here, students are able to form a community of writers and meet people with whom they can share their writing with.
Most Swarthmore writers agreed that it’s possible to find students outside of workshops as well. Blazevic said she feels she has found a niche of students “who are excited about trading and sharing on-page writing, doing little living room readings together, giving each other feedback, That has been really nourishing, but I’m always looking for more opportunities for that.”
Students also find outlets through Nacht and Small Craft, the two campus literary magazines, or other publications off campus, and through clubs such as OASIS, the spoken word group on campus. Writers all said that they network with other students through these groups and make connections with other students with whom they can share their writing, gain exposure, and find inspiration.
Purmasir stays in contact with several writers from both of the poetry workshops she has taken. “It’s nice to have a community so I can share something that’s pretty raw and unfinished so I can just run this idea that’s pretty bizarre past another human being,” she said.
Recently, Purmasir submitted a collection of poems she wrote in her Advanced Poetry Workshop from last semester to a contest held by Where Are You Press. Purmasir’s chapbook will be published in the press’ magazine and she will be a regular writer for the publication. She heard about the competition online through Tumblr and is thrilled to be recognized. “I’ve submitted my work to other competitions though the winner were always significantly older and more accomplished,” she said. “It’s nice because all of the other writers for the magazine are around my age.”
Purmasir has been writing since about the age of eight and, though she has dabbled in prose and fiction, primarily writes poetry, which, she said, “has always felt much more like me.” Purmasir gains inspiration from her own life and likes to draw on not only things that make her sad but on another level which she feels everyone can connect to by writing about fundamental aspects of life such as family, love, and oppression. During her first week at Swarthmore, she said she felt her perspective shift. Purmasir had previously tried to write only from the perspective of other people. “I’ve learned to not be afraid and realize that our own personal lives are, in a way, big enough,” she said.
Gregory had a similarly transformative experience and said that he now sounds different as a writer, as he has grown during his time at school. While he has evolved as a writer, though, his point of view has not necessarily shifted, unlike Purmasir’s. “I had trouble writing from perspective of others,” he said. “Most of the poetry I end up writing is about internal things from the perspective of the self or how I suspect other people view things.”
As Diggs, Blazevic and Gregory acknowledge, it is often difficult to carve out the time in their schedules to dedicate to writing. For Diggs, the writing workshops are a helpful time that she can dedicate solely to writing. “Because of the reality of school and grades, I find that I have to take classes to do creative things so I can objectively prioritize my writing,” she said. “The workshop is almost like a treat because it’s something I can do for myself even when I don’t have a lot of free time.”
This year, Blazevic is attempting to prioritize her own personal writing, working her independent creative writing project into her schedule. By giving her writing a space in her life as a fourth credit this semester, Blazevic said, “I feel like I at least have a shot of living up to my creative potential when I organize myself well instead of scampering to crank out a few lines once or twice a week.” Along with her independent study work, Blazevic will be releasing a zine or independently published chapbook at the end of this semester.
However difficult it may be to make time for writing, all writers contacted said that they hope to continue their work in the future, if not as a professional sense then for themselves. Purmasir explained, “I think if I could write as a career I would. I will never stop writing, and if this [chapbook] is the last thing that will be published, that would be very hard to take, but I would never stop, because writing becomes a part of who you are.”
Gregory compared writing to his major, religion: “As far as I can tell, writing is like religion in a sense that even when it’s hard and challenging and when you want to give up, it’s harder to live without it than to live with it.”