What It’s Like ... to Have a Famous Writer Read Your Story

Winter With the Writers gives students the chance to learn from today’s most venerable authors, and this year’s crop left a lasting impression.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Rollins has a long history of bringing the world’s best contemporary writers to campus. For generations, Rollins students have talked shop with literary giants like Sinclair Lewis, Carl Sandburg and Zora Neale Hurston. Sponsored by the Department of English, the annual Winter With the Writers festival continues this tradition through round-table-style master classes that directly engage the undergrads and professional authors in discussions about the students’ original works. English major and Winter With the Writers student intern Katie Pearce ’19 has been looking forward to this event for two years, and the real thing was even better than she expected.

I’ve wanted to participate in Winter With the Writers since I found out about it two years ago. It was one of the reasons I came to Rollins, to have the chance to be involved with a literary event of this caliber. It was unlike anything I had seen in all my college searches.

Hillary Jordan, an award winning author, kicked off this year's event, which also included Garth Greenwell, National Book Award Finalists Elliot Ackerman and Lisa Ko, in addition to poets Ishion Hutchinson and Luis Munoz.
(Photo by Scott Cook) Hillary Jordan, an award winning author, kicked off this year's event, which also included Garth Greenwell, National Book Award Finalists Elliot Ackerman and Lisa Ko, in addition to poets Ishion Hutchinson and Luis Munoz. (Photo by Scott Cook)

And now, here I was, not only about to meet award-winning authors like Garth Greenwell and National Book Awards finalists Elliot Ackerman and Lisa Ko, but they were actually going to read my stories. My stories. With adrenaline rushing like Niagara Falls, I stepped onto the stage for the master class with Lisa Ko, where she sat in a group with the 11 other student interns and an audience of onlookers.

As feedback swirled around the room about the different stories submitted by the interns, I sat on pins and needles waiting for my turn. It was an unnerving, exhilarating experience. We wrote a story for each different author we were working with, and for Ko, mine was “A Jack Daniel’s Kind of Bullet,” a dark, twisty tale of lost love and misplaced revenge.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

“In one afternoon, I became a better writer,” says Pearce. “The whole experience solidified that I want to spend my life telling stories.”

As Ko presented on my story, she asked questions of the other interns: “What do you think this story is about?” “What drives the characters?” “What do they want?” “What’s in their way?” It was so helpful to hear all the different perspectives and to see how and if they overlapped with Ko’s. Sifting through the feedback was a real exercise in developing thick skin and patience as a writer.

Ultimately, Ko was complimentary of my story and offered a pointed critique: “This is a great example of how voice and description can be used to show character,” she said. “The turn in the story finally vanquishes the narrator’s heartache—unexpected and wonderfully creepy. How much, though, can we trust what the narrator has to say, even about himself? Are there ways you could further play with that unreliability?”

National Book Award finalists Elliot Ackerman and Lisa Ko exchange thoughts before their presentations. (Photo by Scott Cook) National Book Award finalists Elliot Ackerman and Lisa Ko exchange thoughts before their presentations. (Photo by Scott Cook)

I also submitted a story to Elliot Ackerman, who is very different from but equally as poignant as Ko. Ackerman’s approach is Hemingway-esque, cutting to the quick and saying what he means more directly but while also using figurative language: “A man stands by the road like a broken piece of furniture.” Ko uses flowing, longwinded prose and complex sentence structure, describing snow as “heaped-up laundry” and conjuring images like “syllables crumbling on your tongue and being washed out to sea.”

I experimented with both styles of writing in my submissions to each of these authors. Ackerman’s master class focused more on voice and development. For him, I wrote “Red Ropes,” another gloomy story about two cowboys and their demons as they set out to round up a group of cows that had escaped. Ackerman praised my voice—which is always a boon for a writer—while also noting places in the story where he was thrust out of it or where something major happened too quickly without enough buildup.

In one afternoon, I became a better writer. The whole experience solidified that I want to spend my life telling stories. As one of the other authors, Garth Greenwell, so perfectly said, “Writing is the best tool we have to understand the human experience and to transmit it. Don’t tone it down—turn it up. Make it absurd. Find your individuality.”

As I was thanking all the authors on the final day, I still felt star-struck. They had given me so much: signed copies of their books, their business cards, their advice … and then I got one more thing. Elliot Ackerman—National Book Award finalist, journalist, renowned author, former marine who served five tours in Iraq, recipient of the Purple Heart—turned to me as he was leaving, unprompted and said, “I liked your stuff.” I lit up like a Christmas tree and haven’t stopped beaming since.

Learn more about Winter With the Writers and how to get involved.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook