This week I returned to the CLiF office after an inspiring, invigorating, and exhausting ten-day residency at the Bennington Writing Seminars. This was the first of five residencies I will participate in during a two-year pursuit of a Master’s degree in Fiction from Bennington College. BWS is a low-residency MFA program that combines intensive on-campus residencies, filled to the max with thought-provoking lectures, readings, panels, workshops, and craft talks, with an interim semester of writing and reading on one’s own and connecting with instructors and community members from afar. As readers and writers, we appreciate the value of quiet time to read, contemplate, and put thoughts to the page, as well as the importance of engaging with others around our shared love of reading and writing.
During my first ten days as a graduate student at Bennington College, my heart was full (and my throat was hoarse) from the non-stop discussions and debates over literature, hearing and meeting writers I admire, and being surrounded by reading, writing, and people who love those things as much as I do. The excitement of discovering a community of like-minded readers and writers is contagious. I’ve been on writers’ retreats and participated in writers’ groups before, but never had I experienced such a deep community in which every single person valued books and stories and words with the same obsessive passion that I do (see above photo of my quirky, blurry, tribe of readers and writers – Bennington MFA Class of Jan. 2019). It opened something up for me – in me – and made me rediscover this love all over again. I kept coming back to the thought, If only I knew communities like this existed when I was a young, lonely reader. Because while communities of readers and writers can be magical, feeling like the only one who loves a thing, especially as a child in a small, rural Vermont community, can be isolating. I loved reading and writing deeply from an early age, when many of my peers saw reading as an assignment, an obligation, distinctly uncool. It would be a few years before I found a tribe of readers and writers to share this passion with, share books and ideas and debates over literature with, which was a life-changing experience. Now, I have a vibrant community of readers and writers, many of whom were those “uncool” kids who also wanted to do nothing but be lost in books all the time. And I’ve realized, there are a lot of us out there. It’s our duty as readers, writers, lovers of words and ideas, to share that passion with others, and to show young readers and writers just how cool reading is.
Part of our work at CLiF is to convey to kids that reading and writing aren’t just for homework. They can open up adventures and take you anywhere, even when you live in a small, rural community in New England. One of the things I love most about working at CLiF is getting to help young readers and writers discover all that books can open them up to, and that if you don’t love books, you probably just haven’t found the right one yet. I also thoroughly appreciate the hand-written notes we get from young readers (and supporters of young readers), like these:
“Dear (CLiF Director) Duncan, I really liked it when you read to us. I’m a reader too and I love to read! I even read when I’m supposed to go to bed. No lie!”
“Seeing the light in their eyes and the children spread all over the ground reading quietly or looking at their books was amazing!”
-Highgate Public Library Librarian
While these students may be a few years away from degrees of any kind, they can still build literary communities, a tribe of readers and writers who love to explore other worlds (and their own) through books. And it’s our mission to help them. Through CLiF’s storytelling presentations, author/illustrator visits, writing workshops, book giveaways, and hands-on activities like sled dog races and field trips related to books they’ve read, we help share our love of reading and writing with kids who may otherwise lack the resources, support, and vibrant literary communities that CLiF helps thrive.
I’ve found my community of readers and writers through an intensive graduate program; fortunately for the thousands of low-income, at-risk, and rural kids CLiF serves each year, they don’t have to wait.